The Republican Party and the future of conservatism: Interview with Hawaii’s Tiffany Au

Danny de Gracia interviews former Republican House candidate Tiffany Au for her thoughts on the election aftermath. Photo: Tiffany Au Campaign Photo

HONOLULU, November 9, 2012 – As liberal and conservative pundits alike try to search for signs of mandates and messages alike in Mitt Romney’s loss to President Barack Obama, there has been much talk of the future of the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Just what’s next and where do conservatives go from here?

I had the chance to interview Tiffany Au who ran as a Republican candidate for Hawaii’s House of Representatives for her thoughts on what it was like running and her thoughts on the election aftermath. Au, whose parents were boat refugees from Vietnam, was born in the United States and raised on conservative values. The struggles of her family gave her a powerful inspiration that led her to run for office this year, but the voters ultimately did not elect Tiffany Au.

In understanding what happened nationally, I thought that getting a feel from the Republicans who fought for legislative seats just might give us a better feel for just what happened and what we can learn from it. Here now is a transcript, condensed for length and with light edits of our interview.


Danny de Gracia: Tiffany, you just finished your first ever run for office and you unfortunately did not win, but tell us what it was like running for office and what your feelings are about the entire campaign, in general.

Tiffany Au: It was a very rewarding experience. I learned so much about not only my capability as a human being but what we can do together as a community to really affect change. There were times where it was really difficult. A lot of people – well, I’m currently the 2012 Narcissus Queen for the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, and that’s the ethnic beauty pageant here in Hawaii. I won this past year. And there were times where things were very difficult where people would assume certain things about you and put limitations on you simply because of a pageant title.

And so there were times when there were challenges, and the only reason I’m mentioning this is because when an outside observer looks at an election or campaign or candidate, there are obviously many assumptions to be made because they don’t know that person directly. And in my case, that was one of the initial stamps on my forehead, they’re like, “Beauty queen running for office, that’s very strange.” But in order to overcome these stereotypes we really put a lot of hard work into the campaign and the values of hard work and merit.

I was very happy with how the campaign went … obviously there are always things to improve, but I slept very well, I was not … I wasn’t devastated or broken hearted, in fact I looked as the next day as a new day, and it brought new energy because even though, you know – I didn’t necessary win the polls, the results weren’t necessarily what we hoped for – it was the fact that I grew so much as a person, so many new friends in this community, there were so many generous people that came out to help me with the campaign.

The results were 40 percent against an eighteen year incumbent and as much as we would like to have won the election, I think that was a great showing as a first time candidate.

DDG: You mentioned stereotypes. When you went door to door, did some of those things come out in comments people made? What kind of –

Au: Right.

“In this world there’s so many things that life might not hand you all the cards that you want, but it doesn’t mean you sit back and be bitter and make other people miserable or tell other people not run.” -Tiffany Au

DDG: What kind of feedback did you get? What were some of the stereotypes? Was it you knocked on a door and somebody, you know, made certain comments or was it just a sense that you had? What was it exactly that happened?

Au: Well firstly it was the fact that you know, having a young woman coming to your door, they looked at me and they said, “Oh, you’re very young.” And then they said, “Oh you’re really pretty.” At least once during my signwaving events, there would be someone saying “Oh she’s too pretty or too cute to run for office.”

And in terms of the whole beauty pageant, there’s always the assumption that beauty pageant girls are airheads and don’t really have a brain, but those outside people don’t know what it takes to run a beauty pageant in itself, so every time we walked the district there was somebody commenting on the beauty pageant. Other people that didn’t know what the Narcissus pageant was, they were like, “Are you a narcissist? Are you just into yourself?”

DDG: (laughs)

Au: So there was a lot of different hurdles to explain what the pageant was and then to have to prove that you’re intelligent and how the newspapers spun it was a lot of local newspapers, they said, “Oh! There’s all these beauty queens that are running for office, stay at home moms and people with businesses now” and that’s how the media jumped on the election. It wasn’t “Tiffany Au, born in local Oahu and worked in business and interned at Department of Labor” it was “Tiffany Au, beauty queen, runs for office.” That’s how it was in the newspaper a lot.

DDG: The local newspaper there in Hawaii, the major paper in Hawaii … is the Honolulu Star Advertiser. They didn’t endorse you.

Au: That’s correct.

DDG: So they didn’t endorse you but they endorsed your opponent. What was the reason they had in endorsing your Democratic opponent over you and how did you feel when you found out that you hadn’t gotten their endorsement?

Au: The process for Star Advertiser endorsements was just to fill out a couple of questions that they asked regarding our policy platform and how we would vote, so that was mailed over to them. I do have to give the Star Advertiser credit for doing their due diligence in calling the candidates and making sure the person got their surveys submitted, so with my race they called me and made sure it came. However in terms of the endorsement, I did not agree with that. They … what they said about my opponent was that he had a “depth of experience.”

