March 23, 2017 / 4:05 AM / in 4 months

Hawaii lawmaker resigns from Republican Party to join Democrats

3 Min Read

U.S. Representative Beth Fukumoto is shown in this undated handout photo in Honolulu, Hawaii, U.S., provided March 22, 2017. Courtesy of Hawaii State Capitol/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) - Hawaii lawmaker Beth Fukumoto, ousted last month as Republican leader of the state's House of Representatives after publicly criticizing President Donald Trump, resigned on Wednesday from her party to seek membership as a Democrat.

Fukumoto, 33, the youngest Hawaii legislator to serve as House minority leader, said divisive campaign rhetoric during the 2016 elections convinced her the Republican Party no longer reflected her political values or the interests of her state's diverse population.

"This election, I saw members of my party marginalizing and condemning minorities, ethnic or otherwise, and making demeaning comments towards women," she said in an open letter of resignation to the Republican Party.

Fukumoto, who is of mixed Japanese and Irish ancestry, said she found Trump's comments about banning Muslim immigrants and the possibility of establishing a registry of Muslim-Americans to be especially troubling.

"I wanted very badly to see the Republican Party denounce his comments, and that didn't happen," she told Reuters, saying a Muslim registry struck her as "one step away" from internment camps.

"That for me was the issue that really changed how I felt."

A self-described political moderate, Fukumoto was the first Republican in 26 years to represent the largely middle-class central Oahu district outside Honolulu, capital of the predominantly Democratic state.

She said she originally joined the Republicans out of a sense that Democrats were the status quo party, but she grew gradually disillusioned with the Republicans.

She recounted a fellow Republican caucus member admonishing her last year that they should be considered the "party of middle America" despite Hawaii's diverse demographics.

Before making the switch, Fukumoto sent out a questionnaire to constituents seeking their opinions. Of those who replied, 76 percent said they would support her regardless, while most of the remainder opposed her changing parties, she said.

First elected to the state legislature in 2012, Fukumoto became leader of the state's tiny House Republican caucus two years later, only to be removed by her peers in February of this year after she spoke out against Trump during the Women's March in Hawaii the day after his inauguration.

As of Wednesday, Fukumoto, became the lone independent among 45 Democrats and five remaining Republicans in the state's lower House, as she launches a process of applying for membership in the state's majority party.

Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Joseph Radford

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