State Rep. Aaron Johanson, who had been a rising star in the Hawaii Republican Party and minority leader of the State House, announced Monday he is leaving the GOP for the Democratic Party.
Democratic legislative leaders surrounded Johanson - who represents Moanalua, Foster Village and Fort Shafter in the State House -- at a news conference Monday afternoon outside the State Capitol as he announced he's leaving the GOP to become a Democrat.
He said he has increasingly increasingly put at odds with Republicans and said many members of the GOP have become "more narrow in their demands for ideological purity."
"I think much of my district voted for me in spite of being a Republican as I have gone door-to-door over multiple election cycles," Johanson said. There are so many Democrats, Independents, Republicans and people who are not affiliated with a party who have supported me."
Johnason, who's been in the House for two terms, became the youngest minority leader in recent history when fellow Republicans elected him to the post in 2012 when he was 32 years old.
Since this fall's election, the House's eight Republicans have been unable to organize, because some Republicans want to replace him, saying he's been too collaborative with Democrats.
"Rather than being focused on remaining the loyal opposition as some would like, and I understand that some Republicans really want that," Johanson said. "That's not who I am, that's not who I committed to be. And I just look forward to making a collaborative, constructive and positive difference."
Republican Party Chair Pat Saiki called the switch "disgraceful," noting that 4,000 voted for him as a Republican less than two months ago.
"To find out that he's willing to sacrifice his own political principals for his own ambition is a real disappointment," Saiki said.
A tearful State Rep. Cynthia Thielen (R-Kailua, Kaneohe Bay) said, "We've lost a wonderful, moderate voice. And I'm very sorry about it."
Thielen, the longest-serving Republican in the State House, said right-wing conservatives pushed Johanson out of the Republican Party.
"It's basically the social conservatives that want to control the Republican caucus and the Republican Party. This is not Hawaii. Hawaii supports mainstream Republican ideas," Thielen said.
But another longtime Republican activist and occasional political candidate said it's dishonest for Johanson to switch parties just two months after winning re-election as a Republican.
"If he's going to be with the Democrats, he ought to try to be elected as a Democrat, rather than fraudulently elected as a Republican," said Mike Palcic, who starts a job working for State Sen. Sam Slom, the State Senate's only Republican, on Friday.
Palcic heads a group called Citizens for Recall, a committee to establish recall, referendum, initiative and term limits on state issues and for state lawmakers. Local laws allow county elected officials to be recalled by voters, but state law precludes state lawmakers from facing a recall by angry voters.
As a result, Palcic said voters in Johanson's district have to wait 22 months to decide whether he should be re-elected and can't mount a recall election against him.
In 1985, the Democratic Party of Hawaii successfully launched recall elections against three members of the Honolulu City Council who switched from the Democratic Party to the GOP, to align themselves with the late Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi, who was then a Republican. The three councilmen - Toraki Matsumoto, Rudy Pacarro and George Akahane - were defeated in the recall elections by Democrats Donna Mercado Kim, Arnold Morgado and Randy Iwase.
Honolulu elections became non-partisan in 1994, after Oahu voters approved a change to the Honolulu City Charter in 1992.
Before Johanson's departure, the GOP ranks in the State House had increased by one to eight in the 2014 election. Now the Republicans are back down to seven members - the same number they had last year in the House. The overwhelming majority -- 44 of the 51 state representatives -- are Democrats.
Gov. David Ige said he was pleased to welcome Johanson to the Democratic Party.
"Over the years I have had a good working relationship with Aaron and was able to observe his commitment of always putting his community first," Ige said in a statement. "I am also impressed with his desire to finding common ground on issues that impact all of our residents, no matter how divisive those issues are."
State Senate President Donna Kim said, "I don't anything will change, we'll continue to agree and disagree on issues as we have in the past. But he does have a bright future, he is a shining star and we need to nurture the newcomers and young people, the next generation."