January 4

Looking for the left? It’s right in Hawaii

The state may be a Democrat’s utopia, but in many cases, what works in Hawaii stays in Hawaii.

By Philip Rucker and Zachary A. Goldfarb
The Washington Post

HONOLULU — Hawaii, the nation’s 50th state and its most isolated and exotic paradise, is not only President Barack Obama’s birthplace and annual holiday getaway. It’s also his political utopia.

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A paddle boarder plies waters off Waikiki Beach. Hawaii has acted progressively on the environment, a stance that puts off new business, one of its rare Republican leaders says.

The Associated Press

Four decades before Obama’s Affordable Care Act, Hawaii enacted its own sweeping health-care mandate. To lift the economy, the state has poured billions of dollars into rebuilding highways and infrastructure, bringing the unemployment rate down to an enviable 4.4 percent. Gay marriage is legal, immigrants are welcomed, labor unions are strong, and – if the governor gets his way this year – universal pre-kindergarten will be the law of the land.

On this string of volcanic islands, there are no tea party stars to bicker with and no Congress to stand in the way. There’s hardly a viable GOP: Just one of Hawaii’s 25 state senators is Republican. The Aloha State, with its liberal governor and overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, has succeeded in achieving much of the vision Obama has yet to accomplish on the mainland.

After spending two weeks on Oahu’s lush fairways and white-sand beaches, Obama plans to return this weekend to Washington, where the cold, iced-over roads could be a metaphor for the gridlock he will need to overcome if he hopes to reboot his second-term agenda.

MILITARY SPENDING BUOYS ECONOMY

“I think there’s a lot of similarities between the policies he’s interested in and the way that people in Hawaii think about the world and think about each other,” said Carl Bonham, executive director of the Economic Research Organization at the University of Hawaii. “We have a better safety net, we’ve had near-universal health care for a long time, and we’re a heavily unionized state, so there’s a tendency that leads to better wages.”

But there are limits to applying the Hawaii model to the rest of the nation, especially considering this state’s unique economy and political makeup.

Hawaii’s extraordinary reliance on the federal government – military spending accounts for 13.5 percent of the state’s economy, more than any other state except Virginia – has helped cushion the state from economic turmoil.

The recession in 2009 pushed Hawaii’s unemployment rate to 7.1 percent, but it has fallen to 4.4 percent as of November – tied with four other states for fifth-lowest. That compares to a decline nationally from 10 percent to 7 percent.

The cost of living is higher than on the mainland, with the prices for everything from milk to bread to paper inflated to cover high shipping expenses. Livable land is scarce, making housing relatively expensive. And costs for energy, from gas for cars to electricity in homes, are high as well.

With more than 8 million visitors coming annually and a large tourism industry, there is also not much of an immigration debate here. The resort hotels that soar above Waikiki Beach, most of which are unionized, employ thousands of immigrants from the Philippines, Japan and China.

“We don’t have this border problem,” Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie said in a recent interview. “We don’t worry about that in Hawaii. We welcome people coming because of the hospitality industry in particular – we’re ready for immigrants to come in because everybody works, everybody wants to succeed.”

At the State Capitol in Honolulu, Democrats have largely been in control since the islands achieved statehood in 1959. The exception was from 2002 to 2010, when Linda Lingle, a moderate Republican, served two terms as governor. The state gave Obama his biggest margins outside of the District of Columbia. In 2008, Obama carried Hawaii 72 percent to 27 percent; in 2012, 71 percent to 28 percent.

Mostly one-party control has made Hawaii an incubator for progressive policies. In 1974, when Obama was living in Honolulu, the state passed its prepaid health-care law – landmark legislation that required all businesses to offer health insurance to employees who worked more than 20 hours a week. Hawaii also has put itself at the leading edge of clean-energy development and initiatives to reduce greenhouse gases.

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