By Sophie Cocke

State Rep. Beth Fukumoto, who was ousted as House minority leader by Republican colleagues last month over her criticism of President Donald Trump, announced Wednesday that she is leaving the Republican Party, citing its failure to condemn elements of racism and sexism within its base. She will seek membership in the Democratic Party.

Her departure further depletes the Hawaii Republican Party, which is now reduced to just five elected officials, all of whom serve in the state House of Representatives.

"I believe that there has been racism and sexism in the Republican Party and that the refusal to contradict that racism and sexism is the reason ultimately that I'm choosing to leave the party," Fukumoto, 33, told reporters gathered in her office at the state Capitol for a news conference.

As an example, she cited Republicans' failure to condemn Trump's remarks during the campaign that suggested he may have supported Japanese internment during World War II.

"For me, as a Japanese-American whose grandparents had to destroy all of their Japanese artifacts and items and bury them in the backyard to avoid getting taken and interned, how could I not have said anything and how could my party not have said anything? But they didn't," she said.

Here's my letter of resignation from the Republican Party outlining my reasons for leaving.

-- Beth Fukumoto (@bethfukumoto) March 22, 2017

Tensions over Fukumoto's views on Trump within the Hawaii Republican Party came to a head in January when she marched and spoke at the worldwide Women's March in Honolulu, calling the president a bully who won the White House with "anger and hate."

Two weeks later, House Republicans voted 3-2 to remove her from leadership, citing her ongoing criticism of the president and the party.

Following Fukumoto's announcement Wednesday, Democratic leaders and lawmakers from her district released statements saying they looked forward to working with Fukumoto, while noting that she still has to apply and be accepted by the party.

Democrats "have a big tent and there's always room for one more," House Speaker Joe Souki said in a statement. "We look forward to her joining us and working with her."

Hawaii Democratic Party Chairman Tim Vandeveer said Fukumoto needs to apply for membership in the party through the Oahu County Committee of the Democratic Party, a process that could take several months.

Hawaii Republican Party Chairman Fritz Rohlfing said Fukumoto should have resigned as a state representative so the party could recommend Republican replacements for the governor to choose from.

"I am extremely proud of how our party welcomes and fosters voices from every background, and I look forward to electing more Republicans in Hawaii as we move forward," Rohlfing said in a statement.

Party reactions

Reactions from Fukumoto's Republican colleagues were mixed. Rep. Cynthia Thielen (R, Kailua-Kaneohe), who has been a member of the Republican Party since 1951 and a strong supporter of Fukumoto, criticized her party for alienating someone she's described as a talented young leader. She suggested that the party's traditional values of fiscal conservatism and limited government have been overshadowed by intolerance around social issues.

The "tiny party's brand is further weakened and its relevance to the wider, diverse constituency looks bleak," she said in a statement.

Rep. Bob McDermott, who was one of the three House Republicans to vote to remove Fukumoto as minority leader last month, said that Fukumoto was after publicity and angry that she was removed from the post.

"I really am tired of hearing her keep talking about racism and sexism in our party without mentioning names," he said. "She makes these baseless allegations and throws these inflammatory terms around like they are meaningless. ... She doesn't identify anyone except Trump. It isn't much to do about anything, I think."

Asked whether he thought the Republican Party had a problem with racism and sexism within its ranks, he said: "No. I think she is full of crap. That is the only time she gets publicity."

McDermott said Fukumoto wasn't removed because of her criticism of Trump, although he told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser last month that Fukumoto was removed because of her continuing criticism of the Republican Party and Trump.

"She was fired not because of the Trump remarks. She was fired because she stunk as a leader," he said Wednesday.

Party acceptance

Fukumoto said she spent weeks contemplating leaving the party and receiving feedback from constituents in her district of Mililani and Waipio Acres. She said she received just fewer than 500 responses, of which about 70 percent were positive. Of the positive responses, she said constituents said they were either supportive of her switch, were Democrats who said they would embrace her in the party, or said they didn't care which party she belonged to.

She said there were many issues on which she aligned with the Democratic Party, particularly on the need for more affordable housing and the need to create a more progressive, and not regressive, tax structure.

"We tax the poor the highest in Hawaii," she said.

Fukumoto said she tends to be fiscally conservative, but isn't a hard-liner when it comes to no new taxes.

Her record on social issues, and in particular gay marriage, might be more problematic to her acceptance within the Democratic Party. She voted against legalizing gay marriage during the 2013 special session in Hawaii. However, Fukumoto said Wednesday that she personally supports gay marriage and that her vote against the measure had more to do with concerns about the process.

(c)2017 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser