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To ‘D’ or not to ‘D’: That is the Question?

In 2014, party affiliations are a little sketchy.

May 13, 2014
Political Commentary by Susan Halas - Contributing Writer ( , Maui Weekly

Looks like labeling may be an issue not just in food packaging, but also in local politics. In the past, whether by law or custom, candidates for public office invariably put their affiliation on their campaign materials, but this year--not so much.

It seems that at least one prominent Democratic Party candidate has decided to leave that word "Democrat" and party affiliation "D" entirely off all her signs, bumper stickers, campaign literature and even her yummy popcorn balls, too. The word "Democrat" and the party identification letter "D" do not appear on any of the materials circulated by Colleen Hanabusa, who is presently serving as a Democratic member of Congress in the U.S. House. She hopes to win the Democratic Primary Election for U.S. Senate. Both the House and the Senate are places where party affiliation definitely counts.

It's not hard to find a reason that Hanabusa might not want to identify herself with Hawai'i Democrats. She was the presumed favorite to be appointed to part of the term remaining when U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) died in December 2012. But Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) picked his Lt. Governor Brian Schatz (D) for the post. It was Schatz who then flew off to D.C. on Air Force One with another local boy, President Barack Obama (D), leaving Hanabusa (D) stiffed and miffed.

Article Photos

The D inside a circle has traditionally identified a candidate as a Democrat. But this year, the party tag is often missing from signs and printed materials.

Responding to an email on the subject, Maui County Clerk Danny Mateo wrote, "I could not find any specific rule or requirement of candidates for elective office that mandates them to include their political party affiliation in their political campaign signs or materials. I have attached for your review, the State Office of Elections Fact Sheet (

A similar response was received from Gary Kam, general counsel for the Hawai'i Campaign Spending Commission. "The Campaign Finance Law does not require information about party affiliation on signs and printed campaign brochures. However, party affiliation has to be reported in a candidate's organizational report. See HRS section 11-322(a)(3)."

In the absence of specific rules, more and more candidates seem to be Democrats and fewer and fewer seem to want voters to know it. The use and size of that "D" is shrinking.

On the campaign brochure Gov. Abercrombie passed out at the recent Maui Democratic County Convention, the "D" appears only once and in font so small that the letter is almost too tiny to measure. The actual letter "D" is about 1/16-of-an-inch high.

It isn't just the old-timers who have taken to ditching or down playing the party tag. For example, when first-time candidate for State Senate Terez Amato announced her candidacy, she identified herself as a Democrat. But at the recent convention, where she gave away luscious organic tomatoes with her label cleverly making a play on her name: T. Amato, neither her label nor her campaign literature carried a "D" or the word "Democrat."

Amato has been outspoken on food labeling and the right of the consumer to know what they're eating, but when it comes to labeling her political affiliation, it's a little vague.

And speaking of labeling, what gives with "nonpartisan?"

In partisan races, candidates are required to have a party affiliation. Most state and all federal races are partisan. But at the county level--for Maui County Council and mayor--all the races are "nonpartisan," which means the candidate runs without any party label.

It was not always that way. County races were formerly "partisan," but now they are not. However, if a candidate runs as a "nonpartisan," does that mean he or she is truly without party affiliation, or does it only mean they are not required to identify a party as a prerequisite for running?

The Democratic convention and luau was positively crawling with "nonpartisan" candidates who self-identified as Democrats. These included incumbent Councilman Mike Victorino, who showed up in person, and others who posted prominent signs at the event, including Mike White and Don Guzman. Former Council members Joe Pontanilla and Mike Molina were also present. Both men are once again running for County Council as "nonpartisans." At the Democratic convention they both got up to say in no uncertain terms that they were Democrats: yes, big "D" all the way.

Asked for clarification, County Clerk Mateo wrote, "Likewise, I am not aware of any restriction on non-partisan candidates attending political conventions or functions."

The response from Kam at Campaign Spending was similar: "There are no rules pertaining to candidates in nonpartisan races stating their preference to a party in campaigning."

As you might have noticed, Hawai'i is--for all intents and purposes--a one-party state. At the state and federal level, all of Maui's elected public officials are Democrats. At the "nonpartisan" county level, the self-identification leans heavily in that direction, too, though in the past, there have been notable exceptions. Former Maui Mayor and Hawai'i Governor Linda Lingle is Republican to the soles of her feet. She thrived in an environment where most other Republicans withered.

Whatever the reason the county elections turned from partisan to nonpartisan years ago, the change didn't level the playing field, but actually favored the Democrats.

The old way, the top vote getters in each party in the Primary Election (usually one Democrat and one Republican) went on to face each other in the General Election.

The way it is now, in nonpartisan races, the top two vote getters (affiliation unspecified) go on to the general. Since the top pair are often both actually Democrats (but keeping semi-quiet about it), the nonpartisan label tilts the outcome in their favor, allowing the top two spots to go to people of similar ideology without the necessity of really saying so.

Picky, picky, picky? Maybe. But those who play the game for keeps know that the labels matter just as much for politicians as they do for food. It always helps to know what's inside the box.



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