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Hello from the Lincoln Project and welcome back. I'm Ron Suslow. In this episode, I'm going to talk to a good friend of mine and the former House minority leader in the Hawaii House of Representatives, Beth Fukumoto. Beth was elected to the Hawaii legislature in 2012 and became the youngest person ever to serve as the House minority leader in Hawaii in twenty sixteen. She was the youngest woman to hold a caucus leader position in the United States in twenty seventeen. Beth left the Republican Party, which we're going to talk about.
Most recently she was a and Lila Ash, fellow at the Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School. Beth, I am so excited to have this conversation with you. Me too. But before we dig in to your background, I just want to share for our listeners really briefly how we met, which was when I heard you on a podcast that we both listened to called The Broadcast. And as I listened to it, I heard someone telling a story that could have been mine in the many ways that your belief system, your world view has been rocked in the last number of years, your faith upbringing, your political evolution.
And it really resonated with me. So I reached out to a friend who turned out to be a mutual friend. And a couple of weeks later, we were having a beer in Honolulu and bonding over all kinds of Republican politics. So this is this is a treat. So I'm really happy to finally have this conversation.
Yeah, it feels like full circle, right. Because we met because of a podcast. Yeah.
And here we are. So so why don't we start with a little bit more about your background. I read a really brief version of your bio, but you were the first Republican in twenty six years to represent your district in Hawaii, which was which does milanes.
Melanie, Melanie Malkia, if anybody is familiar with Hawaii, which you should be. Oh, it's between Waikiki and the North Shore. So if you've driven to the North Shore, you've probably driven through my district.
So let's start with what made you decide to become a Republican and start in public service in the first place?
Well, I had been working at the legislature and I talk about things being full circle. I was graduating out of my master's degree and my first master's degree into a recession, and it was the only place I could get a job. So I started working at the legislature because they were hiring seasonal workers and joined the Republicans. It's it's where I got the job. And then just being there and seeing that in the Democrats in Hawaii had 93 percent of I believe at the time it was ninety three percent of the power in the legislature.
They held all the seats. It was a supermajority. And I felt like they were making a lot of decisions just because they could and not with the best interests of the people of Hawaii, and especially at a time when our communities were really suffering economically.
So I just I felt like we needed to redistribute power a little bit, I guess.
Yeah. Can you connect the dots from when you started to when you became minority leader? And then also, I'm really interested in digging into the values that you saw and identified with in the Republican Party.
Yeah, well, I think once I once I got there and I was working there and just felt like. Again, a lot of the decisions that were being made were being made in the best interest of of whoever the special interests were at the legislature and not really thinking through, like, how are we going to help middle class families? That was my family. We were probably lower middle class. And the fact that nobody was really paying attention to us bothered me.
And I felt like that was the window for the Republican Party, that people were sort of forgetting all the people in the middle and that the Republican Party could, if it wanted to step in and try to make life easier for those people. I think that government should have to be responsible is a good message.
And that really resonated with me that people should be responsible with their power. And and I want it to be a part of building a party that that would do that.
So you were elected in what year? I was elected in 2012. In 2012. And at what point did you become the leader of the Republican caucus and how did that happen?
Yeah, so I became the leader of the caucus in 2014. I actually was the party chair first. So in 2011, I was the Republican Party chair in Hawaii and I got involved and basically, like, I just kept finding positions where I felt like I could help shape the message of the party and shape the direction of the party.
And I just believe, like, if you're going to try to be a part of something and the Republican Party. Sure.
Like had these elements that I didn't always agree with, but there was room to grow and there was room to change and to be that party that was looking for the people in the middle and looking out for the people in the middle. And so I was the chair because I thought I could shape the message that way. And then when I got elected, I was sort of in the second leadership position. And then by twenty fourteen I was in the leadership position and by twenty sixteen I was the highest ranking Republican in the state.
And those are all internal elected positions. Right. The caucus is a caucus vote on. Yeah.
Yeah. So that's all internal party chair obviously is a little bit broader than that but but yeah. All internal. So it was really just selling the members of my caucus on the message that we have to change sort of the way we're approaching the population.
And what what message did you want to see them embrace and what it was it you know, you mentioned that there were elements, obviously, that you disagreed with. But did you see something that the party could rise to? Was there a sense that we can be better than this?
Yeah, definitely. One of the things that really bothered me or that I really thought we needed to work on in our messaging, there was a lot of talk about just sort of individualism. And I absolutely believe like in individual freedoms and people's right to determine their own destiny. But I also think that. There is something to be said about our collective responsibility to each other, and I think in Hawaii especially, there's this recognition that community is super important and that that's how you are able to make sure that that you set policies that will lift all people up.
