Assessing Filipino Empowerment in Hawaii: Its History, Challenges and Future

by Edwin Quinabo

Take it to the bank: talks of Filipino empowerment – whether Hawaii’s Filipino community is in better position politically – will be revisited for analysis by politicos and community leaders as the election year draws nearer. It never fails.

Filipinos fall into two groups when it comes to politics, either passionate or apathetic. And those who are passionate are still adamant about Filipino empowerment politically.Going into 2022’s election year:  the skinny on whether Filipinos have arrived as a political force, or if the metaphorical “giant has finally awoken” – could best be answered with a tone of ambiguity that “there’s certainly room for improvement.”

In some metrics, Filipinos have made enough advances as a community that to some it would be a misnomer to label the group as still the slumbering giant. At the same time, some traditional benchmarks that measure a community’s standing signal Filipinos still lag relative to other groups further up the socio-economic and political ladder.

You would think statistics could perhaps give a clearer, unbiased picture of how well Filipinos are faring. Use the latest US Census where Hawaii’s Filipino population is at 25%. Any percentage close to it, above or below, could be telling how Filipinos are doing on a given area.

But even statistics can suggest mixed conclusions.  Take ethnic representation in public office as one measure of political strength. (Of course, you don’t have to be a certain ethnicity to represent the interests of any specific ethnic group. That’s not how it works. Filipinos have always been represented by non-Filipino politicians as well.)But for the purpose of finding possible measures of empowerment politically, the count is that Filipinos are overrepresented, adequately represented, and underrepresented at different levels of government.

OVERREPRESENTATION. At the Honolulu City Council, 3 of 9 current members are of Filipino ancestry or 33%. That over-representation is not a one-time anomaly, either.  The immediate Council before this one had 4 of 9 FilAms, or 44%. In the 19th Honolulu City Council (2017-2019) there were 5 of 9 members of Filipino ancestry, or 55%. On top of that, several Filipinos in recent decades have led the Council as Chair.

This consistency (looking at patterns are more telling) suggests Oahu Filipinos are pulling their weight and more in terms of political involvement; while neighbor island counties show less involvement among Filipinos with fewer FilAms holding county office.

ADEQUATE REPRESENTATION. At Hawaii’s State Senate, there is a similar pattern. Currently, there are 6 of 25 members of Filipino descent, or 24%, showing representation there basically equals to this ethnic group’s population (25%). Previous State Senate years also have had similar numbers.

Then Filipino representation dives way south when it comes to members at the House of Representatives. This has always been the case at the lower chamber of the State Legislature. Even with the addition of newly elect Sonny Ganaden (who replaced veteran Filipino politician Romy Cachola) and Gregor Ilagan (who took over FilAm Joy San Buenaventura’s seat) in 2020, the percentage of Filipinos in the House is still at a low 13% (7 of 51). But where the absence of Filipino leadership is most glaring is at the government executive level (governor, lt. governor, mayors) and Congressional and US Senate seats where there are currently zero FilAms in these seats. The exceptions in these areas, or break from this general patten, is Filipinos have had a governor and two neighbor island mayors.

In spite of statistics – not just current ones but again looking at patterns over decades – Filipinos themselves will hold onto old stereotypes and disregard where advances have been made. But statistical patterns suggest still, “there’s certainly room for improvement.”Outside of Hawaii, there already have been three Filipino US Congressmen: Steve Austria of Ohio (2009 to 2013), Terrance John Cox of California (2019 to 2021), and Robert Scott of Virginia (1993 to the present). Scott holds leadership in the current US House as Chair of the Committee on Education and Labor. Former US Senator John Ensign of Nevada (2001 to 2011) who was adopted, says his paternal grandfather (blood-relation) was part-Filipino.

FilAms in Hawaii Politics: From the current crop to past icons
“When I think of a Filipino politician in Hawaii, I think of Radiant Cordero,” said Paul Martin, a government worker, millennial living in Ewa Beach. Cordero was elected last year to Honolulu City Council District 7. Prior to her election, she was chief of staff to Honolulu City Councilman Joey Manahan, whose term expired in 2020.

Martin, former President of the University of Hawaii at Manoa Ethnic Studies Student Association said Radiant was his teacher’s assistant for his Ethnic Studies Filipinos in Hawaii class. “We were also in the Filipino language program at UH Manoa,” said Martin.

