Ohigashi to lead state Democrats

The first state Democratic Party chairwoman from Maui and the first Neighbor Island woman to hold the post said Tuesday that “we’ll have to wait and see” on the party’s legal challenge to Hawaii’s open primary system.

“That’s not my passion,” said Stephanie Cambra Ohigashi on the lawsuit on appeal in the federal courts. “My passion is for an open party and to have more people vote, (rather) than less.”

Party officials have said that the legal effort was mounted to ensure that party members elect their own candidates in primary elections. They have said that Hawaii’s open primary system, which allows voters to choose on election day the party ballot they wish to cast, is unconstitutional.

The legal challenge currently is on appeal in the 9th Circuit, following U.S. District Judge Michael J. Seabright’s ruling against the party in the fall.

Ohigashi, a member of the party for more than three decades and a former Maui County chairwoman, noted that the faces on the Democratic Party State Central Committee, which has supported the legal effort and which she will now lead, will be changing with the addition of Neighbor Island members. The status of the legal challenge in light of the new members “remains to be seen,” she said.

Tony Gill, a partner in Gill, Zukeran & Sgan, Ohigashi’s opponent in the race to succeed Dante Carpenter, was a strong supporter of the legal challenge. While deflecting a question about whether his high-profile stance on the issue may have been a factor in his defeat, Gill emphasized that the stance against the open elections law is the “position of the Democratic Party of Hawaii.”

“This is not my position . . . This is not a minority position. It is the position of the party itself,” he told The Maui News on Tuesday.

He declined to label the party position as advocating for a “closed primary.” Instead, he called for reverting back to the system in place between 1968 and 1978. He explained in an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser last month that voters would pick a ballot as they do now but would have a box checked next to their names indicating their ballot choice. That’s the ballot the voter would be allowed to take in future elections, unless the voter reregistered.

Gill, son of Democratic Party icon Tom Gill, said that there were five or six factors that played into his defeat but did not want to disclose them at this time. He added that he was not surprised by Ohigashi’s victory.

“It was highly likely that she would provide a strong candidacy,” he said.

Sunday’s final tally was 393-257 for Ohigashi, an aide to Council Member Mike Victorino who was at her side. After the vote, Gill called for an unanimous ballot for Ohigashi.

“That’s how I am and that’s how I believe,” Gill said.

“That was really nice,” Ohigashi said. “He is a really fine guy.”

Ohigashi’s candidacy unfolded very quickly. The day before the deadline to seek the post was the day of the Maui County party convention. She had no intention of seeking the state party chair and was having “a wonderful time” at the convention. In fact, she was given a plaque recognizing her 30 years with the party.

She joined the party in 1983 and did some work locally for the disastrous Walter Mondale-Geraldine Ferraro presidential campaign in 1984. Through the years, Ohigashi has served as a party officer, county chairwoman, State Central Committee member, state convention delegate and Democratic National Convention delegate.

Ohigashi has supported every Democratic presidential team since Mondale-Ferraro. She served as coordinator of the Maui campaign for Barack Obama-Joe Biden in 2012.

The day after the Maui convention, Ohigashi awoke asking herself, “What next?” She was not ready to retire. After learning that Gill was running unopposed, she said she decided: “I’ll give the delegates a choice.”

Ohigashi embarked on her campaign – sent emails to 800 delegates, got a lot of responses and answered every one.

“I think I like you. I need to know more” was a common response, Ohigashi said.

The night before the vote, Ohigashi and her team took their campaign efforts to the convention floor, passing out water and her brochures.

“I was the underdog,” she said.

Ohigashi noted that Carpenter introduced her to the convention as “the girl from Maui,” later correcting himself, calling her the “woman from Maui.” She said he was being nice but not enthusiastic about her candidacy.

Ohigashi got lots of support from the Neighbor Islands and rural Oahu. In citing reasons for her victory over Gill, she mentioned her opponent’s position on the open ballot measure, style and forging a “kindred spirit” with those who were feeling left out of the party, especially those on the Neighbor Islands.

“We are going through a transition,” Ohigashi said, adding that there will be a “more Neighbor Island focus” to the party.

The party chair has been held by prominent Democrats in the past, including U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and Hawaii Tourism Authority President and Chief Executive Officer Mike McCartney. Her job will include presiding over the State Central Committee, fundraising, managing the volunteers and paid staff, and running get-out-the-vote campaigns.

Ohigashi, who also manages her husband’s law office, has three major objectives as she embarks on this job: To fundraise, to make the state party more Internet and social network savvy “to grow the future of the party,” and to possibly find new headquarters. She said the current location on Ward Street is small; she would like a larger space to accommodate meetings.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.