And I wanted us to change the way we talked about some of our economic policies in Hawaii, just the way we were trying to to change even things like taxation. I felt like if we could talk to people about it in a way that explained that we were trying to make sure that we were all taking care of each other, but giving each other, you know, giving everyone their best chance, then. I thought we get a lot more support that way from communities that didn't traditionally support Republicans.
So you are trying to grow the party? Oh, definitely. Definitely. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
What was it like? Um, maybe the better way to ask the question is what kind of resistance did you meet within your own caucus and the, you know, the fellow Republican legislators as you were trying to almost advance the advance, the cause of Republicanism as you saw it, and and grow the party beyond the small footprint that it had to this this is going to get real dark, real fast.
So, like, so this message and just saying, like, let's change the way we talk about things. And one of the reasons why I think we needed to change the way we talk about things, especially in Hawaii, is that we are a state that's majority minority. And I grew up in a Japanese American household. My father's Japanese American. And I was taught that your community really, really matters. And there's much more of a sense of collectivism or like collective destiny.
And if you don't address that, if you don't address the need to be a part of a community and take care of each other, then you're never going to reach Japanese American voters. And that's the bulk of the vote in Hawaii. So I try to appeal to. To even just that just this desire to win, right, like, hey, guys, we have to change the way we talk to get new voters. And they didn't like that.
One of my caucus members.
And I think the moment that, like, things really started to change for me, one of my caucus members, as I was describing this after we had had like a really devastating election and lost seats. I came in to caucus and just said, hey, we have to change the way we talk, and I was a lot more forceful about it and had not been forceful as much before that and tried to change it more subtly. And I just kind of outlined this and the.
Former minority leader got very, very angry and sort of slammed his fists on the table and said, we are the party of middle America. Oh, I don't give a damn what the demographics say.
Oh, you're in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, all right. Yeah, right. Like, I just.
Oh, it was it was painful. It was a very painful moment.
What the interesting thing to say, and it sort of seems so out of touch with. Yeah. Yeah. The people that you're supposed to serve, that's it.
Right. Like that is the job of being a representative is you have people that you were supposed to represent and you have to know their values and you have to know what matters to them. And I believe very strongly that we could appeal to everyone that our policies had to be appealing to all different people, groups of people. But yeah.
Yeah, one of the first lessons I learned in politics was that it's a game of addition and subtraction. And yet it seems like we're in a very subtractive mentality now, or at least the Republican Party is.
Yeah, yeah. I don't even know if that's like it didn't feel like it was he he what he meant was we need to force everybody to get on board with our message that there should still be additions. But on his terms.
And I think that's what really just over time, just continue to eat away at me.
Let's move to when things started to heat up for you.
This was and in twenty sixteen, which I think we met in twenty seventeen in April or so of twenty seventeen. So in twenty sixteen you had just been criticized the Hawaii Republican Convention when you said you didn't know if you could support Trump as the presidential nominee. What about Trump made you recognize that you couldn't support him and what motivated you to voice that concern in that forum?
Yeah, so it actually goes back even further than that. I think back in December 2015, I had this moment. I was in DC with other state legislators, a Republican legislators, and had gone out to this bar. And I think we're there for a conference and we've gone out to this bar and we were talking about the Muslim registry.
And I remember when that was one of the craziest things that happened. Yeah. And we were talking about that. And everybody was like, this isn't something that can really happen. He's just talking about it to play to the base, which you should have raised red flags anyway. But they were saying it was just to play to the base and I should just ignore it. And I explained to them and being Japanese American that there's this history of we know, like the US government illegally incarcerated thousands of Japanese Americans during World War two, and these were Americans.
They got everything taken away from them. Because people were scared and fear does crazy things, and America has a history of doing this, and I tried to explain this to them and everybody sort of was just like, well, that was before. It's not you know, they still brushed it off. And I. I kid you not while we were talking the screen, the TV in the bar, right across the bottom flashes, like Donald Trump says Japanese American internment might not be about my life.
Oh, it was just and I just sort of looked at them and pointed it out and was just like, guys, this is a real thing. Yeah. And, you know, they all were like, well, they weren't supporting him.
Most legislators weren't. And so they, you know, they kind of let it go. And I later went back and called the RNC and I had been working with the RNC on the Growth and Opportunity Project, which which was this idea that Republican values could appeal to diverse communities and this effort to reach out and include communities that traditionally support Republicans, like in the making of the Republican Party, not just reaching out for their votes, but to include them in making the party.