What they said about me was yes, that I’m a local beauty queen (laughs) for the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. I personally … I thought that just because that my opponent has a depth of experience doesn’t mean that he necessarily makes the right decision. And walking the district, talking to his constituents, a lot of the people expressed to me that they would try to call his office and not see results. They didn’t see him at many Neighborhood Board meetings. They hardly see him in the community, and so for me, as someone very active doing community service I felt as though the Star Advertiser didn’t exactly know what the candidate was doing and also therefore could not provide a very um, I don’t know what the right word would be for this, but a very … thorough and accurate analysis of the candidate? Furthermore, it’s a newspaper and I don’t understand why they’re endorsing candidates because I thought newspapers – especially one that’s the only major newspaper in Oahu – should at least be neutral.

DDG: Right.

Au: After the economy crashed, now it’s just this one major newspaper, and so that influences a lot of readers because that’s the only source of information they receive. And when I looked at the other races that they … you know, they mostly endorsed incumbents and the thing about, you know, being a public a servant, it was never intended to be a career. Actually back in the day when people wanted to run for office, say Congress, they got elected, served, and then left. It wasn’t something you did for the next twenty years of your life. And now it seems that because they influence and endorse all these incumbents, it’s just part of the political machine.

Also, I didn’t agree with some of the things they said about other candidates. For example, another candidate, Darrell Young, was running in the Kaimuki area and basically why they didn’t endorse him is because they said his campaign was very low profile and maybe he’s not ready for the primetime limelight or something like that.

DDG: Wow.

Au: I thought that’s not a legitimate reason to not endorse somebody.

DDG: You know you have a very unique story and you know, in your particular case, your parents came to the United States as a result of being boat people refugees after the Vietnam War. You’re basically the epitome of the American Dream because your parents came as refugees, you were born here and you accomplished so many things in such a short time.

You not only went through college, you got all this local political and cinema acting experience. It seems to me that being what you are and what you’ve done in such a short time – and being a minority woman – you kinda seem like the type of person that would be a perfect role model for the Republican Party to showcase because they basically have been criticized as not having enough diversity, so the Republican Party has been for a long time been trying to find minority superstars for lack of a better word. And I was surprised the national Republicans didn’t take note of you. I think if there was anyone who could have made an incredible case on stage for Republicans and Mitt Romney at Tampa would have been you. How do you feel about that?

Au: Oh, that’s really nice of you Danny, it’s a major compliment. I agree with you that the sentiments regarding the Republican Party is that it’s very old. There was one person we met when we were walking the district who said to us, “Doesn’t conservative mean backward and progressive means forward?” So, the Republican Party has this, uh –

DDG: Stigma?

Au: Stigma. Stigma image for being old, backward, run by rich wealthy, Caucasians, and you’re right that there aren’t enough representatives of the younger minority female. For me, running as a Republican is more about the values and work ethic and the fact that you are empowered to do it on your own, to make it in this world on your own, not necessarily to rely on the government to be that system that helps you on your own. My family really instilled that within me.

My parents both worked two to three jobs. My mom, you know, she had made her sacrifices when she went to school all by herself, getting a scholarship all by herself and didn’t even speak English and had to learn English all by herself, she got a GED and got this full-ride scholarship. Meanwhile, she was taking care of kids, she had to take care of the family, and my dad had to work multiple jobs. And so seeing how they worked so hard, sometimes I feel so guilty because by comparison I have it easy. My parents escaped from communism and made it based on hard work and personal sacrifice. They set a personal example. They accomplished so much. And I think what else can I do to continue their example and the values they set within me?

In terms of going to the RNC for national recognition, but I still feel I’ve done my best to be an example to people my age. It’s about the label, and I think that’s where people are kind of … confused. This one guy came up to me and said, “Oh, so you’re running as a Republican, so you believe in fiscal accountability but no social programs. That’s really extreme. You can be a Blue Dog Democrat.” It’s not about what they label me, it’s about what we can do to achieve change. Here the Democrats are so left wing here in Hawaii and I’m proud to be a Republican because we need that differentiation and nationally we need more representatives.

DDG: The reason I mentioned that is because political parties do serve a purpose. That purpose is to make sure candidates and the platforms that they carry have a covering and a support. So there’s absolutely no question that conservatives believe in personal accountability and independence – I don’t think that anyone disputes that – but it seems that, from my perspective as a political scientist that the Republican Party, part of the reason why they have so much trouble winning elections not just in Hawaii but across the nation is because they have the tendency to not mentor talent in the same way that the Democratic Party does.

