Cathy Bussewitz—AP
News

GOP Rep Who Left Party Felt ‘Racism and Sexism Coming Into Play’

March 23, 2017

Beth Fukumoto hopes to join the Democrats

Hawaii State Rep. Beth Fukumoto doesn’t have plans to leave politics anytime soon.

On Wednesday, Fukumoto announced that she would resign from the Republican Party and seek to join the Democrats. Fukumoto was a young leader in the state’s Republican party, becoming the minority leader of the Hawaii House in 2014. But after speaking out against President Donald Trump and attending the Women’s March on Washington in Honolulu, her colleagues ousted her from the post. Only one of her Republican colleagues, State Rep. Cynthia Thielen, opposed the move. (Republican State Rep. Andria Tupola, who replaced her as minority leader, has said that leaders had been discussing removing Fukumoto from her post for two years and her comments about President Trump didn’t play a role in their decision.)

After consulting her constituents, Fukumoto decided to leave the party altogether. In a phone interview with Motto on Thursday, Fukumoto discussed her decision, some of the criticism she has faced and sexism in politics.

What caused you to leave the Republican party?

There have been ongoing problems between me and the party. As I’ve been moving up and taking different leadership positions, I’ve had experiences that made me feel like there were elements of both racism and sexism coming into play in both our decision-making and our elections. That has concerned me for some time. I thought that we could turn that around because Hawaii is such a diverse state. I thought that we could be a party that was more welcoming to minorities and that we could be a model for Republican parties in rest of the country. I don’t think the current Republican strategy of building walls and implementing travel bans is going to stop the changing demographics. America will change, and it will be more diverse. And the Republican party is going to be in bad shape if it doesn’t change. I believed that, in Hawaii, we could create a party that actually listened to minority voices.

But as I tried to do that I’ve come up against some very powerful voices. And after I was removed from my role as House Minority leader after attending and giving a speech at the Women’s March — about tolerance and kindness in America — I just didn’t see a hope for change.

Why did you feel it was so important to participate in the Women’s March?

I have watched the state of American politics with concern for years. It’s becoming increasingly obstructionist, less and less civil. This election was sort of the pinnacle of that trend. What was difficult for me was that this was the first election where my eight-year-old niece campaigned with me. She was with me at our state convention when I was booed for saying that I didn’t think Trump represented Republican values. That stuck with her. Her friends at school talked about it with her. When I talked to kids in elementary schools, they would say, “Do you like Donald Trump? He seems mean.” Many, many children saw him as a bully, and many adults saw him as a bully too.

So at the Women’s March, the message I wanted to deliver was: regardless of who you vote for, kindness and respect should always win. For all the little girls in America, we as women need to start demanding that all politicians are respectful to women — at the very least. I just felt it was a message that I needed to deliver, and that the Women’s March was a great place to start talking about that.

What happened next? Did you have any indication that your colleagues in the party weren’t happy with your speech?

It was within 24 hours that I started to hear rumblings that people were trying to get me removed as leader. It wasn’t the first time — there have been a handful of times when people have tried to remove me for things kind of like this. But I just thought, Seriously? I said that kindness and respect should win. I felt it was one of the least controversial concerns I’ve raised about Trump. But this time, people who have supported me in the past started to say, “You should have just left it alone. He’s our president now and the party’s leader. We need to stick with him and we shouldn’t be questioning him.”

What drew you to the Republican party in the first place?

Hawaii is a largely Democratic state. When I first was working at the legislature, it was an Old Boys’ Club. I thought Democrats seemed to be focused on keeping political power more than on the actual needs of the voters. I see that very differently now. I think the Democrats in power have changed that culture. But as far as what attracted to me to the Republican party, it was this charge to take this party that wasn’t doing well in Hawaii politics and try to change it. I do think there’s a place for the Republican party in Hawaii politics and American politics. If Republicans don’t start changing, the party is going to be obsolete.

The majority of the Republicans in Hawaii’s state house are actually women. Can you talk about that dynamic? Did you ever discuss sexism with your female colleagues?

