#WomenToWatch is a series by RepresentWomen that documents rising women leaders and their stories.
A lot has changed for Beth Fukumoto in the past year. At the start of 2017, Beth Fukumoto was the top-ranking Republican in the Hawaii State House of Representatives. Fukumoto is of Japanese descent and was hailed in several publications as a leader of the changing face of the right. Tomorrow, she is running to become the Democratic nominee in Hawaii’s 1st congressional district. What hasn’t changed, though, is her passion for gender parity in government.
Her main reason for getting into politics in the first place was to challenge the overwhelmingly male majority in the Hawaii State House. While working as a file clerk at the Hawaii State Legislature, Fukumoto saw firsthand that the interests of young women like herself were not being represented. This experience inspired her to run for the State House.
“There were important decisions being made and there wasn't enough diversity," she said in an interview with Elle. "It was the same voice at the legislature. There were a lot of men and most of them were older. I realized many more people needed to be heard."
In 2014, just two years after being elected, she was chosen by her peers as House Minority Leader, the youngest woman to hold a party caucus leadership position in any state house. She’s spoken about the benefits she thinks female leaders can bring:
“I think that we need to have women in more leadership positions. At least on the Republican side, I was for some time, the youngest woman to be holding caucus leadership positions. After we changed up positions and appointed a woman to be finance chair, I saw a change in how things are run. If nothing else, it changes how men interact with women.”
Though Fukumoto was the top Republican in the Hawaii House during the lead-up to the 2016 election, her relationship with the Republican Party grew increasingly strained during that time period as Fukumoto felt that the party was embracing racist and sexist ideologies. The last straw was when she chose to speak at the Hawaii Women’s March in January 2017, where she denounced bigotry and hate. In response to Fukumoto's criticism of the national party, her Republican colleagues quickly voted to oust her from leadership. In March, Fukumoto wrote a letter to her constituents announcing that she would leave the Republican Party and join the Democratic Party.
In this incident, Fukumoto ran up against the limitations of the United States’ plurality electoral system, which doesn’t represent the interests of people whose ideologies fall outside of the two major parties. “She feels in general that there should be more party choices, but in Hawaii politics, it’s almost impossible to get on the ballot unless you’re an R or a D,” Adrianne Jeffries wrote of Fukumoto in The Outline. If Hawaii were to adopt ranked-choice voting with multi-member districts for its legislature, people like Fukumoto might have more legitimate third-party options.
Now a Democrat, Fukumoto is running for Congress to replace Colleen Hanabusa, who is stepping down to run for Senate. She is running on a progressive platform that includes gun control and single-payer healthcare.
At only 35, she would be among the youngest women in Congress. She has been lagging in the polls lately behind her older and more established opponents, which she attributes partly to a lack of funding; Fukumoto feels that major Democratic donors in Hawaii have not taken her campaign seriously because of her age. However, she also sees her youth as an advantage because she understands the unique problems that young Hawaiians face:
“We’re the ones who are going to get pushed out,” she said in an interview with the Honolulu Civil Beat. “We’re in the process of losing an entire generation of local residents who just can’t afford to live here anymore.”