Ethnicity and Elections in Hawai'i: The Case of James K. Kealoha

By Chou, Michaelyn P. | Chinese America: History and Perspectives, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

Ethnicity and Elections in Hawai'i: The Case of James K. Kealoha


Chou, Michaelyn P., Chinese America: History and Perspectives


INTRODUCTION

Hawai'i is unique among American states. It is the only state that was once a kingdom and is composed entirely of islands in the middle of the Pacific ocean. While Hawaii's multiethnic population represents many ethnic groups and cultures, no one ethnic group is numerous enough to comprise a majority of the residents. Many of the people are of Asian ancestry. The concern that any one culture might gain undue influence over other resident nationalities has long been a factor in Hawaii's economic and political development.

In Hawaiian politics, there is some evidence of ethnic groups voting only for candidates of their own heritage and ancestry, giving rise to accusations of bloc voting, or "plunking." Research over the years has ranged from studies disproving the practice and its viability in influencing elections to more recent studies indicating that ethnocentric voting can make the difference in close elections. Ethnic appeals cannot be discounted, especially in Hawaii, and are an inevitable ingredient, however subtle, in campaigns of both the Republican and Democratic parties even today. While the GOP fielded slates that included Hawaiians, Asians, and members of other races, its powerful Caucasian leadership controlled Hawaii for over fifty years. Providing opportunities for qualified persons of all ethnic heritages was a major factor in the rise of the Democratic Party under John A. Burns, who consolidated the Democrats' 1954 victory over the GOP by finally capturing the governorship in 1962. The Democrats have controlled island politics since then.

Originally settled by Polynesians, Hawai'i became a monarchy between 1795 and 1810 when Kamehameha I consolidated his power over rival chieftains on his own Big Island (Hawai'i), Maui, Kahoolawe, Lanai, Molokai, Oahu, Kauai, and Niihau. Discovered for the Western world in 1778 by Captain James Cook, an English explorer, Hawaii became increasingly tied to the business and political interests of Americans and Europeans who settled there and gained influence with the Hawaiian monarchs. In 1893 Americans and Europeans overthrew the monarchy and established the Republic of Hawaii. The united States annexed Hawaii in 1898 and made it a territory in 1900. American laws, including the discriminatory oriental exclusion acts (1882-1943), then became applicable to the Chinese in Hawai'i.

Under the territorial system of government, four counties--Kauai, Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii (the Big Island)--were established. However, Hawai'i's peoples had a limited franchise. They could elect county officials and seat representatives and senators in the bicameral territorial legislature, yet they could not vote for their governor or for the U.S. president. Their elected delegate to Congress represented them but had no vote. Essentially second-class citizens, they agitated for statehood. Not until 1959, after proving their patriotism in World War II and disproving the charge of Communist influence, did they achieve full American rights.

From 1900 to around midcentury, more Asian legislators were Republicans than Democrats, and the majority of the Republicans hewed to the party line. The Hawaiians and part Hawaiians tended to be Republicans as well. Political campaigns were colorful. Candidates of all ethnic backgrounds who could sing and dance along with the mandatory Hawaiian musicians and hula dancers were especially favored by the crowds.

James "Kimo" Kealoha (1908-83) was a Chinese Hawaiian from the Big Island who, as a Republican, rose from Hawaii County leadership to statewide influence in 1959, only to lose political power three years later. His career can serve as a case study of a politician influenced by ethnic factors. This article first examines the role of ethnicity in the electoral process, particularly among voters of Chinese, Hawaiian, part Hawaiian, and Japanese ancestry, then discusses and evaluates Kealoha's career in this context. …

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