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Vince Yano, Tom Gill on the legacy of progressive politics in Hawaiʻi

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Casey Harlow / HPR
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It’s been a little more than a week since Election Day, and while the national picture remains a bit unsettled, Hawaiʻi's political outlook is pretty clear. It’s dominated by Democrats — that’s been the story since shortly before statehood.

As part of an ongoing project with the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Center for Oral History, we are bringing you voices from Hawaiʻi’s history.

Ethnic studies professor Ty Kāwika Tengan shares insights from two politicians, Vince Yano and Tom Gill, about the legacy of progressives in Hawaiʻi.

In 1970, Hawai‘i became the first state to decriminalize abortion. State Sen. Vince Yano explains how he, as a committed Catholic, became an unexpected champion for reproductive rights.

Yano: The abortion issue did fall in my lap because I was Chairman of Health for a number of years. And when that issue surfaced, being a Catholic, I was definitely against abortions. But I felt that maybe I should study it, so I took six months to study the issue. I read this summary of a symposium that was held in Washington, D.C. in '68 or '69. And one of the contributors in this symposium was Father Robert Drinan. He was then dean of the Boston College Law School, a Jesuit Catholic law school. And he said that he felt that the issue of abortion should never be determined by law. I was really struck by that. I said, "Yeah, that's a real good position," that abortion should never be a matter of law. Well, if it was good enough for the dean of Boston College law school who happened to be a Jesuit that I greatly admired, I said, "That's good enough for me." So six months later, I came out and announced that, you know, I'm going to push this bill to not liberalize abortion, just to make abortion a matter of free choice. My fellow Catholics have never understood that. They can't separate the religious part of it from the aspect of a social issue.

Tom Gill was a member of Congress and a lieutenant governor, but he may be best known as an unapologetic progressive who challenged Jack Burns in the 1970 Democratic primary. Although he lost that race, he continued to be a voice for social and economic justice throughout his life.

Gill was interviewed by former UH professor and political analyst Dan Tuttle:

Tuttle: You're credited with doing a great deal to build up the Democratic party in Hawai'i. Is that something of which you're reasonably proud, at least up to a point?

Gill: Well, I think the party dissolved somewhere in the early '60s, has never really come back. But there was an attempt with reasonable success, I think, in late '50s to put together something which was more than just a series of personality politicians, which had been the rule, of course, prior to that time. And all of these things involved having programs, having ideas about what should be done, and trying to figure out answers, if there are any answers, and to sell that as a package so the people would vote for the idea, and not just for individual faces. I think, to some extent, many things including TV, destroyed that. It's impossible to sell an idea on TV. I'm being a little gross here, but I think it's basically true. People just sort of flicker, and they don't stop and think. And the guy with the smiling face somehow comes through, the idea gets lost.

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This collaboration is supported by the SHARP Initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities through the American Council of Learned Societies.

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