Cordero is a part of the latest (third) generation of Filipino-American Hawaii politicians along with fellow Honolulu City Council members Brandon Elefante and Augie Tulba. At the State House, there are others: Della Au Belatti (Majority Leader), Henry Aquino, TY Cullen, Val Okimoto, and Patrick Pihana Branco. (Ganaden and Ilagan, mentioned above). At the Hawaii State Senate, there are other more seasoned politicians that could be lumped into this current crop of FilAm politicians with potentially decades ahead of them in politics: Donavan Dela Cruz, chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee for the last four years (some say he’s most poised to become Hawaii’s next FilAm governor); Gil Keith-Agaran, vice-chair of WAM; and newly elect to the Senate Joy San Buenaventura (former House member) and Bennette Misalucha.

The current veterans at the Senate Lorraine Rodero Inouye and Donna Mercado Kim could be looked at as a part of Hawaii’s second generation of pioneering Filipino political leaders. Inouye is former Big Island Mayor, the first Filipina mayor in the US. Kim became the first Filipina President of the Hawaii Senate in 2013. Robert “Bobby” Bunda was the first President of Hawaii’s State Senate of Filipino ancestry and the first FilAm to become president of any State Legislature in the U.S.Along with Inouye, Kim, Bunda, a few other second-generation Filipino trailblazers in Hawaii politics include former Sens. Rey Graulty, Ron Menor, Will Espero, Reps. Connie Chun (first Filipina elected to the Hawaii State House in 1980), Daniel Kihano (first FilAm to serve as House Speaker in 1987), Romy Cachola, and former Gov. Ben Cayetano, the only FilAm to be governor in the US.

When asked who comes to mind when he thinks of Filipino politicians, Gov. Cayetano goes way back to what could be referred to as the first generation of pioneering Filipinos in politics and law.“When I think of outstanding Filipino leaders of the past, Benjamin Menor, Alfred Laureta, Eduardo Malapit and Simeon Acoba, Jr. come to mind. Hopefully, a young Filipino will one day emerge and rise to that level. There are some young Filipinos with potential but only time will tell,” Cayetano told the Filipino Chronicle.

Benjamin Menor (father of former Sen. Ron Menor) was the first FilAm to serve on a State (Hawaii’s) Supreme Court in the nation in 1974; Laureta was the first federal judge of Filipino ancestry in the US in 1978; Malapit was the first FilAm mayor in the US as Mayor of Kauai in 1974 (elected for four consecutive two-year terms); and Acoba, Jr. was the third FilAm to serve on the Hawaii State Supreme Court (Mario Ramil was second).

And no one following Hawaii politics can forget Peter Aduja, the first FilAm elected to public office in the US. His daughter Melodie Aduja, a former State Senator, told the Filipino Chronicle “It was in 1954 [that my father was elected] for the Territory of Hawaiʻi, making him the first person of color other than a Native Hawaiian to be elected in Hawaiʻi – even before any Japanese-American or Chinese-American.  He later served 10 years in the State House.  In addition, he was quite progressive.  He served in the 1968 Constitutional Convention and was a member of the Legislature when Hawaiʻi became the first State in the Union to legalize abortion.  He was a great man and I try my best to live up to his legacy.” Another pioneer of the first generation was Rudy Pacarro, the first FilAm elected to Honolulu City Council in 1971 who became the first Chair of the Council of Filipino ancestry in 1979. It would take over 20-years later that another FilAm would ascend to chair that Council when the young and talented Dela Cruz (now in Senate) held that leadership role in 2003 to 2007. Dela Cruz was the youngest member ever to be Chair of that Council.

There were many other FilAm politicians who’ve made their mark and have contributed to advancing the State and its counties. To name a few (not already mentioned above): Brickwood Galuteria, Ernie Martin, Alex Sonson, Jun Abinsay, Nestor Garcia, Julie Duldulao, Gene Albano, Emilio Alcon, Rida Cabanilla, Kymberly Pine, Lynn Berbano Finnegan, Jimmy Tehada and Lyla Berg.

There were also FilAm candidates who ran very successful election campaigns in the past but fell short from being elected. They are memorable to many in the community for raising issues important to Filipinos at the time they ran. A few of them were Mito Ablan, Don Guzman and Tante Urban.

United We Stand, Divided We Fall
The late Rep. Chun once said the single biggest obstacle to political progress for Hawaii’s Filipinos is their factionalism.

Her observation of community division (in the early 1980s when she held office) came even before the Marcoses were exiled in Hawaii (1986) which caused further splintering and hit a peak then as pro-Marcos and anti-Marcos factions engaged in heated bickering.

