Hawaii’s Representative Beth Fukumoto was elected to the Hawaii State House at the age of twenty-nine in 2012, and was immediately selected by her Republican colleagues to be House Minority Floor Leader. In 2013, she was listed as one of "Nine Women Remaking the Right” by the Daily Beast.
In 2014, I interviewed Rep. Fukumoto for my interactive iBook, Lean On and Lead, Mothering and Work in the 21st Century Economy, which features diverse personal interviews with women and parents. While Rep. Fukumoto expressed concerns about policies that might negatively impact businesses, her vote in support of increasing the minimum wage and her understanding of the day-to-day issues facing working families provide insight into how non-partisan collaborations can be fostered to pass legislation in support of parents.
The following is excerpted from Lean On and Lead:
On Beth Fukumoto’s Background
After my undergraduate studies at the University of Hawaii, I decided to study English Literature at Georgetown. At that point, my goal was to be a professor and a writer. I wanted to get my PhD and stay in the academic world. And even though I was in DC, I wasn’t interested in politics.
Then in 2008, my sister gave birth at the age of twenty as a single mother. At that time, I had started thinking about studying fashion design on the East Coast, but then the market crashed and it didn’t seem like the right time for me to take out student loans. I decided to go home to Hawaii, help my sister, and take some time to decide what direction to go in. So I lived with my family and began helping out with my new niece. I was very involved in her care, and now six years later, I still drive her to ballet practices, help with homework, and other caregiving.
On Becoming a Legislator
When I got back to Hawaii, it was a very difficult time to look for a job. Since I needed to earn a living, I decided to try my hand at different things. A family member worked in the House Minority research office at the legislature, and they needed help with filing. The salary wasn’t great, but it was only part-time and I was planning on doing other things. Then an analyst position opened up in the office, and I was starting to become interested in the process, so I applied for that job and got it. Then an office manager position opened up, and from there, I eventually became director of the department.
I think the number one thing that is needed in Hawaii politics is balance, and I try to take that approach with my viewpoints. That was part of why I ran for office as a Republican.
On Her Political Philosophy
When it comes to my political philosophy, I am definitely a moderate. I don’t believe for example, that all taxes are inherently wrong. I think they’re an important part of our economy, yet I do believe that in Hawaii people are overtaxed, especially lower and middle-income families. So while I believe there need to be set minimums when it comes to various labor laws, I don’t want to see overly onerous mandatory sick leave and other leave policies that ultimately result in job losses because of negative impacts on businesses. (Editor's note: Numerous studies show that the net impact of policies like earned paid sick days is positive, making it a win for workers, for families, and for businesses. As one report states, "A growing body of evidence from the longest-standing laws shows paid sick days make economic and business sense.")
On the Issues Facing Working Families
It’s also clear that childcare is a huge issue for working families. Unless you’ve actually experienced the childcare issue for yourself, you don’t understand what it’s like for families. Whenever and wherever we can get childcare in communities where it’s needed, I think we need to do that. In particular, I’ve tried to look at ways to incentivize businesses to have child care on premises. If you look at major cities, that’s the best way to go and that’s the easiest way for women to get back to work faster if they want to do so. Other options can include tax credits, grant programs, and other funding.
But a lot of the change also needs to come from building a culture where it’s ok to bring children to work, and where flexible work hours are offered. I’ve had a couple of people working for me who’ve had newborns, and it’s important for employers to understand that there will be doctor visits, and sometimes “new mothers who want to work have to bring their babies with them. Breastfeeding is also an issue. A lot of people don’t understand how important it is to make sure there’s a designated place at work for breastfeeding and pumping. If more employers were understanding of these issues, and focused more on whether or not work was getting done, rather than how it was getting done, they could provide a better work culture.
On Women, Motherhood, and Politics
Anytime a woman gets involved in something that demands a lot of time, especially politics, she has to make a calculation regarding whether she wants to have children, how many she wants to have, and whether she wants to take time off to be with her children.
I have a lot of friends who got married much younger that I did. But deciding the timing of when I got married and whom I was going to marry was important when it came to my career. I thought about the long-term, and had to also consider what it means to come from Hawaii. I would love to be able to go to Congress in my 30s, but I do want to have a family and that would mean I’d have to travel with children or spend time away from them or raise them in DC. It would also mean a lot of sacrifices for my husband. And my support system is in Hawaii. So this is something I know I’m going to have to wait to think about until I’m in my 40s. I know there are a lot of men with the same concerns, but somehow it seems easier for men with families to get into national politics while their children are still young.