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Where ‘Republican’ is a dirty word

Sam Slom, an affable guy who looks like a handsome, less bat-like version of Ross Perot, is the only Republican state senator in Hawaii. Everyone else — every senator but him — is a Democrat.

Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising in such a blue-blue state like Hawaii, land of the unions and home of President Obama. But I still was taken aback when I heard that statistic. So I met with Slom at his office park east of Honolulu on Thursday because I wondered what that’s like — to be literally the only person in his legislative body representing an entire set of political philosophies and ideologies.

It sounds like you need a strong personality to pull it off.

"I go to work everyday and I’m outnumbered 24 to one. That’s pretty good odds," Slom said. "It’s better than the lottery’s odds."

Slom is on every state senate committee. He’s the minority leader of the Hawaii senate. Of course he is. There’s no one else to contend for the job.

"I represent a voice that’s not heard in the legislature," he said.

It’s been that way for several decades. The Democratic party has dominated politics in Hawaii essentially since statehood, in 1959. The party is credited with standing up for the rights of plantation workers, who were treated poorly and worked long hours under the territorial government. Unions are popular. And the party still rides that historical high. People here, including Slom, still remember those days.

When Slom was elected in the mid-90s, there were a few other Republicans in the state senate, but not many. And for a time, he said, numbers were growing.

"We skyrocketed to three! four! five! And then back down to two …"

In 2010, that number dropped to one.

Slom was so outnumbered, compared to the 24 Democratic state senators, that they actually tried to take his office from him, he said. Colleagues suggested he take an office “out by the coconut trees,” he told me, seeming amused by the whole situation.

Like many Republicans in Hawaii, Slom says the state’s low voter turnout is tied to the fact that Hawaii is basically a one-party state, where debate is rare and the party wields unusual power. Republicans are so maligned they don’t put their party affiliation on campaign signs or, sometimes, their websites, he said.

"We’ve got Republicans who are scared of being Republicans."

He added: “The lesson in all this is one party, whether it be Republicans or Democrats, is not good for any living human being.” Increase party competition, he said, and the voter turnout rate will go up. But that may be easier said than done.

"Do I think there’s going to be change anytime soon?” he said. “No."

Photo: Edythe McNamee/CNN

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