State Democrats determined on Saturday that Laura H. Thielen, a former director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources under Gov. Linda Lingle, is not eligible to run as a Democrat for state Senate in the August primary.
The party’s state central committee voted to sustain a decision by Oahu Democrats that Thielen would not be a party member in good standing for the minimum six months required before filing as a candidate for elected office.
“It’s not one single voice making this decision,” said Dante Carpenter, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii. “This is a group of people who represent the Democratic Party from throughout the entire state of Hawaii.”
Thielen, who lives in Waimanalo and described herself as a long-time Democrat, said she filled out her party card in February and intended to run in the Democratic primary in state Senate District 25, which covers Waimanalo and Hawaii Kai. The filing deadline for candidates this year is in early June, since the primary was moved up to August to accommodate a federal law that protects overseas and military voters.
State Sen. Pohai Ryan, a Democrat in her first term, represents the district.
Thielen said she was looking at her options but is not inclined to accept the party’s decision. The party’s constitution allows for exceptions to the “good standing” rule for candidates who apply for party membership less than six months before the filing deadline. Oahu Democrats and the state central committee declined to grant Thielen an exception.
“It appears that there is an attempt by many of the party’s leaders, especially on Oahu, to pre-select who voters can vote for to represent them,” she said.
Thielen, a former state school board member, was an advocate for Lingle’s failed attempt to break up the state Department of Education into local school districts with elected school boards. She was chosen by the Republican governor as the director of the state Office of Planning and then as the director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Thielen is the daughter of state Rep. Cynthia Thielen (R, Kailua-Kaneohe), who is well regarded by many Democrats for her stances on environmental protection and social issues such as civil unions. Laura Thielen managed her mother’s unsuccessful campaign against U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, in 2006.
Thielen has donated money to her mother’s and to Lingle’s campaigns but she said she has never been a Republican. She said she wanted to run for state Senate this year after seeing proposals in the Legislature to weaken environmental protection and government transparency.
“I have never been a member of the Republican Party. I have declined offers to join the Republican Party,” she said. “I have always identified myself as a Democrat.”
Democrats, who have dominated Hawaii politics since the 1950s, have overwhelming majorities in the state House and Senate and hold the governor’s office and the state’s congressional delegation.
Over the past several years, the party has welcomed new members – state Sen. Mike Gabbard and state Rep. Karen Awana – who had been elected as Republicans but wanted to switch parties.
Democrats have embraced a “big tent” philosophy, but many of the party’s activists have been concerned that Democratic candidates and elected officials have not been faithful to the party’s platform. Some Democrats have also wanted to close the party’s primaries to party members only to prevent independents and Republicans from influencing the party’s selections.
The “good standing” rule allows the party to screen candidates and prevent potential abuses. For example, Lingle appointed Bev Harbin to fill a Democratic vacancy in the state House in 2005, and it was later discovered that Harbin had just joined the party to qualify for the appointment and that she owed back state taxes and had misdemeanor criminal convictions for writing bad checks.
“The Democrats have felt that people were just becoming opportunists to join the party or run in the party because they thought that they couldn’t win if they ran and they didn’t have a `D’’ by their names,” said Lynne Matusow, an Oahu Democrat who serves on the state central committee.