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Candidate David Ige and Changing Demographics

August 10, 2014 - Ray Tsuchiyama

Hawai'i State Democratic Party gubernatorial Primary candidate winner David Yutaka Ige was raised in Pearl City, now a very urbanized part of Honolulu, and was in the first graduating class at Pearl City High School in the mid-1970s. Comparatively speaking, McKinley High School in central Honolulu has a long distinguished history going back to the mid-19th century and was re-named McKinley in 1907, six years after the president's assassination in 1901. My own alma mater Farrington (est. 1936) reached its peak student enrollment in the early 1970s (3,200+), just before Moanalua High* would carve out a large group (many Nikkei) -- now eclipsed by Campbell High (nearly 3,000, with FHS down to >2,500 -- both with large Filipino student numbers), reflecting the growth of Oahu's far southwestern suburbs.

David Ige was a long-time Pearl City-Aiea District State legislator and unknown to non-Pearl City residents before he embarked on his seemingly quixotic election race just slightly a year ago. What is the socio-historical meaning of Ige's upset primary victory?

He describes his childhood as looking eastward at the older Honolulu urban center, the tall downtown buildings and Diamond Head – referred to as “town”, different from his western suburbs, connected by the H-1 freeway (built in the early 1960s that divided and isolated neighborhoods and caused the downfall of older business districts, like Kaimuki).

If Ige becomes elected Governor, he represents the new State demographics, a graduate not from the iconic pre-World War II Honolulu high schools that produced many post-World War II political leaders like McKinley (Daniel Inouye, Hiram Fong, George Ariyoshi) or Farrington (Ben Cayetano) or English-Standard Roosevelt (Thomas Gill).

In the early 1970s with so many Honolulu residents moving from older neighborhoods to Moanalua (the first real suburb) and Pearl City that new high schools were built in the new high-density band between the old “town” high schools and Aiea and Leilehua (Mililani High and Kaiser were even later developments, in Oahu’s north-central planned community and at the southeastern edge, respectively). Perhaps an analogy would be the new Kihei High School, a school long over-due in what was in the early 2000s the fastest-growing residential area in the entire United States.

Symbolically, if Honolulu Hale was moved, it should be just west of Pearl City, as it is the new population “center” of Oahu’s nearly 1 million residents.

As a result of experiencing the Honolulu geographic and cultural divide, feeling that he was “country” compared to the hustle and bustle, the sophistication of “town” inside the freeway choke-points pass Red Hill, Ige is more sensitive to the Neighbor Islands vis-a-vis Honolulu and even referred to the self-important/obsessive “State of Oahu”** mentality in an early victory speech on Primary Election night.

Paradoxically, he spoke on Primary Election night in the traditional heart of the Japanese-American Honolulu world: the Varsity building in Moiliili, an old Nikkei neighborhood with memories of Bon Dances and family-run small shops – in a sense, he is bringing the “country” back into “town”, along with "country" values -- family, discipline, reverence for elders***, respect, humbleness -- these are perhaps no longer current "town" values in a stressful city with strained family lives in lonely Kaka'ako high-rises, lamenting the lost world of "real" Honolulu neighborhoods (who recalls "Damon Tract" nowadays?).

For previous Governors, the key to winning was to gain votes in the “central core” of Honolulu, north and south along the H-1 freeway, and the Neighbor Islands were an after-thought (although historically the Island of Hawai'i did “tip” several past elections).

So Ige represents a new emerging political figure from the western Honolulu suburbs (that yearn for respect), the son of a World War II European Theater veteran, a quiet “Everyman” (like the lead in the movie about innocence and ideals “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”), a studious technocrat**** with engineering experience in the private sector, with years of State budget analyses so no one can top his insights to taxes (money “in”) and spending (money “out”), and raising three children, knowledgeable about State public schools, colleges, and tuition.

Not a flamboyant candidate, Ige is more at home in Lihue or Wailuku or Hilo with working-class folks, tired public school teachers, and hotel union members than in Kahala: he is perhaps a reflection of 2014 Hawai'i, struggling with the issues of urbanization and housing costs, income disparities, public education -- plus the frustrations of the under-resourced Neighbor Islands.

*Growing up in Kalihi-Palama, the wide green, agricultural expanse beyond Moanalua (before housing tracts) was terra incognito.

**Even U.S. Senate Democratic primary candidate Colleen Hanabusa referred to the importance of the Neighbor Islands – citing Maui -- in her early evening speech. She is even more of an Honolulu outlier, with a Waianae childhood background. Note: Both former Governors Ariyoshi and Cayetano endorsed Ige.

***Even as late as the mid-2000s when my father was in his eighties, my FHS classmate working at a major Waikiki hotel would address him by "Mr. Tsuchiyama" and would assist him in his wheelchair; even now I have difficulty calling any individual around my parents' age by their first names.

****David Ige, in a Maui “coffe hour” (a successful tactic promoted by former Governor Ariyoshi) appearance, does well in small groups, not unlike Ariyoshi himself, the master of the soft nuance (whose motto, clearly nostalgic now for many Hawaii voters, was “Quiet but Effective”). In a Andy Bumatai (a Waianae High graduate, even more “country” than now-mature suburban Pearl City High) television special where the hyper-active comedian takes a famous politician on an in-depth interview disguised as a funny road trip, David Ige was perhaps the most “open” during a "This Is Your Life" jaunt in deepest Pearl City, and confirmed that he was accepted to M.I.T., but due to family circumstances, he decided to attend the University of Hawai'i – he is a sharp electrical engineer, yet self-sacrificing – another trait that Hawai'i Democratic Party Primary voters were attracted to, and in an age of indulgence for ever-more material things and non-stop social class advancement, something to reflect upon for all of us, in a quiet way.


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