But at present, some say provincialism within the Filipino community has been abated relative to the 1980s and early 1990s to where community leaders today do more advocating for unity and are less engaged in polarization.

Filipino community leaders often refer to two events that helped to bring Filipinos together: the election of Gov. Ben Cayetano and the building of the FilCom Center. Filipino ethnic media, print and radio, also have helped to bring about cohesion.

While Filipino block voting had been diminished over the years in part through division but also apathy, there has been evidence of successful block voting among Filipinos. The election of Ben Cayetano in 1994 and his reelection in 1998 are the most obvious examples. There have been other moments. The Filipino community rallied and block voted for Frank Fasi (when he was a Democrat and appointed many Filipinos to his multiple cabinets), for Jeremy Harris (who actively recruited many qualified Filipinos into his cabinet) and Neil Abercrombie (during his years in Congress when he held strong ties with blue collar labor and hotel unions at the height of unions influence).

Still, some leaders today are not convinced that Filipinos are unified enough.

Aduja, who currently holds leadership in the Democratic Party of Hawaii as chair of the Health Committee, said “Filipino-Americans remain divided; and therefore, we are lacking in effective impact.”Belinda Aquino, Professor Emeritus at UH-Manoa, founder of UH’s Center for Philippine Studies and political scientist, said “the divisiveness in the Filipino community has long been noted and the quality of unity for a particular purpose is never there.”

Cayetano said of ethnicity in today’s politics, “Hawaii has changed dramatically and political groups based on ethnicity are a thing of the past. The Chinese, Japanese and Koreans recognize this and their respective ethnic groups celebrate culture but shun making political endorsements.”Caroline Julian-Freitas, a senior communications manager for a Hawaii state department, said if the Filipino community is united, they would have a stronger voice in getting the representation they want and creating the change that’s needed.

What do Filipinos need and will look to candidates platform in 2022
Sen. Misalucha, who is a co-convener along with Rep. Aquino in the first ever joint Senate and House (started this year) Filipino caucus, said the issues important to the Filipino community are universal.

“As we grapple with the short and long term effects of the pandemic, we need to ensure that our population has the wherewithal to cope with the anticipated changes.  For instance, broadband access as well as digital literacy should be a priority issue.  How can our people compete in the global market place if we don’t provide them the necessary tools? How can our lola and lolos get access to social services if they do not know how to use a computer or navigate the internet?”Serafin Colmenares, Jr., Administrator of the State Health Planning and Development Agency (SHPDA), says the two issues that will be important for Filipinos leading into election year are health and the economy. Filipinos will look to who can best address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic from a public health perspective and who can lead in improving and diversifying the state’s economy, he said.

Aduja was very specific and mentioned three areas that could benefit the Filipino community: “1) increasing the availability of affordable housing; 2) increasing the minimum wage (and the entrepreneurial spirit); and (3) improving the delivery of healthcare while saving millions in taxpayer dollars in the EUTF and Medicaid systems.“The State and Counties could save more than $100M per year in healthcare costs, eliminate excessive administrative waste, and deliver improved healthcare through Primary Care Case Management (PCCM) rather than the current Insurance-Managed Care.  Your primary doctor would know better when it comes to patient care rather than non-medically-trained insurance companies.”

Julian-Freitas echoed health care and the economy as areas of importance. She added employment as key to economic recovery. With Hawaii still recovering from the pandemic, it revealed the many struggles of the community. She said “many still work in the tourism industry and were laid off due to the shutdown of the State.  As far as health care, low paying jobs and part-time work hours impact the quality of the health care some are receiving.  The pandemic also shed to light the socioeconomic challenges families faced when children were distance learning – the lack of digital devices, wifi and technical help greatly impacted those who could not afford the tools for distance learning.”

For a millennial perspective, Martin emphasized he would like to see more affordable housing so that local residents can stay, work and live in Hawaii.

Not surprising, he also shared his generation’s concern for the environment and sustainability. “I also would like to see more locally grown food to shore up our food security.  During the coronavirus pandemic, I was very scared that we wouldn’t have much food to eat if the ports ever shut down. There should be more AG land to grow more food.

“I would also like to see public schools teach our youth how to compost and to use public school cafeteria food for that compost.  Children need to learn how to grow their own food and to learn how our waste can be used to grow more food.

“The next generation needs to have a better grasp that what humans do, have a consequence on our Earth. If we instill a deeper understanding of this relationship [human behavior and their impact onto the environment] then perhaps humanity and the Earth can still be saved,” said Martin.

