Former Democratic state Rep. Marilyn Lee is attempting for a third time to win back the Mililani state House seat she once held from House Minority Leader Beth Fukumoto Chang, a moderate Republican who clashed repeatedly this year with activists in her own party.
Fukumoto Chang, 33, was criticized during the legislative session last spring by some of her Republican House colleagues who charged that she was too accommodating to the ruling House Democrats.
Adding to that tension was an exchange last summer when a pumped-up crowd of delegates at the Republican state convention in Waipahu booed Fukumoto Chang when she announced from the convention stage that she could not support Donald Trump for president.
Some of Fukumoto Chang’s critics, including at least one talk radio host, speculated she might switch parties after the 2016 election to become a Democrat, and she fueled that speculation with her reaction to the angry outburst at the GOP convention.
“If I needed a reason to leave, they gave me one,” she said after the heated exchange with her fellow Republicans.
Now Fukumoto Chang, who is the second-highest-ranking elected Republican in the state, says she does not plan to switch parties — at least not yet. She pledged that if she is re-elected, she will serve out her next two-year term as a Republican.
Fukumoto Chang grew up in Mililani and graduated from Hawaii Baptist Academy and the University of Hawaii at Manoa with a bachelor’s degree in American studies. She obtained a master’s degree in English literature from Georgetown University and went to work in the state House Minority Research Office in 2009.
Fukumoto Chang said she first ran for office because she didn’t think there was enough diversity in age or ideology in the Legislature, but lost her first bid for the state House in 2010. She then became director of the House Minority Research Office in 2011 and ran again in 2012. That year Fukumoto Chang defeated Lee, and then went on to win re-election in 2014.
Fukumoto Chang has deliberately steered a conciliatory course in her dealings with the House Democrats, who outnumber the Republican members 44 to 7. She takes some pride in being awarded a James Madison Fellowship by the Millennial Action Project in 2014 for “demonstrated success in transcending partisan lines.”
It is unusual for Republicans to win passage of any of their bills, but Fukumoto Chang was able to get two bills passed this year, including a measure requiring insurance companies to pay for screening for sexually transmitted diseases. Those were her first bills to be signed into law, she said.
She also cited her efforts to help deliver state funding to help keep Wahiawa General Hospital open, and to help win partial funding for a badly needed new classroom building at Mililani Middle School.
Looking ahead, she said she is especially interested in pressing the state to develop affordable housing in the Kapalama area, which has the potential to become something that resembles “an affordable Kakaako,” she said. The state needs to invest more in infrastructure to help bring down building costs for private developers of affordable housing, especially on state-owned land along the rail route, she added.
Lee, 76, served in the state House as a Democrat for 16 years from 1996 to 2012, until she was ousted by Fukumoto Chang. Born in Schenectady in upstate New York, Lee has lived in the district for 36 years.
Lee graduated from the Syracuse University School of Nursing in 1962 and joined the Navy as a nurse. She served in Washington, D.C., where she met her late husband, Sam, who was a U.S. Foreign Service officer from Oahu. The couple had four children.
After Sam Lee retired he returned home with his family to Hawaii, where he was elected to five terms in the state House representing Mililani. Marilyn Lee was then elected to the same House seat when he stepped down in 1996. She also worked as a nurse at Wahiawa General Hospital for 25 years.
Once in the Legislature, Lee served as co-chairwoman of the Women’s Caucus for 12 years, was majority floor leader for four years and also served as vice chairwoman of the House Finance Committee.
She has a long history of community involvement, including serving as chairwoman of the Mililani Neighborhood Board, as president of a service club for women called Soroptimist International of Central Oahu, and as a member of the state Commission on the Status of Women.
Lee said she is running again because she sees the problems in her district, and added, “I just feel like I’m a lot closer to the issues than Beth is, a lot closer to the community. … I can’t think of one service club that she’s part of. … I don’t see her as an active participant in the community, except for church.”
Lee said she wants to promote “accessory dwelling units” — often known as ohana units — to provide additional housing to help cope with the homeless problem, and wants better pay for the state’s teachers.
On health issues, she said the state Department of Health needs additional resources to cope with crises such as the potential spread of dengue and the Zika virus, and said she wants to steer more money to Wahiawa General Hospital to allow it to continue to operate.
Gov. David Ige proposed increases in the state gas tax, vehicle registration fee and weight tax this year, and Fukumoto Chang voted against those proposals. Ige has said he will introduce those tax increases again in 2017, and Fukumoto Chang said she will again vote against them.
“One of the consistent things that my community seems to be against is any increase in the cost of gas or motor vehicle registration fees or taxes, just because we drive so far,” she said.
Lee said she is not in favor of raising the gas tax “until we find out what other sources of revenue might be available.” She said the state Highway Fund is being depleted, while people in the district want more highway improvements such as a new H-2 freeway exit for Mililani. “That’s not going to happen unless something changes,” Lee said.
The city is also expected to ask state lawmakers next year to once again extend the half-percent excise tax surcharge to help pay for the Oahu rail project, which is now $1.8 billion over budget.
Lee said she is a strong supporter of rail, and said she believes the excise tax surcharge to support rail “probably will eventually be extended; I can’t see how it cannot be.”
However, before she votes for an extension, she wants to look at other options first, including ending the state’s practice of diverting 10 percent of the excise surcharge collections to the state treasury. She said she will not vote for another excise surcharge extension until the state halts that “skim” of money, which she believes should go to the rail project.
Fukumoto Chang said she will not commit to voting either way on the excise surcharge proposal next year. She supported extending the excise surcharge for rail in 2015 when the city asked for it, but said the last extension was supposed to fully fund the project. “I think the city needs to provide more answers before we say yes,” she said.