In an era full of politicians unwilling to stray beyond the party line, Beth Fukumoto stands out. Way out.

Beth Fukumoto speaking at the Women's March
Beth Fukumoto speaking at the Women’s March in Hawaii in early 2017.

She is currently running for Congress in Hawaii’s 1st District, but in reality Fukumoto is running to save the soul of American politician discussion. Perhaps no other politician in America today has demonstrated the will and the independence of spirit to put her country and her principles above her party.

First elected to the Hawaii House of Representatives in 2012, Fukumoto was the Republican Minority Leader until the Spring of 2017. Now, eighteen months later, she is standing for Congress as a Democrat. It has been a difficult road, and she has faced down attempts by Republican colleagues to censor her speeches, anonymous hate mail, and more. And yet she is still standing strong. Perhaps stronger than ever.

“I was calling on all women to fight back against hate with kindness and respect so we can show our kids what politics is supposed to be.”

– Beth Fukumoto

Fukumoto’s public break with the GOP began during the 2016 Presidential campaign, when he said that Japanese American internment might not have been a bad idea in December 2015. Almost a year later, hundreds of other Republican leaders would denounced Donald Trump following the Hollywood Access tape revelation. Unlike most other Republicans, however, Fukumoto refused to back down. Nor was she willing to stay quiet. After a very public speech at the Women’s March in Hawaii, the breech with the House Republican Caucus became irreparable. She left the GOP in March and, after three months as an independent, formerly joined the Democratic Party in June 2017.

Once anyone listens to what she has to say, it is clear Fukumoto did not become a Democrat by default. She holds (and has always held) classic Democratic values. Still, few politicians once in office would even consider crossing the aisle, let alone actually do it. Now standing for Congress, Hawaii voters will get the chance to reward her political courage in the upcoming Democratic primary on August 11th.

We first became aware of Beth Fukumoto when our she was profiled in a News Growl fashion review. Once we realized how amazing her story was, and how much more widely it deserved to be heard, we sent her an imploring email: please, please let us do a full interview with you!

She agreed, and we are delighted to share the result with you.

The News Growl Interview with Beth Fukumoto

News Growl: When the Access Hollywood Tape first broke, lots of prominent Republicans withdrew their support for Donald Trump. You are one of the very few elected Republicans to keep criticizing him after he was elected. Did you always have an uneasy feeling about Trump as a candidate, or was the Access Hollywood story the moment when you realized you simply could not support him?

Beth Fukumoto: I had trepidation from the beginning of his run, but at first, I didn’t take him seriously. I was frankly more concerned initially that Ted Cruz may be the nominee.

Beth Fukumoto on the campaign trail
Beth Fukumoto on the campaign trail

But, yes, when the campaign picked up, I remember telling friends that I thought he might win. And, he was as winning by appealing to the parts of the party that establishment Republicans had cultivated for years to win, thinking they could keep the racist and sexist overtones of those factions at bay. I had seen enough to know those factions were stronger than anyone realized, and as one of the few young minority women in the party, I was especially disturbed.

I think the clearest moment for me was when he said Japanese American internment might not have been a bad idea. I think I just felt really sad because I knew he meant it, and I knew (which was later confirmed by polls) that many Republican voters agreed with him. As the granddaughter of a Japanese American man who was taken by authorities but avoided internment, that comment and the agreement it got was heartbreaking.

NG: What happened to your grandfather? 

BF: The Japanese in Hawaii were so integral to the economy that they couldn’t relocate everyone to a camp. However, at the time, that wasn’t clear in the community. My father’s family heard that Japanese Americans were being arrested and detained for their ethnicity after Pearl Harbor.

When they learned that the authorities were in their neighborhood, they took all the Japanese dolls and other artifacts that they worried made them look “un-American” and buried them in the backyard. My grandfather put a Bible and an American flag out so the authorities would see them when they came door-to-door. When they came to the house, they arrested my grandfather anyway and took him in for questioning.

My father was three years old, and he still remembers that day over 75 years later. After he was questioned, my grandfather was released. Many others were not so lucky.

NG: So it is totally makes sense that candidate Trump would make you feel uneasy. But when you began to openly criticize him did you realize you were starting to leave your party behind you or were you expecting others to support you?

