HONOLULU -- In Hawaii, there are 25 members of the state Senate. Twenty-four are Democrats. And then there is Sam Slom.
Slom, the lone Senate Republican in the state of President Obama's birth, has represented East Honolulu since 1996. He hasn't always been the only GOP senator; in the last session, there were two. But Republicans fared poorly at the polls in November, and Slom was left alone.
Which means that Democratic bills to increase state spending, to impose new regulations and mandates, and to create new government departments are often passed on votes of 24-1. "I represent a point of view that would not be represented," the conservative Slom says, "even if it's just one voice." There are 15 committees in the Senate. Most Democrats serve on three or four. But to make things bipartisan, Slom -- you may call him Mr. Minority Leader -- has to serve on all 15. That means he spends his days racing from one committee meeting to the next, making sure that there's at least one question from a conservative point of view.
Slom's job is to challenge the majority's priorities. Like many states, Hawaii is in a fiscal mess. Yet Senate Democrats have spent extraordinary amounts of time on social issues -- most recently, fast-tracking a civil-unions bill -- and on addressing questions like whether dogs can be kept on tethers. "The bill specified the kind of material, size, thickness and length the tether can be," Slom says.
Meanwhile, Slom complains, "We're supposed to be doing the budget, we have a major shortfall of $800 million to $1.5 billion, we have underfunded employees' retirement and healthcare systems, and we haven't done anything in terms of providing new jobs or investment or capital improvement."
Senate sessions can resemble a big, happy family with one troublesome uncle. At one recent meeting, Democrats pushed through an emergency-spending measure with no objections -- until Slom stood up. "What we're doing again is raiding our rainy-day fund when we should be cutting our expenditures," he told fellow lawmakers.
Slom also pointed out that his staff found an error in the bill. It called for spending $1 million, but the fine print accounted for only $965,000. Democrats huddled and then pronounced Slom correct. But they decided to go forward anyway. "Do we have unanimous consent?" asked the presiding senator, Democrat Donna Kim, turning the page to move on to the next matter.
"Oops, sorry," Kim said, noticing Slom's raised hand. "Senator Slom. We have one 'No.'?"
Before heading to vote, Slom meets with his staff in the Minority Caucus Room, which is the same size as the majority's. "Some of my colleagues would have had me in a tent out on the lawn," Slom says.
A man so badly outnumbered has to have a sense of humor. On the Senate floor, standing beneath an enormous nautilus-shell chandelier, Slom motions the majority leader, Democratic Sen. Brickwood Galuteria, to stop by. "This man didn't want me to sleep out on the lawn in a tent," Slom says. Galuteria laughs and pays Slom a compliment. "Twenty-four to one, when Sam Slom is the one -- it's about even," he says.
It's collegial, but of course when it comes to voting, it's not at all even. Most of the time, Slom loses 24-1.
Slom, 68, is originally from Allentown, Pa., and has been in Hawaii since he moved here to attend college in 1960. He seems to know everyone. For example, he was for many years an economist at the Bank of Hawaii, where he worked closely with Madelyn Dunham, Barack Obama's grandmother. He also met the future president when Obama was a teenager.
Slom has also known Hawaii's new Democratic governor, Neil Abercrombie, from the days Slom represented the conservative Young Americans for Freedom at Vietnam War demonstrations and Abercrombie was with the leftist Students for a Democratic Society.
Like a lot of Hawaii pols, Slom was mystified by Abercrombie's short-lived effort to make public Obama's original, long-form birth certificate, which the president has never given permission to release. The birther issue had been waning in recent months, but Abercrombie's announcement reignited it. "I think it was part ego," Slom says of Abercrombie's motive, "and it might have been part anger that this (birther) thing was still going on. It was dying down, so to bring it up was inappropriate."
And anyway, amid a budget crisis, Abercrombie and Democrats in the Hawaii Senate have more important things to do -- like drain the state's emergency funds and regulate dog leashes. By votes of 24-1.