By Scott Foster,
Hawai`i Death With Dignity Society Communications Director

As often happens in my business as a political communications consultant, the dramatic 2002 Hawai`i Death With Dignity (DwD) saga began with a phone call on a peaceful day. My long-time friend and associate, Juliet Begley, was employed as Senior Research staff in the office of Hawaii's Governor, Democrat Benjamin J. Cayetano. Juliet was phoning to tell me that she had persuaded the Governor to again submit his DwD legislation. Through the years, I have come to greatly respect and admire Juliet's canny research skills on complicated public policy issues and her focused tenacity and passion -- once she has fit all the pieces together. As the Governor had previously submitted DwD legislation that had "gone nowhere" and he was a lame duck in the last year of his second term, the socially-liberal Governor was a bit reluctant to do so again -- but he finally capitulated to Juliet's quiet, convincing encouragement. And so thanks to Juliet Begley, the bill was once again in play and I had a new client.

As we had zero budget, Juliet and I agreed that I would call my friend, the National Hemlock Society-Hawai`i President, Andi van der Voort to seek initial funding. I had assisted Andi and Hemlock-Hawai`i for several years in trying to get even a hearing on the legislation so you might imagine her surprise to learn what was taking place. Andi immediately cut a significent check and put me in touch with Hemlock's national leaders in Denver, Colorado who also joined in to help with the funding and to advise us on political strategy. Ryan Ross of the National Hemlock Society in Denver was an invaluable ally.

One of Juliet's earliest calls for help was to the Governor's office in Oregon, figuring who better could point to the type of strategic and political savvy Governor Cayetano would need. She was given the name of Eli Stutsman, Esq. and the Oregon Death with Dignity Center, the organization that led the charge to pass Oregon's law in 1994 and again in 1997. Stutzmam and his organization have successfully defended "the Oregon Law" against every court challenge since -- right up to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006. Juliet made contact with their Executive Director, Scott Blaine Swenson, and within hours we were working together on strategy. Key to the strategy was replacing the bill introduced by Governor Cayetano (a hodge podge of previous bills) with a carefully-crafted bill Eli Stutsman modeled after Oregon's law and making it compatible with Hawai`i State Statutes.

Our work with the Oregon Death with Dignity Center (ODWD) was critical because they understood the value of providing quick financial and strategic support, and excellent legal and political advice while maintining a supporting role to our local Hawai`i organization. This was particularly important. Too often a national organization will come into a state seeking the spotlight and credit for pushing a bill over the top. For this we owe a debt of gratitude to Hemlock's Ryan Ross, and to all of the folks at ODWD; Eli, Scott, Jeana Frazinni (who traveled to Hawai`i to help us organize our on-the-ground grassroots effort), and to all the Oregon staff including the phone bank "kids" who understood how to provide the needed support for our unique Hawai`i effort. ODWD's contributions of nearly $80,000 in financial support, staff time and travel truly made our effort possible.

And so, with some funding in place and with excellent political resources, we were off and literally running. I would stress here that our success in seeing this legislation finally debated and passed by 30-20 by our House of Representatives -- and then dramatically pulled from the hands of an obstructive radical-religious Senate Health Committee Chair to the Senate floor for a full debate was achieved only because of the groundwork previously laid by the dedicated work of advocates such as Hemlock's Andi van der Voort, the late Honolulu Star-Bulletin Editor, A. A. "Bud" Smyser (who was largely responsible for our Governor's Blue Ribbon Panel on Living and Dying with Dignity of 1997), and my close friends and political mentors, the late Ruth Ellen Lindenberg, Folly Hofer, and Ah Quan McElrath. "AQ" was a seasoned, articulate ILWU labor leader, and behind the scenes she was able to persuade many in our legislature to get onboard to see the legislation "move." Without her constant efforts, we would never have succeeded. There were many other minor heroes of course, but this was our main team.

Our early-in-the-session poll results was key to setting the stage, with an amazing 72% of Hawaii's registered voters supporting the bill. The media literally pounced on the information as the Ashcroft decision was imminent and that had blown the DwD story worldwide with Hawaii's effort connected to the story. The poll was sponsored by The First Unitarian Church of Honolulu's Social Justice Council, and their Roland Halpern became a tireless and constant advocate. Halpern knew the issue and his strong verbal and writing skills proved invaluable and he became our lead media spokesperson. Halpern's writing was frequently published statewide and he participated during various radio and television programs and interviews. Unfortunately for several reasons, Halpern has since moved to Denver as an executive with Compassion In Dying.