Beth Fukumoto
Beth Fukumoto on the floor of the Hawaii House of Representatives

BF: My policies up to that point were already showing a clear divergence from the Republican Party. But, as long as I had a voice in the party, I was going to use it to do what I thought was right. I didn’t know that no one would back me up. And, as angry as I am with Trump, I’m immensely disappointed with the Republicans who know he’s wrong but protect him anyway. They’ve put power over doing what’s right.

NG: In an interview you gave with Elle that was published while you were still a Republican, you said that when you first decided to run for office you weren’t sure whether to run as a Republican or a Democrat. How did you decide ultimately?

BF: At 25, with tons of student debt, a bad economy and an inability to move out of my parents home due to costs, I mistakenly blamed the Democratic Party for leaving behind Hawaii’s middle class families. It wasn’t the party’s fault, in fact, my values were Democratic values. It was the Democratic officials in power for decades who had lost sight of their own Democratic values and made decisions to retain power and serve special interests instead of Hawaii’s local residents.

My status was always uncomfortable for me because I knew I personally disagreed with a lot of the Republican national platform, and a number of factors along with way showed me that, in Hawaii, there was an undercurrent of racism and sexism even within my own caucus.

NG: So the support for Trump in your caucus was more than just political expediency? You think your colleagues were actually supporting him?

BF: By the time he was elected, I do think I was the only one who found him to be unacceptable. There was a lot of pressure on me to stop criticizing the President after he was elected. My caucus had insisted on reading all major speeches before I made them and the rights to change those speeches – a request I refused to comply with.

NG: In your speech at the Women’s March you talk about your niece, how she has been campaigning with you since she was two, and and how she was with you when you were booed by your fellow Republicans at a state convention. How did she react to seeing you booed? Did she understand what was happening?

Beth Fukumoto
Beth Fukumoto speaks to a group of K-12 students.

BF: She did know what was happening. And, it’s something she won’t forget. As soon as I got off the stage, she wouldn’t leave my side. Anytime someone would come up to talk to me, she’d squeeze a little closer like she was trying to protect me.

We had a lot of family talks later. When we asked her if she knew what happened, she said she knew that they liked Trump, she knew that I didn’t like Trump, and she knew that they hated Hillary Clinton.

NG: That sounds like a pretty good synopsis of the last two years in American politics. Do you think the highly partisan nature of the current climate need to change, and if so, how?

BF: Absolutely. I’m worried that it’s only getting worse. People are getting more engaged, but while the right is still run by special interests groups that force ideological conformity, the left is dealing with a similar struggle.

Agreeing to your party’s values is important. I learned that the hard way by trying to stick it out in a party I disagreed with. But, I’m concerned that this cycle is producing a lot of Democratic candidates beholden to special interests. Maybe they’re not corporate interests. In many cases, they’re special interest groups that can just help someone get a lot of small individual donors or help you secure donations from corporate executives instead of corporate PACs.

The effect is the same, though. Candidates will prioritize the interests of those groups over the interests of the everyday families in their districts.

It can change. But, it’s going to take voters paying more attention and asking deeper questions.

NG: That’s really interesting that you see special interests that everyone is grappling with. I’m familiar with the sorts of groups you mean on the left, but I’d not thought of them as performing a similar role to the corporate interest PACs. Can you explain more?

BF: When the Tea Party swept the country in 2010, they were considered a grassroots, anti-establishment movement within the Republican party, supposedly funded by small donors. But, they were organized by very deep pockets – the Koch brothers – who had an agenda.

I agree wholeheartedly with the progressive movement sweeping the country today. But, I think we need to remember that while grassroots, anti-establishment organizations may produce a lot of small donors for candidates, those groups are often organized by big money or big agendas. These endorsements also tend to come with strings attached. I’m also concerned that I’ve already heard candidates tell corporations that they can’t accept corporate PAC money for optics, but they would accept an individual check. That’s the same thing.

Beth Fukumoto
Once her story received national attention, Beth Fukumoto began receiving letters and postcards of support from across the nation.

The problem is easy to spot if you’re looking for it. The solution is less simple. I think public funding for Congressional campaigns could help. Perhaps we could fund that program with a very large filing fee for those who decide to fund their campaigns through big donors and PACs. As for me, I’ve made it very clear that I will accept money from socially conscious PACs and donors, but that I will always put Hawaii first even when it runs counter to special interests or my donors. That’s the right commitment to make. No one should let their donors influence their votes.

As you can imagine, that’s made me very reliant on individual donors, often small donors who I have to try hard to reach because I’m not affiliated with any major special interest.

