Lee Cataluna: Diversity in politics old news to Hawaii

In covering the midterm elections across the country this week, journalists kept marveling over the “rainbow wave,” the large number of women, minorities and LGBT candidates from across the country who won seats in Congress.

There were many firsts to be noted: The first two Native American women to be elected to Congress, the first two Muslim women to be elected to Congress, the first refugee ever to be elected to Congress and the youngest woman to be elected to Congress.

The election of so many women, minorities and LGBT candidates (and in some cases, candidates who could be described as all three) was seen as historic for American politics. Historic, yes, but not unprecedented. Hawaii has a long track record of embracing and electing diverse leaders.

For all of Hawaii’s chronic lack of ambition and arthritic bureaucracy, this island state is far ahead of the rest of America in understanding the strength of diversity and that qualifications for leadership don’t include things like race, gender or religion. That is not to say race doesn’t play a role in Hawaii politics. Of course it does. It does in ways that are unhelpful at best and unfair at worst. But there isn’t a racial majority here, and when it comes to the ballot, everyone has a chance.

Hawaii has a long history of choosing women to lead, both for county and state offices and to represent us in Washington. Patsy Mink went to Congress in the 1970s. Pat Saiki was elected as a Republican congresswoman in the 1980s. Hawaii has the only immigrant in the Senate in Mazie Hirono. Then there’s Tulsi Gabbard, a part-Samoan Hindu military vet. We’ve had a female governor and female mayors going back decades. It is not surprising to Hawaii voters that women can lead. It is not a surprising that people of color can be a good representative of people of other colors. If it ever was a surprising thing, we got over it generations ago.

On Tuesday night Maui voters elected six women to the nine-member Maui County Council, and no one has pointed that out because it isn’t a surprise.

Hawaii Republicans fielded a Hawaiian and Samoan woman for governor and a woman who is an immigrant from the Philippines for lieutenant governor, and nobody treated them like that was unusual. Imagine two women of color running for governor and lieutenant governor on the Republican ticket in any other state. That would have been seen as remarkable. But in Hawaii a woman ran for the highest state office, and nobody asked stupid questions like whether she could be a good mommy if she were elected.

Hawaii is never as perfect as the paradise of its marketing. Bad stuff happens here, bad attitudes fester and racism, sexism, hatred and bigotry live here right alongside the swaying coconut trees and sandy beaches. But when the whole country was remarking about how surprising it was that women and minorities were being given a chance to serve in public office, Hawaii was all, “What took you folks so long?”


Reach Lee Cataluna at 529-4315 or lcataluna@staradvertiser.com.


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