It seems like in the GOP it’s ultra-competitive and they eat their own but what the Democrats have the tendency to do is they’ll package campaigns for their candidates, they mentor their candidates, they get handlers for their candidates and assist them in their races. Everyone criticizes the so-called liberal media but the Democrats are able to leverage that. The Democratic Party goes out of its way to promote its candidates but conservatives basically, you know, they have the tendency to squander talent.

So speaking as a political scientist, my thoughts are what is the point of having a party if someone like Tiffany Au can’t win in the Republican Party? It seems to me that the very purpose of having a party is so that special talent individuals like you can get elected. I think that the Republican Party maybe didn’t do enough to promote you and so many other candidates around the nation and maybe that’s the reason we saw the results Tuesday night that we did.

Au: I’ll agree with you that the party has very limited resources in Hawaii, locally. And after talking to a lot of the candidates during this election season, some candidates … actually, virtually all the GOP candidates … didn’t receive the kind of assistance that the Democratic Party gave their candidates. The Democratic candidates had a great network around them and a lot more resources pooled in and given to the candidates. The unions gave a lot of money and endorsements. There were mailers sent by independent expenditures committees and so forth. Some Democrats didn’t even have to walk their district and get as much traditional campaigning that candidates have to do.

I feel you’re right that the Republican Party should be recognizing and fostering talent and unfortunately, you know, with resource prioritization, it didn’t happen for many of the candidates including me this year.

DDG: Right.

Au: The great thing is that (laughs) there’s people like you Danny who are adding to the discussion. Hopefully the RNC picks this up and reads this and understands that we need assistance, we need help and to talk to the individual candidates who reach out to them. I sent a letter to the RNC seeking their support and maybe it was too late in the game or too late in the election, but hopefully they’ll pick up your article and read about it.

DDG: Hmm. Well you know, I recognize that conservatives take pride in being independent and taking initiative, taking charge and moving out. Those are conservative values. But from a standpoint of political science, it doesn’t seem to make much sense for a party to recruit candidates or suggest individuals run and get people pumped over a message but have no support underneath it.

You know, much has been said about parties in the U.S. and the role and influence of money, but this is a hard world to stand up in and the very reason we have community organizations, partisan organizations, religious organizations is so that it’s not one against the world. It’s supposed to be about helping others achieve their dream. So for all the criticisms launched against the Democratic Party, one of the things I notice is they take really good care of their talent. I don’t know, maybe just talking to you, I think that, you know, maybe this is something the Republican Party needs to work on.

Au: Oh definitely.

DDG: In the conservative movement the first rule of Republican thermodynamics is “we burn our own” but ultimately – and I admire what you’re doing, the words you’re sharing, they reflect a deep and passionate and humble individual – but talking to you I’m getting a little bit frustrated because you shouldn’t have to fight alone.

Every single human relationship that we have on this planet is to give mutual benefit, so I’m not at all talking about handouts or giving away things but the very purpose of having an organization and relationships is to help other people. So right now there’s pundits all across the country saying the conservative movement is dead and I’m not even a Republican and I think that’s ridiculous. The issue is not so much conservatism, it has to do with the fact that the Republican Party is basically a gerontological oligarchy where the way that resources are divided is not in the best interest of its members or its candidates. But, that’s just my thoughts.

Au: Hmm. In terms of what you said, I just … (sighs) when I was first recruited, for me I thought “Wow, what an interesting question.” That in itself as young person, to be asked that, I felt so honored. I was very, very honored. Regarding your points about not having support or not taking care of talent the way the Democrats do, that’s very true, uh, when I was recruited, I was, you know, I already believed in the values but in terms of the support … every candidate basically in the end had to run their own race.

There was no assistance that, well, I wouldn’t say there was zero assistance – there was minimal assistance – but we had to run our own race, at least. There were certain individuals that did contribute because they were stepping down, but other than that, the resource prioritization, we were not on that list and I would say that because this party is so small, the focus wasn’t on our race and it wasn’t as organized as we would have like. There was some training, but the training was limited and I think due to the fact that they’ve had a history of everyone has to run their own race, it fosters this kind of culture where other people and candidates don’t extend a warm nature to other candidates because they know they have to fight for their own race.

DDG: The Republican Party is a tough guy, macho culture.

Au: Exactly. And yeah.

DDG: Well, lemme share with you what I’ve observed and you can tell me how you feel about this. You’ve seen what it’s like on the GOP side. I’ve observed different things in looking the Democratic side. I’m not gonna name names, but I remember the Dems once recruited a guy who was wet behind the ears, not confident in public, not politically astute, but for whatever reason they recruited him.

They assigned him a handler who made it a point to introduce him to the right people, escorted him at events and, you know, they helped him and coached him. The party took initiative and packaged endorsements for him. I don’t know how many endorsements the Republicans packaged for you compared to how many endorsements you sought out, but the Dems harvest endorsements for their candidates so it’s one stop.