Cynthia Thielen is a hero. I’ve known her for almost a decade, and she will stand up for what’s right every single time. My other female colleagues know some of the issues with the men in our party. Behind closed doors, what they would just say to me is: “You need to learn to deal better with men. They have egos, they just talk like that. You should just learn to listen to them more.” Or, they suggested that I should feed the men’s egos and make them think that my idea was their idea. It was stuff like that. I think it’s just a different mindset of how to deal with issues of sexism. I guess some people would say, just keep your head down and try to work around it.

But for me and Rep. Thielen, we’re not people who keep our heads down. We felt like confronting it.

How have your constituents reacted to your announcement?

I had given it a seven-week waiting period since I first mentioned I’ve been thinking about this. I sent a letter out to my district asking for feedback and said I was going to wait to hear back from people. About 76% of people who wrote in were supportive in some way or another. They either said that they didn’t care, that they were Democrats and they wanted me to switch, or that they were Republicans who didn’t want me to switch but they would support me no matter what. The rest said that they wouldn’t support me.

Hawaii’s Republican Party Chairman Fritz Rohlfing has said that you should step down from your post. What’s your response to him?

Because of the majority of the constituents who wrote back to me were supportive, I think it would be unfair for me to resign. I have a district in which I was the only Republican who won. I don’t believe that the majority of my constituents voted for me just because I was a Republican. But should I resign, the Republican party would choose my replacement. And that doesn’t have anything to do with my voters. That would just be a party somewhere deciding what’s best for my district. So I think it would be unfair for my district to resign.

What has been the response from Democrats about you wanting to join their ranks?

Legislators have been largely supportive and I think that’s because they’ve worked with me. In terms of party members, some have been supportive and there are others that are not so supportive. What I think we’re finding is that both parties have narrowing ideologies. I hope that there’s still room for diversity, and that there will be inclusion and tolerance — and I ultimately think there will be. But interestingly, there are a lot of Democrats who don’t want me to be a part of their party because they don’t think I’m Democrat enough.

Some Democrats have criticized you for voting against same-sex marriage and your views on reproductive rights. What is your response to them?

I’ve explained my vote on same-sex marriage. I am personally supportive of it, but because this issue went to voters in the 90s, I thought that I owed my district — especially because my district came out in force against same-sex marriage — I felt like I owed them the chance at a vote. I do think if we went to a state vote and had some sort of referendum, I think Hawaii would have adopted it. But I did think that I owed people the chance to vote on it themselves — even though it went against my personal feelings on the issue.

In terms of reproductive rights, it’s interesting. People make decisions about you before you’ve even said anything. I have not personally spoken about choice until recently. What I have said is that I don’t favor abortion in every trimester under every circumstance. But once rights are granted, I don’t think we should take them back. Hawaii has had choice laws on the books for sometime and I’m not looking to repeal those. Interestingly, the Democrats who are angry have never asked me that question. But I don’t think my view veers too far from their party platform.

The Democratic party platform has a lot of different issues, including addressing economic inequality, the desire for more progressive tax reform, and trying to do things like build affordable housing and help the underprivileged in the country. And I have an excellent record on those things.

How do you think political parties can address sexism and make it easier for women to get into politics?

I think that we need to have women in more leadership positions. At least on the Republican side, I was for some time, the youngest woman to be holding caucus leadership positions. After we changed up positions and appointed a woman to be finance chair, I saw a change in how things are run. If nothing else, it changes how men interact with women.

For Republicans, I think it’s confronting some of these things head on. One of my colleagues who’s unhappy with me, he brought up my divorce and said I was directionless because of my divorce. He said he was unhappy with my actions and that he would deliver a scolding like he would with his children. Another one of my colleagues has talked about being the person who discovered me. He’s used words like I’ve needed to be chastised. Even women in the party have seen that, and only Cynthia stood up and said that’s not OK. The Republicans need to confront and shed light on these issues — and hopefully that changes things

What’s next for you?

I would like to continue to find an opportunity to talk about this moment in American politics and this need for people to step up and do things differently. It’s something I would like to continue talking about and I would like to be a change agent on that.

Now, I have to see if the Democratic party in Hawaii will accept me. So I’m waiting on that to see politically what happens next. But I’m planning on running for re-election. I intend to stay in politics.

This interview has been edited and condensed.