NG: But your story has obviously reached and struck a chord with many people. Can you tell us about the postcards and letters you have received? When did they start, how many have you had, and where are they coming from?

BF: They started right after my story broke in the national media. The first bunch were cool so we started a poster board hoping we’d get enough to fill it up. Eventually, we filled up a lot of the wall space in my office. They came from all over the world, and all states in the US except Wyoming.

NG: Do you have a favorite?

Beth Fukumoto's favorite postcard
Beth Fukumoto’s favorite postcard

BF: The one that sticks out the most is a handmade card that used a quote about kindness from my Women’s March speech. I think a lot of people missed the point of my Women’s March speech. It was absolutely calling out Donald Trump for his rhetoric. But, most importantly, I was calling on all women to fight back against hate with kindness and respect so we can show our kids what politics is supposed to be.

NG: You left the GOP not long after the Women’s March. Then there was a gap of several months before you joined the Democrats. What sort of political journey were you on during this time?

BF: I knew I wanted to join the Democratic Party, but in Hawaii, that’s not an easy process for an elected official.

I needed to get my application approved by the party committee who took a few months to interview me. I needed to read through the platform and answer questions about every vote I’ve ever taken. Had I been turned down, which was a real possibility, I could have been permanently barred from the Democratic ticket.

When I left the Republican Party, I knew that may be the end of my political career. But, it was something I had to do. I heard I was going to get turned down, but after going through the process, I was approved unanimously.

NG: Now that you are in, how do rank and file Democrats react to you running for Congress in their party?

BF: I think because the process was so rigorous I had the opportunity to show my commitment to the Party and it’s values. I’m certainly the best vetted Democratic candidate. I’m finding rank-and-file Democratic voters very open. Though, the Democratic establishment seems fairly set on supporting establishment candidates.

NG: One of the issues you say is most important for Hawaii is infrastructure, and another is housing. Can you explain these problems for readers who have never been to Hawaii? And as a Congresswoman, how will you help residents of Hawaii with these particular problems?

Beth Fukumoto interviewed
Beth Fukumoto being interviewed by Honolulu Civil Beat’s Chad Blair and Todd Simmons

BF: Ultimately, this comes down to having a clear vision and understanding of how to solve the problem, obtaining more federal funding, and understanding how to work with federal agencies. We need to elect someone who can work with others, navigate the political system to get things done and can build influence over time.

NG: Do you think the houseing problem is worse in Hawaii than other places?

BF: Yes, I think our housing shortage is more severe in Hawaii. Our problems are made worse by foreign and out-of-state investors, and luxury developers who cater to those investors instead of building for the middle class.

NG: Is federal funding the only answer?

BF: Federal funding helps, absolutely. Progressive taxation and a challenge to the commerce clause that could allow us to tax out-of-state owners more heavily would also help.

NG: You’re running against a fairly deep field of Democrats in the August 11th primary, including several other state legislators. Why would Congresswoman Beth Fukumoto be the best choice for Hawaii?

BF: Half of my high school class has had to move away from home. Most people my age living in Hawaii have had to seriously consider if they can afford to own a home, have kids and work only one job. If you don’t have a family network, an above average income, a partner with a good income and low student debt, the numbers don’t work.

The previous generation had it hard. There’s nothing wrong with things being a little hard. But, the costs of housing, childcare and the level of student debt is so high that it’s not just hard, it’s impossible for many. I’m running against people who have been in or around the system since I was old enough to vote. They’ve had a chance to address these problems, but things are just getting further out of reach.

The overarching question of this election is whether or not we’re going to give a new generation a chance to help shape a better future for Hawaii – one that can allow us to live and stay with our families here at home. I think I’m the best candidate to do that, in part, because I’m the closest to that struggle. It’s my story too.

NG: Last question, is there a fictional politician from television or movies that you identify with?

Mary Queen of Scots, center

BF: That’s a tough one! I never planned on becoming a politician so I can’t say I ever really looked up to any political fictional characters. But, I’m going to say Mary, Queen of Scots from Reign.

I like the way they’ve portrayed young Mary Stuart as a politician and a leader. I’m also a little intrigued by the range of strong female leaders in Europe during that point in history. So, I always enjoy a good historical fiction based on those inspiring real life women leaders!

NG: Thank you so much for speaking to us!

BF: It’s been my pleasure.

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