The Democratic candidates have one stop service where their party goes out and helps developing talent. To me it does not make sense where the GOP might take someone from military or business who is really great, they might be an MBA, but have no experience in politics and say “Hey you should run!” and now you’ve got this person who is great but unskilled in politics. The Democrats by contrast are basically nursing their candidates to victory. I know there’s a lot of alpha males in the GOP who want to conquer the world on their own, but what’s the point of having a party if you don’t help out others?

So how do you feel about that? Were you treated like the way the Democrat I spoke of was treated? Did you have mentors assigned to you? Were endorsements packaged for you? Were–

Au: No. Not at all.

DDG: Ok.

Au: We did our job of contacting as many people as we could and basically we were told, I was told, we had to run our own race. Every candidate is on their own. And for me – there’s so many waves of emotions that a candidate goes through – because you thought the support you were going to get wasn’t there. And we didn’t necessarily have handlers, but I can give credit to people who were really generous in the community who expressed their concern and helped me out. I learned a lot in the field.

DDG: You had a sharp learning curve.

Au: It was an extremely sharp learning curve. Especially fundraising. Fundraising in Hawaii is very difficult because we don’t have union support. The GOP didn’t give any money to my race.

DDG: This is potentially a sensitive issue, but it’s worth asking. Not a lot of Republicans got elected but some did. Certainly everyone ran a hard race but geographically some races are easier than others because of the district demographics. I have no doubt in my mind that had you been elected, you would have been one of the sharpest people in office, but you didn’t get elected. But other people – good candidates – but not quite as unique as you and in easier districts got elected.

So how does it feel being passed over and seeing other Republican colleagues make it but you yourself does not? How does that make you feel when you know that you have “the Right Stuff” and you know you’re a blue chips candidate but you don’t win?

Au: I’m happy for those people that won. I congratulate them. Some of them ran before and this wasn’t their first time. In terms of how I feel, what I learned throughout the process was it’s not the end of the world.

I’m going to do the best that I can to make a difference in the community. Just because I didn’t win I’m not going to be bitter about it and sit around and say “Oh God!” and hate everybody. I don’t have that feeling. There’s always going to be another race. There’s all these reasons that one could say, “Oh these people had an easier race” and complain and there’s so many speculative comments that can be made, but I’m not the kind of person to do that.

We worked harder than our opponent. We did our job. I feel so honored that former Congressman Djou called me and left a message just to say “I know you worked really hard and I’m so proud of you.” He told me life isn’t fair and that the race we chose to run in was a very hard race to run as Republican, but he told me “Please don’t feel like you don’t want to be involved anymore.” For me that’s the spirit of why I am a Republican. I don’t think – the campaign has changed me, I’m so much of a stronger person. Life is a series of winning and losing, failures and successes and I don’t think of this as devastation.

I already realized even during the campaign that regardless of whether I win or lose there is still a positive about this whole election. In this world there’s so many things that life might not hand you all the cards that you want, but it doesn’t mean you sit back and be bitter and make other people miserable or tell other people not run.

It is what it is. Let the results speak for themselves. You don’t just beat yourself when something isn’t working. Maybe the Republican Party here needs to learn and maybe they should nurture their candidates and a different approach. And the voters will learn when the fiscal cliff comes, the tax increases come, the pinching in the pockets – they’ll learn.

DDG: You know listening to you, I can tell you have a very good heart and you’re definitely a person who has a very tenderhearted nature. You’re very mature, discerning and magnanimous. You have all qualities that conservatives esteem and value. You’re a model candidate. You’re the epitome of what the Republicans purport to stand for.

I know you have a very positive outlook, but it seems unfair that you didn’t get elected.

Au: Thank you, Danny. We worked so hard. My sister came from California to help the campaign, she put her life on standstill. My family – a lot of effort was taken for this. My mom after work, after working her eight to twelve hour shifts would come and walk the district and help to translate for Vietnamese, Cantonese or Mandarin voters. There was a lot effort, my dad as well. I really … I felt that the community saw that we had a very clean and honest campaign and many are encouraging me to run again.

I’m gonna do my due diligence to follow up to see what else we can learn. My sister and I both talked about it and we said, you know, we did what we could in the months that we had. I never thought that I could raise the kind of money that we did. I never thought we’d meet so many amazing people, and I don’t know, I don’t think that it was a loss at all. It was … if that’s what the community wants, let them decide. Unfortunately some of them are misinformed, but that’s all there is to it.


We appreciate Ms. Au for her time and the opportunity to interview her.


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Danny de Gracia

Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs committees at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, Danny has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. Now working on his first novel, Danny resides on the island of Oahu.

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