And not only that, it could, but that it must if it was going to survive and going to to win at the national level. We've talked about the they call it the Growth and Opportunity report. We've also called the autopsy Jennifer Morgan. I talked about this a bit, but yeah, it was it was a it was essentially this is what the party has to do if we're going to, um, appeal to the to the to the groups of voters that we need to bring into the tent.
Yeah. If we're going to continue to win. Yeah.
Which which I know for me I loved because it was really fitting with what I saw the Republican Party could be and why I joined to begin with. And so as somebody who had been brought in to be a national advocate for the Growth and Opportunity Party to try to build that party, I felt like I had a responsibility to stand up and say, hey, what Donald Trump is talking about is not the thing that this party is trying to be and to sort of push him away.
And the Republican the RNC just they weren't interested in that. It wasn't the news cycle is what they what they told me. Nobody was really talking about it. So why would we bring it up now? And I guess I get that from a political perspective, but I don't really get it from a human perspective.
So you said essentially we should say something about how this doesn't reflect the values that we're that we embrace as the Republican Party. Right. And they say, yeah, thank you. Yeah.
Yes. Let's let's stand up there and say this is not who we are. And they said, no, thank you.
So then what did you do? So I went back to Hawaii and that was where my responsibility was. And it was the place where I could still try to make the party something different and protect what we were building. And so I spoke out in Hawaii, sort of just got on the news and started talking about this not being the party of Trump. And it's not what we should be. And that by March there was a complaint against me. I was still the Republican leader, but by March there was a complaint against me.
And going into that convention in May, you know, I knew that nobody wanted to hear about our legislative accomplishments, which is what my job was, to go there and give a report. But everything we had done had been bipartisan. Everything we did was my whole job was finding ways that we could have Kery to pass legislation that would be good for our communities, regardless of who that meant I was working with. And nobody at that convention was going to want to hear that.
So I had to take a new approach.
So the speech that you ended up giving at the Republican convention in Hawaii was about all the things that you were supposed to be doing as an effective leader, as a legislator. And I actually didn't give a speech.
I had thought about giving a speech and that was sort of trying to figure out how to write it and kind of just. The night before decided to throw everything out and thought, we need to have a conversation like this, I don't like the direction this party's going, but I am a member of this party and we should have we should talk about it. And I was in a position nobody wanted to talk about it. And for 15 minutes at the convention, I had a microphone.
And so I thought maybe a bit of forced dialogue might help. And so I got up there and just expressed this exact thing. I know that nobody wants to hear from me. And there's one question on everybody's mind whether or not I'm going to be able to support the nominee. And I don't believe that this is what Republican I don't think that he fits Republican values. And I have said that. But, you know, I'm open for questions.
And so we had 15 minutes of question and answers, which was a lot of booing.
Lots and lots. Yeah, I watched it. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
So no speech really. Just just question and answers. I didn't know. I think when the going into that moment I knew it was going to be controversial and I was somewhat prepared for that. I was not prepared for how angry people were. I think that was maybe the first moment that everything that we saw on TV where people were just like angry and uncivil and cruel. We had never had that in Hawaii before. And this was the first moment that I saw it there and.
I I got it in emails, I got it on social media, I knew it was there, but. The Republicans in the audience that kept telling me that Hawaii was different also needed to see it and nobody left that ballroom, I guess. Three hundred people, nobody left with. Any, like, misunderstanding about what was going on? Everybody saw it at least.
Yeah, how did that reaction? I mean, I think you predicted it. You knew what was going to happen, but to have it actually happen, how did that make you feel? It was surreal for a minute.
And it was just. Very sad, I mean, I think only in retrospect have I been able to really understand what was happening, but I think what I felt like I did there was sort of just mark the moment that the party that I thought we were building died. So. When you spoke at the women's march in twenty seventeen, which would have been sometime after that convention. You said that your niece watched a bully win the presidency of the United States, a man won the White House with anger and hate, and our kids watched it happen.
Now it's our job to make sure they watch us fight back, hmm? When this episode comes out, there will be seventy five days until the election. So given everything that you've experienced, what should voters, Republican voters, Republican leaning independent voters be thinking about the upcoming choice that they have for those that are actually still undecided? I think that it matters who we elect as president and what our kids watch us do and what we're leaving for the next generation matters more than the letter that's next to your name.
