Jonathan Okamura: Name Recognition Only Takes Hawaii’s Political Scions So Far

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Ken Inouye, the son of Hawaii’s legendary U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, is considering a run for the House of Representatives.

The offspring of Hawaii’s political elite may get elected easily enough the first time around — only to find that higher office eludes them.

Ken Inouye, the son of the late U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, could be the latest example. The 59-year-old has announced that he will run in his first election next year, seeking to represent Waipio, Waikele and Mililani in the state House of Representatives. The solidly Democratic District 37 seat is currently held by Democrat Trish La Chica, who was appointed to the vacant position by Gov. Josh Green in February.

It seems the children of elected officials often are defeated when they seek a higher office than the one they previously held, especially if that office is beyond the Legislature and Honolulu City Council.

Children of Hawaii’s political elite often end up running for office themselves but have mixed results. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Their lack of success might be explained by Hawaii’s political version of the Peter Principle — a management concept saying employees rise in the company hierarchy to the highest level of their incompetence rather than competence.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that these politicians are incompetent but that voters perceive them as lacking the required abilities, knowledge and experience for higher office, such as in Congress or as governor, which contributes to their failure at the polls. A highly competitive race between equally qualified candidates and of course scandals can also result in defeat for a political scion.

Inouye could be said to be following the much earlier example of Matt Matsunaga, the son of the late U.S. Sen. Sparky Matsunaga, who served in the Senate with Inouye’s father for more than two decades. Matt Matsunaga was a highly regarded state senator for 10 years between 1992 and 2002, after first running unsuccessfully in 1990 at the age of 31 for his father’s former seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Despite his name recognition, legislative accomplishments and close ties with the Democratic Party leadership, Matsunaga, hardly incompetent, was defeated in two subsequent attempts for the House in 2003 in a special election following the death of Patsy Mink and again in 2006. He also failed in a bid for the lieutenant governor’s office in 2002.

Other offspring also have had mixed results. Hiram Fong Jr., the son of another highly respected and popular U.S. senator — Republican Hiram Fong — served as a GOP member of the state House of Representatives and Honolulu City Council before losing in a race for the U.S. House of Representatives.

In addition, Democrats Ron Menor and Kai Kahele, who both were state legislators like their fathers, sought to move up to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Ken Inouye is running for a state representative  seat for the Waipio-Mililani area, photographed Friday, Nov. 10, 2023, in Mililani. Inouye is the son of late Senator Daniel K. Inouye. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)Ken Inouye is running for a state representative  seat for the Waipio-Mililani area, photographed Friday, Nov. 10, 2023, in Mililani. Inouye is the son of late Senator Daniel K. Inouye. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Ken Inouye is running for a state House seat for the Waipio-Mililani area. Inouye is the son of late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Menor’s father Ben was a state senator between 1962 and 1966 and later was appointed to the state Supreme Court as the first Filipino not just in Hawaii but in the nation. His son Ron, who died earlier this year, served in the Legislature as a representative and senator from 1982 to 2008 and two terms in the Honolulu City Council until 2021. But he lost races for the U.S. House in 1990 and 2006.

Kahele was appointed and later won a special election to the state Senate after his father, state Sen. Gil Kahele, died in 2016. He was elected to the U.S. House in 2020 but left last year after a single term to run for governor. He came in third in the Democratic primary after Josh Green and Vicky Cayetano.

Arguably the most politically successful scion of an elected official — and the only woman — is former U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, whose father Mike is a state senator. She served in the Legislature and the City Council before being elected to the House four times between 2013 and 2021. 

But Gabbard lost her bid for president in 2020, with voters seeming to realize was well beyond her level of competence.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard press conference sharing some background on a whistleblower that came forth and shared that the DOH did not have the staff to do contact tracing. August 14, 2020Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard press conference sharing some background on a whistleblower that came forth and shared that the DOH did not have the staff to do contact tracing. August 14, 2020
Tulsi Gabbard served in the Legislature and the City Council before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. But she failed in her presidential bid. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020)

The Legislature has other examples. Seeking a political comeback, Gary Gill — son of former U.S. Rep. and Lt. Gov. Tom Gill — who was once City Council chair, was defeated in the last election for an open seat in the state House by Jenna Takenouchi. 

While it was her first attempt to seek office, she was no political neophyte, having served for 10 years as an administrative assistant for the prior representative, Takashi Ohno. Takenouchi, a former student of mine, told me she attributed her electoral success to door-to-door campaigning so that constituents in the district encompassing Nuuanu, Pacific Heights and Liliha would be familiar with her when the primary election came up. 

Besides being the son or daughter of an office holder, long-time observer of the local political scene, former University of Hawaii West Oahu history professor Dan Boylan contended in an article written about 30 years ago that incumbency is the most significant factor in electoral success in Hawaii. 

He emphasized the clear advantages it brings to a candidate in name recognition and campaign fundraising. However, those who seek another, usually higher, office are giving up those benefits of incumbency, although not absolutely. At this point, the political Peter Principle becomes especially relevant for them. 

With the advantage of hindsight, I would argue that incumbents no longer have the stranglehold on office they used to have until the 1990s because many of them have been defeated. The most recent notable example is former Gov. Neil Abercrombie who lost his reelection bid in 2014. 

In the same article, Boylan specified ethnicity as another major factor in local electoral politics, particularly in how islanders vote. He maintained that every group in Hawaii engages in bloc voting: “When they have the chance, Caucasians vote for Caucasians, Japanese-Americans for Japanese-Americans, Filipinos for Filipinos, Hawaiians for Hawaiians, and Chinese for Chinese.” 

As a Democrat, Inouye will likely benefit from Japanese bloc voting in next year’s election, but La Chica can similarly count on Filipinos supporting her in the primarily Japanese and Filipino district. The challenge for her will be to make sure her supporters do vote. 

A year from now, we will know if the Inouye name still carries political cachet more than a decade after Dan Inouye’s death. His son Ken told me he has no plans to seek higher office beyond the Legislature, and it remains to be seen if he will be embraced by voters.

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