Last June, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pulled off an extraordinary feat. In her first electoral bid, the 28-year-old political newcomer defeated Joe Crowley, a well-established incumbent, in a Democratic primary election for New York’s 14th Congressional District (parts of the Bronx and Queens). The loss of Crowley, a high profile Democrat with decades of congressional experience, stunned people nationwide and made headlines that declared it the greatest upset of the 2018 election season.
A member of the Democratic Socialists of America inspired by the 2016 candidacy of Bernie Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez’s became the latest face of progressivism in America, and her campaign became a playbook for insurgent candidates vying to disrupt the establishment from the left. At its core, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s message was one of working class solidarity towards the causes of economic and social justice, and holding established politicians accountable for years of complicity in a system that serves the few at the expense of the many.
“This race is about people vs. money,” Ocasio-Cortez says in her campaign video “A Courage to Change,” which went viral, receiving millions of views across the internet and social media platforms. “We’ve got people, they’ve got money. It’s time we acknowledge that not all Democrats are the same. That a Democrat who takes corporate money, profits off foreclosure, doesn’t live here, doesn’t send his kids to our schools, doesn’t drink our water or breathe our air, cannot possibly represent us. What the Bronx and Queens needs is Medicare for all, tuition-free public college, a federal jobs guarantee, and criminal justice reform… It takes political courage.”
State Rep. Kaniela Ing, D-South Maui, ran for Hawai‘i’s 1st Congressional District (Honolulu and urban ‘Oahu) on a similar, bold platform. “Most of my classmates, my best friends, moved to the mainland, unable to afford life here in Hawai‘i. We’re surrounded by military bases spending trillions of dollars waging for-profit wars while we have an affordable housing crisis, our children are moving away, and healthcare is somehow a luxury. It’s time for a new era of Democratic leadership,” Ing says in his campaign video, which was created by the filmmakers behind Ocasio-Cortez. “The people of Hawai‘i demand housing for all, Medicare for all, a green new deal, free college, and student debt cancelation now. The majority of people in Hawai‘i and across the nation support these ideas, but big donors don’t.”
Kaniela Ing, also a democratic socialist, was unable to pull off the upset he and his supporters were hoping for on Saturday’s primary election, despite Ocasio-Cortez’s appearance on ‘Oahu to stump for Ing and appear at the Fight for Aloha Rally for Kaniela’s campaign. Democrats in Hawai‘i’s Congressional District 1 opted instead to nominate Ed Case, a moderate “Blue Dog” Democrat and supporter of the Iraq War during his previous turn in congress who, after losing in a bid to unseat then-Senator Daniel Akaka, was Vice President of Outrigger Hotels and Resorts and a member of the Board of the Directors of the American Housing and Lodging Association.
That’s right: Here in “Blue Hawai‘i,” where there are currently no Republicans out of 25 state senators and only five out of 51 state representatives, voters chose to elect a conservative Democrat with interests in the tourism industry who, in 2005-2006 received most contributions from retired individuals (hmm…). By the end of the night, Ing, the young, progressive Hawaiian running with a bold vision and on a platform of social, environmental, and economic justice, came in fourth, with just 6.1 percent of the vote.
While there are many factors to account for this loss (Case’s name recognition, voter demographics, Ing’s campaign spending violations, Ing’s relatively short time in politics), it wasn’t the only sign of the night that despite being a solidly Democratic (in name, at least) state, Hawai‘i is not a beacon of progressivism when it comes to audacious advocacy for ideals of transparency, ending corporate and lobbyist campaign funding, environmental protection, cultural preservation, Medicare for all, economic equality, funding higher education, and social justice. Several local candidates running on this platform did not succeed.
Tiare Lawrence, in her second bid for office, was unsuccessful in unseating incumbent Kyle Yamashita in State House District 12. Lawrence, an activist, ran a campaign that focused on her ties to the community and the work she has done to protect the environment, including advocating for the chlorpyrifos ban and pesticide buffer zone law which passed last session. Yamashita’s focus has been business, and received financial support from Alexander and Baldwin, Monsanto, Bank of Hawai‘i, and developers.
Terez Amato, who ran on transparency, community involvement, getting money out of politics, and other progressive ideas was also unsuccessful in her challenge to Roz Baker in State Senate District 6, South and West Maui. Baker is another Democrat friendly with corporations long seen as a roadblock to regulation of seed-agrochemical companies on Maui.
In the Maui mayor’s race, Mike Victorino was the clear frontrunner, coming ahead of Elle Cochran by 9 percent of the vote. Cochran, a former activist for the Save Honolua Coalition, has been a voice on the County Council for slow and careful growth, regulation of tourism and refocusing on issues facing locals, Native Hawaiian cultural interests, and environmental protection. Victorino’s platform has been to make friends with everybody, seat everyone at the table including developers and business interests, to bring in the most money to Maui. “I’ve received money from all over and I’m very proud of that,” he said in a discussion on PBS Insights when the top three mayoral candidates were faced with the question of receiving funds from ‘Oahu and mainland developers. Cochran has not received such funding.
How is it that a state like Hawai‘i, which voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic Presidential Caucus over Hillary Clinton by a margin of 40 percent, continues to support corporate-backed candidates that are interested in compromising the quality of life of residents for (big) business’ gain?
This is what I mean: A 2016 Hawai‘i Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice Report titled The State of Poverty in Hawai‘i: How Hawai‘i’s Residents Are Faring Post-Recovery identified the dire need for bold solutions to our problems. The report highlighted that Hawai‘i has the sixth highest rate of poverty when cost of living and available government assistance are factored, second highest effective tax rate on low-income households, highest cost of housing in the U.S., highest rate of homelessness in the nation, and economically disadvantaged students in public schools at a rate of 52 percent.
It is not the time for compromise when it comes to the needs of the people of Hawai‘i. Acquiescing to the environmentally and culturally damaging interests of wealthy big-business, development, and tourism with the idea that their profit will trickle down is outdated, and will not lead to a better quality of life and greater opportunities for Hawai‘i’s many struggling people. What’s needed is courageous leadership that continually gives voice to the problems facing everyday people, addresses the systemic causes and ideological roots of inequality and exploitation, and engages citizens in the political process.
That’s the big question facing progressive candidates: How can they engage more citizens in the political process? Ocasio-Cortez focused her energy on first-time voters, people who felt disenfranchised, and the alienated. The hope for progressives is in activating those involved in and experiencing the struggle, who might not think their vote makes a difference or is worth sacrificing scarce, valuable free time and resources for.
In Maui County, total voter turnout on Aug. 11 was 36.2 percent of those who registered, an increase from 2016’s primary by 7 percent, or about 7,000 people. That’s a significant move in the right direction, but still means that over 60,000 registered voters didn’t care enough about the candidates or issues to show up at a polling place to participate in the democratic process. For candidates like Lawrence and Amato, who lost by less than 300 votes, finding the issues that impact these non-voters, exciting them with the possibilities of progressive policy, and empowering them with opportunities to engage in the political process, is all in the playbook for staging an upset against well-funded, entrenched establishment candidates.
Let’s see the voter turnout get to at least a majority of the population, then ask again: Just how progressive is Hawai‘i?
Photo courtesy Twitter/KanielaIng
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