Hawai`i is a small state with over 40 first languages spoken; 1.2 million people on six islands and Christianity is a minority religion with Buddhists predominant. However, Gay myself, I watched the small, vocal religious right in Hawai`i become particularly fierce after organizing against the "Gay Marriage" issue that began in Hawai`i in 1990. The Christian Fundamentalists were already well organized on the ground when the 2002 session began. Not only were they prepared for another possible Same Sex Marriage (SSM) battle, gambling was again being pushed by high-paid lobbyists in Hawai`i, still one of only two states without gambling -- with Utah being the other. This is no small coincidence because the Mormon's have had a powerful presence in Hawai`i for over a hundred years. Many Mormon missionaries got very rich in the process of saving souls. In addition to being in control of numerous banks and large corporations, their many descendents write very-large checks to fund the defeat of any offending issue such as SSM and gambling. It was well-understood that Dwd was yet another "offending" issue that they would come out strongly against.

As we were beginning with only a moments notice and "from scratch" as my native Oklahomans would say, I had very few communication database entries identified supporting the issue. Fortunately, Hemlock Hawaii's Andi van der Voort had a treasure trove of advocates' contact information - including two large petitions conducted three and four-year prior at Oahu's Senior Fair. Working non-stop, we soon had a qualified mailing list of some 2,000 supporters. A mailing was done with a return form and self-addressed envelope for corrections and soliciting all important email addresses and phone numbers. Within days and with all players contributing their own advocate data, we finally had a solid communications list. In the meantime, our Web site had been put online and we were able to begin the posting of what became an incredible world-wide free-media response to the issue. During the final weeks, our web site was logging 7-9,000 hits a day.

Securing the services of a veteran local lobbyist, we were able to quietly identify the votes needed to pull the bill from the Senate Health Committee. When the actual vote came to pull the bill, the radical right was rudely awakened by our quiet effort and all hell immediately broke loose. With a 24-hour mandated waiting period between the successful vote to pull and its Second Reading vote to pass - and the all-important final reading, we knew that some slippage might occur. For the following 24 hours, the legislature was virtually inundated by contrived but well-focused calls from mainland radical right organizations and we could hardly match their force. But indeed their efforts backfired in some respects as many legislators were angered by this outside meddling. At least two Senators were verbally "threatened," with one chastising the local radical right leadership peering down from the Senate Gallery.

What we did not know until much later was, in the dark of night on, May 1, 2002, the former Chair of the Democratic Party of Hawai'i, Catholic Deacon Richard Port Killed Death With Dignity in Hawai'i. Deacon Port accomplished this disgraceful deed by carrying the following letter from Hawaii's Roman Catholic Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo around to the Catholic Members of the State Legislature the night before the final Senate Vote -- causing three critical votes to change and the 2002 Death With Dignity legislation to fail. You can read the full story HERE. An excellent Honolulu Star-Bulletin recap (sans the clandestine Richard Port action) is HERE.

While we indeed lost, we had accomplished much. The important public education aspect of this timely issue was moved light-years ahead and our Hawai`i legislators too became much better educated about the issue.

After our "loss," I was often asked exactly how we "did it." While we indeed had many lucky breaks, moving this or any other issue through a state legislature requires the participation of both seasoned political activists and the all-important grass roots political neophytes; individuals who believe in a cause and who are willing to "do something" -- and who indeed will actively participate. Other key ingredients include supportive mainstream newspaper writers and a coalition of organizations such as ours:

Our effort was also supported by many members of Hawaii's medical and legal communities, several highly-regarded members of the Hawai'i League of Women Voters, the Drug Policy Forum of Hawai'i, and the Governor's Blue Ribbon Panel on Living and Dying with Dignity. We identified churches and ministers, brave doctors and nurses who would stand up to educate their peers, and a few supportive legislators who would champion our legislation.

Perhaps our greatest victory is that the DwD debate in our small island state has finally moved well beyond the religious zealots carping about the Netherlands "slippery slope." Pain management, end-of-life issues and Death With Dignity are all now established issues of our time. At this point, every community across the nation that organizes to lobby and push for their own DwD legislation will have played an important role in one day soon seeing DwD the law of the land. My own mantra is, "Organize and gather human & financial resources, and then just do it." The issue of Death With Dignity is finally out of the closet and the time is now.

As of this update (September 2010), our organization has been on a long 8-year heitus with a Republican Governor elected for two terms in 2002. We are supporting, hopefully, a few more supportive legislators and with some luck, we will see another supportive Governor. Even though we have held little hope of seeing our bill pass after the dramatic 2002 change of politics in Hawai`i, we have kept the issue strong and alive by introducing a bill every year since 2002. The current (2010) Hawai`i version may be of interest.

In 2002, we had no way of knowing that our little drama playing out in Hawai`i was taking place in the very midst of an ongoing Machiavellian political situation within the large national right-to-die organizations and how the resulting chaos would ultimately impact our future efforts in Hawai`i. We will write more on this still-unfolding saga later but for now, we would refer the interested reader to the words of the original Hemlock Society founder and aclaimed author, Derek Humphry Final Exit ) HERE

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