(Special thanks to Chelsea Roy, Communications Coordinator for Representative Fukumoto’s office, for arranging this interview.)
Dennis Villelmi: Before we get into your decision to leave the Republican Party, I’d like to first get your reaction to the GOP ‘s failure to repeal Affordable Care.
Beth Fukumoto: After years of insisting that the ACA needed to be repealed and replaced, I was disappointed that Republicans didn’t already have an alternative in place. And when they put one together, they couldn’t pass it.
DV: During the months leading up to the March 24th debacle, what concerns had you been hearing from your constituents in Honolulu County pertaining to healthcare?
BF: Hawaii had a strong healthcare system in place before ACA and nearly the entire population had access to coverage.
DV: Would you say that the American Health Care Act, or “Republicare,” is further indicative of the very intolerance of today’s conservative movement which you have cited as your reason to leave the Republican Party?
BF: I’m very concerned that it seems most beneficial to the highest income earners while lower income earners would be paying increased costs or losing coverage.
DV: What compelled you to seek public office, and why not on the Democratic ticket to begin with?
BF: In Hawaii, Democrats have a super majority. When I first got involved in politics, it seemed like the super majority wasn’t addressing issues important to the people of Hawaii, like lower cost of living, the availability of affordable housing, and tax equity. Additionally, the Legislature lacked transparency and all the decisions were made behind closed doors by a few powerful people. I thought that needed to change, and it made sense to make that change as a Republican. Since then, I’ve met many reform-minded Democrats that wanted to fix the same problems I was concerned about. My first year in office, I was part of a bipartisan coalition that managed to address many of these issues.
(To watch Representative Fukumoto’s announcement to leave the Republican Party click here)
DV: As a Republican, what was your proudest achievement?
BF: Last year, I passed a bill to require insurance to cover HIV/STD testing. ACA required insurance coverage, but individuals with plans that were grandfathered in weren’t receiving coverage. Now, with ACA possibly being repealed, it would ensure coverage remains for all.
DV: During the presidential of 2016, were there any particular issues where you were pretty much on the same page as then-candidate Donald Trump which gave you some initial hope that he might prove beneficial to the GOP?
BF: He talked about improving our infrastructure, which I think is very important.
DV: So when exactly was the turning point where you realized that this was no longer the party through which you could serve your district?
BF: Republicans, including a few of my colleagues, insisted that I was betraying them by working across the aisle on behalf of my constituents’ interests instead of joining them in providing token opposition. I was talking to one of them about how Hawaii isn’t like the mainland, and he said that he didn’t care because, as he insisted, we were the party of “Middle America,” and that it was our job to represent this so-called “real majority” here in Hawaii. After I told him that my constituents would never and should never stand for that, he tried to tell me that because I’ve already been re-elected more than once, I was safe and I could do whatever I wanted. He and my other colleagues continued to assert this line of thinking after Donald Trump was elected, and that I needed to be more contrite and partisan.
Then, on the day I said I would ask my district about what it thought about me becoming a Democrat, the local Republican Party chair argued that I should resign from the seat my constituents elected me to because he felt that it was now his seat to fill with one of his three nominees to the governor. When I first joined the party, I argued that the party needed to be more constituent focused to be relevant. But almost a decade later, people at every level of the party publicly rejected this idea.
DV: Now that you’ve left the Republicans, how receptive of you does the other side of the aisle appear to be presently; namely, Hawaii House Speaker Joseph Souki, and the higher-ups of the Hawaii Democratic Party, Tim Vandeveer and Dolly Straza?
BF: I’ve received a lot of support from my Democratic colleagues in the House, with a few exceptions. And I’ve met with other people in the party that had concerns but through conversations have become more open to the idea.
DV: You spoke of the ordeal your grandparents experienced during WWII, a time when so many Japanese-Americans were interned; of course, that was due to the fact that the United States was at war with a Japan under a fascist government. Since we hear the term “fascism” used so often now with this new administration, do you fear that the United States could suffer something similar to what your ancestral homeland suffered because of an intolerant ideology?
BF: I think all Americans have a responsibility to be concerned about their country falling to fascism. Reagan warned that such an outcome was always just a generation away from happening. I think our institutions are strong, but they are under incredible strain right now. One of the most shocking things I’ve heard from my colleagues was their ultimatum that I never criticize the president for the rest of his term.
DV: You said that you’ve received a lot of messages of support for your decision, both at home and from afar. Still, has there been any kind of a negative backlash, such as has been reported about fellow Hawaiian, U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson, because of his commendable decision to block Trump ‘s travel ban? What was your reaction to his decision?
BF: I agreed with Watson’s decision, and I’m sure we received similar negative emails. Of course, there were many people that were very angry that I raised concerns about racism and sexism in the Republican Party. But, the response was overwhelmingly positive.
DV: As you know, during an April 18th taping of “The Mark Levin Show,” no one less than the Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions, expressed his disdain for Judge Watson’s ruling, saying that he was, “amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific” can stymie the President ‘s authority. Naturally, this illicited outrage from many Hawaiians; what is your own response to the AG’s remark?
BF: Mr. Sessions’ comment was disrespectful. It suggested that the decision was somehow less valid because it came from a judge that wasn’t in one of the 48 contiguous states. This is the problem with this administration. They seem to constantly second guess the credibility or legitimacy of those who are different. Yes, Hawaii is different – culturally, demographically, geographically, etc. – than many other states, but we are one of the 50 states that make up this country. And, a judge in Hawaii should be given as much respect as a judge in Alabama.
DV: On what issues do you believe you could successfully transition from Independent to Democrat? E.g., climate change: do you acknowledge the science and the need to take action to save the planet’s ecology?
BF: I don’t plan to change my position on any issue just because of a party switch, and I don’t think I have to. I already acknowledge that people are causing the climate to get warmer. I’ve introduced legislation to make taxes less regressive, housing more affordable, and health care more accessible. I think that my job is ultimately to represent the people in my district.
DV: Do you have higher political goals; Washington D.C., perhaps?
BF: I’d love to serve in a different capacity. For now, I’m happy where I am.
DV: But is the bridge between you and the Republican Party burned for good, or is it possible you might return?
BF: Ideologically, I don’t think I fit in today’s Republican Party, which no longer has room for moderates. I don’t imagine that will change.
DV: Representative Fukumoto, thank you for speaking with The Bees Are Dead. Unquestionably, your resolution to stand on principle as opposed to partisanship is admirable, and something seldom seen in American politics. We can only hope that you’ve set an example that others in the GOP will follow during the course of the next four years.
BF: The hardest part of losing my leadership position in the Republican caucus over my opposition to Trump was listening to one of my colleagues, Rep. Cynthia Thielen, who has probably been a Republican longer than anyone else in the state, and is probably one of the most indomitable people I know, saying that there was no more hope for the party. I wouldn’t have resigned from the party if I didn’t agree. But right from the start, I saw the GOP as a party in need of change, whereas she talks about a time when Republicans supported things like environmental protections and gays openly serving in the military. To me, she’s the Republicans’ last stand against the Trump Republicans. And while I hope that she remains in the party as an act of defiance to the many years other Republicans have tried to push her out, I do hope that others in the GOP stand up against Trump and leave they party if they feel like there’s no more hope for change.
DV: Thank you, Representative Fukumoto.