Republican leaders from Hawaiʻi’s past discuss party politics and power

When it comes to political parties, Hawaiʻi has been dominated by the Democrats since the elections of 1954. We hear from some Republican leaders who played a role in the state’s political discussions and debates.

As part of an ongoing project with the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Center for Oral History, we are bringing you voices from Hawaiʻi’s history. Ethnic studies professor Ty Kāwika Tengan shares the thoughts of three prominent Republicans — Hiram Fong, William Quinn, and Wadsworth Yee — about image, party politics, and power.

Hiram Fong, the first Asian-American U.S. senator, served from 1959 until 1977. Known as a moderate who supported civil rights legislation and immigration reform, he remains the only Republican ever elected to the Senate from Hawai‘i.

In this clip, recorded more than a decade after he retired, Fong explains why the structure of Hawai‘i’s economy makes it difficult for Republicans to win elections.

Hiram Fong

U.S. Sen. Hiram L. Fong, R-Hawaiʻi, is shown in Washington, D.C., April 30, 1975. Hiram Fong, the first Asian-American elected to the Senate, represented Hawaiʻi for three terms and died on Aug. 18, 2004. He was 97. (AP Photo)

Fong: You know you got a very peculiar state here. There’s no state like Hawai‘i. Here you have one big city. The big city is always liberal. The other states, you have the outlying districts, the farmers, who are considered conservative. Here, our farmers are agribusiness. They have the right of collective bargaining. They’re unionized. They’re Democratic. Then now you have the hotels that are coming up all unionized. You see the problem here? This is the problem of Hawai‘i. If they break up the plantations, give each person a plot to farm, it may be a little different. May change a few things. But as long as you have unions in these various agribusinesses, you’re going to find that it’s difficult for a Republican. 

Appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957, William Quinn served as Hawai‘i’s last territorial governor. Following statehood two years later, he ran as a Republican to become the first elected governor.

In this 1988 interview with political analyst Dan Tuttle, Quinn explains why Hawai‘i’s contemporary Democratic Party reminds him of the Republicans of an earlier era.

Tuttle: Why have the Democrats been so lax about their party organization?

Quinn: I think it’s like a repeat, almost exactly of what the Republicans did after 50 years in office. What the Democrats are doing after 35 years in office; and that is, soon as the people get in power, they want to hold on to that power. They don’t want to build anything, they don’t want to pass anything along. They’ve got theirs. And that’s been the case. The Democrats have become fat and happy in office and they don’t want to see that change, and they’re not interested in building a political party if the individuals are — and you look at some of the individuals. They’re there now, and they were there then. Then, they were young, vigorous, idealistic guys, and now they’re cigar-smoking people, sitting back and saying, “I’ve got mine.”

Wadsworth Yee spent 16 years in the state Senate, serving as the Republican leader for much of that time.

In this interview, conducted nearly a decade after he lost his seat to Neil Abercrombie, Yee reflects on his efforts to change the Republican Party’s image in the 1970s.  

Yee: We tried to change the image of a Republican candidate. Because during all my years of running, it’s been that, “Oh, Republican Party’s the party of the rich; the party of the Big Five,” et cetera. So we tried to change that image by letting people know that, “Look, we’re not the party of the rich; we’re not the party of the Big Five,” but somehow, it just never caught on. I don’t know why. You can get a rich Democrat — a multi-millionaire Democrat — run for office, people don’t think anything about it. But when you get a rich, multi-millionaire Republican run for office, immediately the average person, “Oh, rich Republican — to heck with him.” And it’s an image we tried to overcome, but even till today we can’t. Because if you look in local politics here, there are more rich Democrats than rich Republicans.

Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at UH Mānoa, was live in The Conversation studio to share how these stories relate to current politics. He also discussed how Hawaiʻi Republicans try to distance themselves from the national Republican Party.


This collaboration is supported by the SHARP Initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities through the American Council of Learned Societies.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Nov. 17, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

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