The State of Aloha

Immediately after the polls confirmed that Barack Obama had been elected for a second term, pundits across the country announced that Latino voters had finally made their voice heard. The sleeping giant has awoken, they exclaimed. The new shift has caused the Republican Party to think about its future and the need to change its tone toward Latinos and others. It should. This could mark the start of a sea change.

It’s not the first time a new class of voters started to flex their political muscle. Just look at our own history.

Territorial politics were dominated by a Republican Party representing a white oligarchy and its business interests for nearly 50 years. Republican supremacy had a lot to do with voter exclusion. The immigrants from Asia were not allowed to vote because federal legislation stopped them from becoming citizens.

The exclusion, however, could not extend to their children. The first section of the 14th Amendment guarantees that anyone born in the United States is a citizen of the United States. Later, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that that right extended to territories of the United States too.

This meant that the Hawaii-born sons and daughters of Asian immigrants were citizens, while their parents were not. It also meant that an entire generation of children who grew up watching disenfranchisement, social exclusion and economic inequality was going to someday be able to vote and participate in their government – rights that their parents were denied.

Many in the Republican Party then saw that change was on the horizon. In the 1940s, while the Republicans still controlled the territorial Legislature, they adjusted their policies. For example, Republicans passed the “Little Wagner Act” that allowed cane and pineapple workers to organize and join labor unions. By the 1950s, they had become much more moderate than their Mainland colleagues. Asian-Americans were on the ticket and William Quinn was a model Hawaii Republican who worked with the opposition.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, most of the new electorate of Asian-Americans did not embrace the party that made life difficult for their parents. With every election, Democrats won more and more seats. In 1954, they took the Legislature and the congressional delegate – a nonvoting member of Congress. The Democrats have never lost control of the state Legislature since that election.

Ironically, no one on the Mainland seemed to notice. When Hawaii entered the union with Alaska in 1959, Mainland politicos believed that the two additional states would maintain the balance of power: The Republicans would keep Hawaii, the Democrats Alaska. Of course, we all know what happened. Hawaii has consistently sent Democrats to Washington and became the home state for national figures like Daniel Inouye, Eric Shinseki and Barack Obama. Oddly enough, Alaska switched too and gave us big-name Republicans like Ted Stevens and Sarah Palin.

Hawaii’s history shows that when a generation that comes of age under the shadow of discrimination and inequality starts to vote, we can expect a momentous shift in power.

So what’s going to happen in Arizona?

There, the Republican Party controls the state and most local governments. It faithfully sends Republican senators and representatives to Washington. It has passed laws authorizing police officers to demand those suspected of unlawfully entering the United States to provide documentation of their immigration status. This is where Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arapaio continues to get re-elected. Arapaio’s policies include a tent city for inmates (he even called it a concentration camp) that exposes them to Phoenix’s elements day and night.

What about Texas with its similar “papers please” law? Or Alabama, which passed anti-immigration laws so strict that workers left crops abandoned and rotting in the fields? And what about Kansas’ secretary of state, Kris Kobach, the lawyer who helped write these laws?

The change in the Republican Party has already started. Mainstream leaders are talking about reaching out to Latino voters but are finding opponents within their own party. Many, like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, have clearly shown that unless the Republican Party changes, it will be left behind.

Across the country a new generation of Latino citizens who were born and raised in the United States is gradually reaching majority age. They have witnessed – like the Asian-Americans in Hawaii decades ago – disenfranchisement, economic inequality and state-sponsored exclusion.

Thanks to the 14th Amendment, once they are able to vote, they will have the ability to radically shift the balance of power in these traditionally red states. If the Republican Party continues to target them and their parents, then the wave of change that started in Hawaii could reach the Mainland. Arizona, Texas and even the Deep South could go blue and never look back.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”

The State of Aloha

The whales are back. When I went for a swim in Kihei one Sunday afternoon, I could hear them squealing and yowling at each other as if they were only a few feet away. People are talking about seeing spouts, tails and full-body breaches, too. I haven’t seen any good sightings just yet, but I have seen a few spouts on my way to Lahaina.

Maui celebrates the annual migration of humpback whales. Hundreds of people get really excited and attend Whale Day, the big festival at Kalama Park in Kihei. A whale watch off the waters between Maui, Lanai, Kahoolawe and Molokai in search of breaching humpbacks is often the highlight for winter vacations and was one of the great field trips when I was in elementary school.

And who can forget the whale paraphernalia? Depictions of happy humpbacks are found on just about everything that can be sold: coffee mugs, key chains, T-shirts and bottle openers. The galleries along Front Street in Lahaina are full of very expensive artwork with the massive marine mammals peacefully moving through the ocean.

Whale season seems like another rhythm of nature in the islands. It is as constant as the trade winds. A winter on Maui without humpback whales is unimaginable. But how many whale seasons have there actually been on Maui? The answer is surprisingly uncertain.

We really don’t know when the whales started coming to Maui in droves. They may have been visiting these islands long before any people called this place their home, but the historical record doesn’t really support that.

Unlike for the Maori in New Zealand, whose entire worldviews are built alongside whale habitats, or the people of Tonga, who have on rare occasion hunted whales before the king banned whaling in1978, whales do not play a major part in Hawaiian antiquity. There are not a lot of stories about warriors swimming alongside whales in double-hulled canoes.

Although there is some evidence that the Hawaiian people knew about and were visited by a few whales before Western contact, there is no evidence of yearly migrations and high concentrations of whales. Chants, proverbs and a few stories refer to the palaoa, or whale. Later, the word kohola became the term for a whale in the Hawaiian language.

There does not appear to be any word distinguishing the whale species. This omission is noteworthy. The Hawaiian language has so many different words to describe rains, streams, rocks and animals, but only one word for one of the biggest creatures in existence. What is clear, however, is the importance of the whale-tooth necklace. It was a rare item reserved only for high-ranking chiefs.

Even after Western contact, there is still little evidence of whale migrations. In 1778, when Captain Cook came to Hawaii, he came in January – the peak of what we now call whale season. And yet there aren’t any references to whales in Cook’s journal when his ships came though the islands.

The absence of whales continues into the Hawaiian Kingdom. Lahaina was a favorite port of call for whaling ships in the early 19th century, but not for whaling. When whalers finally reached Lahaina after sailing through most of the Atlantic and halfway through the world’s largest ocean, they were ready to take a break on shore. The whalers refitted their ships, wreaked havoc in town, and filled their stocks to get ready for another long voyage to the distant, cold and dangerous waters near Japan, where the whales were.

They came in the spring and a little bit after summer, but not during the whale season. That in itself is strange. If pods of whales cruised right off the coast of Maui, why not wait for them instead of heading all the way to Japan? Especially if they came back from the distant seas in September empty-handed.

The absence of whales raises the question: So just how long have they been coming to Hawaii? Nobody knows. Some marine biologists theorize that whale migration to Maui is a new change in the species’ behavior. The new route to Maui may have something to do with the tremendous depletion of the humpback population in the Northern Pacific Ocean in the early 20th century. The change could also be unseen modifications in the ocean’s ecosystem.

The questions remain. Even today, tracking the migration patterns across the globe is a big and costly challenge for marine biologists.

Whether the whales have been visiting Maui for centuries or if the highly celebrated and marketable whale season is the result of subtle changes in the environment caused by their near extinction remains to be seen. One thing is for certain: They’re still coming to Maui – at least for now.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”