It has to matter more. This country, the idea of democracy, all of that is bigger than Republicans and Democrats and. As much as I understand. The desire to. Be a part of a team and have loyalty to your team. That can't be more than like. Making sure that your country survives. The next generation even. The team's got to get bigger. Yeah, the team is America, right, right. Yeah, not your party.
Yeah. Yeah, it has to matter more.
And yeah, let's talk about, um, changing parties, because you did.
After after you spoke at the women's march in twenty seventeen. One of your Republican colleagues, uh, Bob McDermott, I think on the floor of the Hawaii House of Representatives, told you to and I quote, act like a Republican. I might be leaving out an expletive there at the time. What did acting like a Republican look like to you and what do you think it meant to him?
To me, it meant being the person that my constituents elected. And I ran on a platform that I believed fit within the Republican Party about a responsible government. But to him, it meant blind loyalty. It meant that I needed to support him no matter what he said or did. And. That wasn't OK. Yeah, and yeah, it's the opposite of what being a Republican should be. That's right. Yeah. When you were the minority leader, the other members of the caucus in Hawaii told you that they wouldn't vote you out of leadership if you agreed not to criticize Trump while he was in office.
That would have been the most politically expedient thing to do, obviously. And I think you've I think you've explained why that wasn't something you could do. So how do you respond to the Republican senators now, US senators who refuse to speak out against Trump out of fear of a tweet?
There has to be more to being a representative or a senator. There has to be more to being an elected official than just staying elected than than just having this sort of blind loyalty to. Your party, it is more than that, it's definitely more than that, and the fact that these senators are so afraid is disgusting, frankly.
I hate to use like such like I feel like this very strong term, but like these are people whose whose who are elected to.
The highest governing body in our country, and they are supposed to be a symbol of democracy for the rest of the world. Yeah. And that they are afraid of a tweet because they are afraid that that might make them lose something and that they're not willing to take risks. I think the founding fathers would be disgusted by that, too. I think they would use that language. Yeah. Yeah. That's not what it was supposed to be.
It's not what it was supposed to be. You recently wrote an op ed that was published in The Washington Post. It was just two weeks ago. So maybe it's last week. Yeah. Yeah. Time flies right now, but no kidding.
Drags on forever. It's both things. It does. But right now, men in this op ed, which I was so excited to see because it reminded me that I need to text you where you say that you drew your red line too late. Yeah.
Can you unpack what you mean by that for us? And and what was the breaking point for you?
Ultimately, I guess, was when I had to make a choice over whether or not I wanted to. Stay in leadership. And comply entirely with whatever direction the party went with and because of what had happened during the election, because of what I had seen, I knew that I couldn't do that. So that was the breaking point. But I think I disagreed with a lot of things sooner. You know, I go back to like, should I just not run as a Republican?
And in that cycle, you know, I was still sort of running as a Republican. I ran for minority leader again. I asked my caucus to make me the highest ranking Republican in the state again. So, I mean, I held on to this idea that we could change the party probably longer than I should have. And as a result, ended up supporting. Things I shouldn't have even just indirectly. How do you see that same idea in the op ed you talk about drawing a red line as an elected official and as a policymaker.
How do you see that playing out for voters? And where do you think their red line should be? What do they need to consider? I voted for a lot of bills that and as a legislator, I did have to vote for a lot of bills. I know that that's not going to be every voter's experience, but I took a lot of votes where I had to uphold the party line. And there were moments where some small part of me wasn't sure about whether it was voter I.D. or people's right to get married.
All of it, I just wasn't sure. And there was this part of me that questioned what I was doing. And I and I do I guess I feel like I I spoke out when I when I could and I tried to play this game that I see everybody else playing who is elected right now. But you can't take votes back and you live with it. So I think for me, I. For voters right now, I guess what I would want voters to consider is I understand how hard it is to go against your team.
I think I probably understand it better than most people, I know what I know what it's like to have to leave a team not knowing where you're going. It it's hard and it's hard to step out and not be sure and to not be. Even positive that like the other party's going to catch you once you once you step out, like, are they going to be there or are they going to uphold what you want or are they going to do what you want them to do?
But if you know that that the thing that you're voting for is wrong, you have to change your vote. It's just it's hard.
And if you want to, you can live to fight another day. And it just has to be this one vote. You don't have to leave your name. You have to leave your tribe. No.
And then and that's the thing, right? Like it feels like it being in the legislature every single time you take a vote, it feels like it's got all this weight of. Yeah, like I'm going to I'm going to betray my team, I'm going to leave my team, but it it doesn't have to be that big. You disagree with your team? Yeah. And even if you're not positive about the outcome of that, like if it's the thing you if you believe that, you should.
