BY DANIEL DEGRACIA ― In Blue Hawaii, a state whose two congressional districts have voted an average of twelve points more Democratic than the rest of America, Republicans are perhaps the most endangered and exotic species of all. In the local state legislature’s upper chamber, Senator Sam Slom has the rare distinction of being the sole Republican left after years of electoral attrition.
I had the chance to interview Senator Slom this week for his thoughts on what it’s like to be the last man standing and his outlook on elections and politics in President Obama’s home state. Armed with a relentless penchant for dry humor, hard charging, at times brutally honest and not easily moved, the lone GOP senator takes immense pride in his principles and isn’t afraid to be different on purpose.
Describing himself as “a conservative first, libertarian second and a member of the Republican Party,” Senator Slom is truly Hawaii’s premiere advocate for limited government and is an icon for the nation’s liberty movement to follow.
Danny de Gracia: Senator, you’re currently the only Republican in the Hawaii State Senate. Just how did that happen anyway, what is it like being by yourself and how do you handle the workload of being a one-man minority caucus?
Senator Sam Slom: In 2010, with the retirement of then GOP Senator Fred Hemmings, I was the only Republican re-elected. As a person who believes in individual responsibility, I did not fear being alone; besides, I only argue with myself as head of the Republican Senate Minority!
I was smart enough to hire bright, young, energetic staff and interns and they helped me immensely on all fifteen senate committees where I have one of the best voting records in the Senate. My colleagues, who outnumber me 24 to 1, treat me fairly because they know I work hard, read every bill – before voting – and do my research. I don’t try to play “gotcha” with them.
DDG: Why exactly does Hawaii have so few Republicans in municipal, state and federal elected office?
Slom: This is a solidly Democrat state – even Republicans have chosen to switch parties to do better politically. But people forget this was once a one party Republican state from territorial days to 1962. In my view, Hawaii voters are independent and tend to vote for local people they know – or are related to.
Too many Republicans are fearful of using that “R word” and try to be something they’re not, or at least say they’re not. Look at our candidate for U.S. Senator – she says she is a “bipartisan” and never mentions being a Republican. Our major congressional candidate and former congressman insists he is a “centrist” and a “moderate.”
Until Republicans can be proud of what they stand for, what they have accomplished and can articulate differences with Democrats, we will not progress in a meaningful sense.
DDG: Has anyone ever asked you – being that you’re the only Republican – “Why not just become a Democrat and get it over with?”
Slom: Yes, they have! Then they are subject to a treatise on philosophy, freedom and liberty peppered with Friedman, von Mises and Hayek. Part of the problem is the lack of real education, history and a sense of consistency. The media assist by cheerleading for socialism and the Democrats who deliver entitlements.
Many are pragmatic and have given up on fighting for liberty. Glad they weren’t around in 1776; although even then it was a minority of patriots who bucked peer pressure and the majority. Besides, I always describe myself as a conservative first, libertarian second and a member of the Republican Party.
DDG: A lot of our readers haven’t been to Hawaii before and view the happenings in the islands with a little bit of cultural confusion. How would you describe the way Hawaii politics works and how the island culture influences the policymaking style of local legislators?
Slom: Hawaii politics like our state itself is unique in many ways. We are a very patient and forgiving people. Very forgiving. Personal relationships rule here. [U.S. Senator] Daniel Inouye, 88, has held office for more than fifty years and truly determines what happens politically, socially, educationally and so forth.
People in Hawaii don’t like controversy, abhor negative campaigns – they haven’t seen what happens on the Mainland – and believe everyone is concerned about what we do here. We are very parochial and split on cultural practices such as Native Hawaiian proud Americans versus Native Hawaiians who desire sovereignty and more. The fact that we are isolated 2,500 miles from land and isolated between and among islands makes life difficult. Add to that the 40% higher cost of living and it means nearly everyone here works two or three jobs just to make ends meet and don’t want to rock any boat.
The Japanese saying that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” is well grounded here.
DDG: What would you say are the biggest issues that need to be addressed in Hawaii that aren’t being attended to?
Slom: Taxes and spending and the worst unfunded debt (state employees retirement and health benefits) threaten Hawaii’s future. Hawaii is the third highest in tax burden and second in per capita costs behind Alaska in unfunded debt. Our business climate which should be welcoming to new business and investment is hostile to business because of taxes, employer mandates and regulations. Non-business people run our government and make the decisions. No changes are being made because of the lopsided imbalance, politically.
DDG: How do you feel about what’s going on in D.C.? Is there anything you think that Hawaii’s Congressional delegation or President Obama can do to help out Hawaii’s unique situation?
Slom: No. They can only make it worse. Hawaii is dependent on the federal government and does not strike out on its own as other states have done. The delegation is nearly always in lock step and is part of the problem. In the past they – Inouye – brought in billions of dollars but that too is drying up. We could have a bright future but are listening to the wrong people who do not believe in the free market or individual choice.
DDG: Right now one of the biggest things weighing heavily on D.C. policymakers is the developing arms race between China and the United States. The recent tensions between Japan and China last week over contested islands underlines the kinds of problems that are stirring in the Earth’s largest ocean. Hawaii in particular is right in the center of this Asian-Pacific powerplay. How do you feel about this and what do people in Hawaii feel about China’s rising military and economic might?
Slom: Honestly, the average resident probably has not given it thought even with our military presence. We are Hawaii-centric and all the talk about APEC, our position in the Pacific is just talk. Paying the mortgage, meeting the payroll and taking care of the kids are the priorities here. Even the military here and their contributions are too often taken for granted.
DDG: What do you think about the Jones Act? Some say it should be repealed, others say Hawaii should get a waiver. What’s your take on this?
Slom: I am opposed to the Jones Act, I would exempt Hawaii and Alaska and Puerto Rico too, but at the very least give us a waiver. The Jones Act clearly adds to the cost of living and doing business here but with powerful allies – Inouye and the Democrats, as well as Republican Linda Lingle – chances for relief are slim.
DDG: Last but not least is there anything you’d like to tell our D.C. readers?
Slom: Hawaii has been a state for fifty-two years. We have made many contributions and given notable leaders, athletes and military strategists to our nation. Hawaii has made many sacrifices during wartime. But we have also been a social laboratory for too many anti-competitive, anti-free market programs, such as the only statewide single school district, the regressive gross income General Excise Tax, the prepaid healthcare compulsory medical act and so on.
We need to move forward and demonstrate our own independence and to realize the greatness we have embodied in our islands. Hawaii is more than just a pretty place and more than a luxury vacation won on a daily TV game show.
We greatly appreciate Senator Slom for his time and the opportunity to interview him.