Improving Filipino empowerment
Some solutions Filipino community leaders have been mentioning to enhance empowerment are forming a political action group (the Filipino Coalition for Solidarity was an active political advocacy group founded in 1990 and led by Filipino community leaders), joining organizations that help our community, excelling in our respective fields and mentoring our youth.

Amplify Filipino Votes.
Dr. Aquino emphasized increasing voting turnout among Filipinos as soon as the next election as key to enhancing empowerment. “This will show that Filipinos at last have gotten their act together. This will gain the respect of the local and state community altogether.  Strong turn-out, in turn, needs to be accompanied by qualifications of those running for office, not only in terms of popularity [to actually win an election] but for them to have previous achievements in their respective professions.”She said there must also be public outreach stressing the importance of voting. “Educating the whole community is critically essential. Community leaders must take on this initial job.” She mentions the use of radio and other media to get their message across.

Julian-Freitas says Filipinos in leadership positions should get more involved in assisting the community.

Colmenares emphasized more unity in voting. “Filipinos need to unite as a community and form a solid voting bloc. We should avoid competing with one another or running against each other in elections. We should field strong, qualified and viable candidates and rally behind them.  We should register to vote and actually follow through and vote.”

Sen. Misalucha sees new Filipino immigrants as important to the future of empowerment.  She said, “we have thousands of new immigrants who come to Hawaii (pre-pandemic) every year in search of a better life.  The number ranges from 5,000 to 8,000 per year.  It is to them that I want to say. ‘Although, in our hearts, the Philippines will always have a special place, we need to understand that Hawaii is now our home.  As such, we need to be more engaged in all the things that are going on in our neighborhood, in our state.  At the very least, vote when we are able (when we become a citizen).  We have to feel invested in our communities, we have to care.  When this happens, political empowerment will be the natural outcome.’”

She adds, “The bottom line is that we have to learn how to be better advocates for our community and ourselves.”

Besides voting and becoming active in the political arena and community, Martin stresses the importance of raising our education level as key to empowerment. With a better-educated community, empowerment politically and economically will follow.

A March 2018 Research and Economic Analysis put together by the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT) shows Filipinos are still underrepresented in higher education: 15.4% of FilAms have a bachelor’s degree and 3.7% a graduate or professional degree (33.6% have an associate’s degree).

Martin suggests, “more educational resources need to be available to Hawaii’s Filipino communities.  We need more summer programs.  If we have supplemental programs like this, then children will feel more confident going into the next school year knowing that they have retained the information they’ve learned the year prior.  We also need to emphasize volunteering for community organizations.  I didn’t really put much value in volunteering for community organizations in my youth, and in retrospect, I wish I valued it more.  Not only does one provide a great service to the community through volunteering, but it also builds experience and knowledge of the area through which you volunteer.”

Dr. Aquino also makes the link between educational attainment and better paying jobs that in turn leads to enhanced empowerment.

She says, “Employment to productive and sustainable jobs should be made available over time to enable Filipino families to send their children not only up to secondary schooling, but more importantly to finish a college or graduate education based on what is needed in the job market.  Unemployment or underemployment in the Filipino work force is so prevalent as seen in the fact that employment in low-paying  jobs like hotel workers and other service industries have to find a second or third job to make ends meet for themselves and their families.”Dr. Aquino says empowerment also includes lobbying leaders at the legislature.

Lobbying politicians.
Sen. Misalucha says, “the legislators are aware of who submits testimony on issues.  Our Filipino community is sadly, quiet.  I have personally observed that there are only a handful of Filipino-American community leaders who submit testimony even on bills that are relevant to the Filipino community. Manang Amy Agbayani has been a strong advocate throughout the years, and she has been trying to shepherd others to pick up the cudgels but even she herself would admit that it is a struggle.”

Dr. Agbayani has spent a lifetime working on civil rights, immigrant rights, and social justice in Hawaii. For more than 40 years, she served as the founder and director of the Office of Student Equity, Excellence and Diversity at UH-Manoa. She has served as chair or co-chair to many local politicians campaigns and is a powerful lobbying voice at the Hawaii State Legislature.

Sen. Misalucha makes the point, “The day when we do not have to talk about Filipino political empowerment any more is the day when we know we have achieved it.”The offices up for next year’s local elections are for Governor, Lt. Governor, US Senate District 1, US House of Representatives District 1 and District 2, some State Senate races, all State House of Representatives seats, and some county races. Candidate filing starts on March 1 and ends June 7.

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