Take that vote like you have to vote with your heart. That's what it comes down to. You have to. So, Beth, in the in the video where you announced that you were leaving the Republican Party, there were a couple of quotes that stood out to me and resonated a lot with both things I have felt and some remarks that I gave at the Cooper Union event that we had for the Lincoln Project in February of this year. And you said it's enough to say that my friends and I were wrong to think that a failing party could be changed just because we had the will to change it.
And I did everything I could think of to fight for a better Republican Party. I mean, it's not easy to especially when you've spent a lot of your life working in and for a cause, a a community that you feel a part of. And the nature of that work is really emotional and very passionate. Yeah, it's not easy to walk away. It's not easy to realize that you couldn't change it from the inside. How does it feel on the other side?
Thank you, always have your your what ifs just could I have done something differently, could I have done more to stop what's happened from happening? But I think.
The fact that I what I did, I needed to do and to do the thing that that you think is right, it's doing it is hard, but living with it is easy the other way around. Not so much. Yeah. This is what Abraham Lincoln was talking about when he said right next night when he was speaking to a group of Republicans who already agreed with him but were afraid to do the right thing at the time.
Yeah, in 1860. Let us have faith that right makes might lead us to the end there to do our duty as we understand it. So, Beth, in your farewell letter, you noted that it was time for you to go, but that other people didn't have to and that you recognized that there were still opportunities to change the party, that it wasn't too late, essentially. Is that still true?
Yeah, I think it is so true. I know I had the sense when I was deciding to leave that it was the end of the story for me and that it wasn't going to change where I was. And when I thought through the friends that I had in other states across the country, and especially the ones that were diverse candidates and moderate Republicans, that just even the conservative Republicans that wanted to see something different and see the party be different, I I thought a lot about them when I was leaving, and just a lot of them didn't stand up when I when I did.
But states like Arizona and South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, all of them, that they still have the ability to change this. And if those people who know that the direction the party has gone, if they if they stand up and change it now, it can still be changed. That won't be the same thing if Trump gets re-elected. This is the last chance. And when I left, I truly believed that there were still people that would at some point say, OK, yeah, this is not what I want to be.
Yeah. And. It's time to do that now. Yeah, speak now or forever, hold your peace or rather speak now or your peace may be held for you, too.
Yeah, as scary as that sounds, yeah. That I think is not hyperbole. And it is where we're heading. Yeah, it's changeable, but it won't be changeable forever.
Yeah. Yeah. So vote vote.
Before we go, are there any other things that voters, wherever they are in the country, can be doing to fight back against Trump ism? And what one of those things look like, by the way, we've done a lot of work on this podcast about mail and voting, all the different ways that you can vote. We have resources up on the Lincoln Project at US website about how to vote wherever you are. There are tons of resources available.
So so I think our listeners are very well primed for that. And they know to share with their their networks and to vote early and wherever they can. What else can they be doing to fight this culture that you've been talking about?
Maybe the thing I could add. Just because I do come from a Christian background. Question.
Question what you see, question what candidates are are doing, like questioning what the president is doing and asking people to do. I always go back to the Bible. They're the fruits of the spirit of joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control.
If it doesn't fit into those things, this is not the right candidate for you, not this is not what you should be voting for.
And I think continuing to eat, if you are a Christian, if you are voting because you are trying to protect those values, don't forget what those values are and run everything through them before you make a decision.
I think that some of the best advice that I could really, my dear friend, thank you for coming on today, sharing your time with us and your story. And is there anything else you'd like to add?
No, this was oddly emotional, but other than that, I wasn't expecting it to be.
But me neither. No, thanks.
Thanks for you. What you're doing and what the Lincoln Project is doing. I think it's much needed right now.
Where can people find you? Twitter. OK, at that Fukumoto or my website by Fukumoto Dotcom.
You go and go read her op ed in The Washington Post from just last week, I think. Thanks. All right. Thanks.
Bye bye. Thank you to both for coming on the show. And thanks to all of you at home for listening. I hope you enjoy it. You can find more information about our movement at Lincoln Project to us if you have advice or questions about the podcast. You can email us a podcast at Lincoln Project, dot us. And if you haven't yet, make sure that you subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts and rate and review the show.
This helps us stay up in the rankings so that more voters can find the show and join our movement to defeat Trump and Trump is. For the Lincoln Project, I'm Rons Dustmen, I'll see you in the next episode.