My wonderful partner and traveling companion and I just returned from Hawaii. It took two trips to Newark Airport to get COVID tests (long story), getting us fully vaccinated, and filling out numerous forms prior to the trip.
I’m useless when it comes to planning things, and have zero patience for online forms, so I’m very lucky to have someone who is a whiz at doing both. Hawaii was beautiful, and crowded, but we spent all of our time outside eating, and immersing in Hawaii’s intoxicating environment by hiking, swimming, and walking the beaches. And as a self-professed political junkie, I spent some time reading about Hawaii’s political environment.
That’s when I came across the story of Hawaii State Representative Adrian Tam. At a mere 28 years old, Tam was elected in November to his first term. He is the only out LGBTQ+ person in the state’s House of Representatives. It’s how he won and who he beat that caught my eye.
We were staying in the iconic Honolulu neighborhood of Waikiki, which is part of Tam’s district, so I reached out to see if he had time to meet. My interest in speaking to Tam went beyond his being so young, openly gay, and Asian-American. I wanted to learn more about how he won his seat in the general election by beating the founder of the Proud Boys chapter in Hawaii.
I was early for our meeting and grabbed a socially distanced table outside a coffee shop in Waikiki. When Tam arrived, he was dressed appropriately for a Sunday java in Hawaii; black shorts, black t-shirt, and a black Nike cap. I was a bit taken back at first, since Tam appeared to be so young and casual. Five minutes into the conversation, I realized why his constituents voted for him in record numbers.
While Tam is unassuming and soft-spoken, he also exhibits an intellect and maturity beyond his years, attributes that are a testament to how he was able to beat such a provocative – and dangerous – opponent. But first, I wanted to know what prompted him to run in the first place?
“There were a lot of things that pushed me to run,” Tam explained. “Our economy was in a dismal state, and we have a problem with underemployment. To give you an example, many of my peers in high school have left Hawaii for opportunities out of the state, and that makes me feel bad. Our biggest export is our own people and that’s not something you see a return of investment on. We need people to stay and a government that truly works for the people.”
Prior to running, Tam worked as an aide in the state Senate, and based on that experience, he decided that the state government could use a new, fresh voice and threw his hat into the ring.
Tam is a graduate from Penn State University, where he majored in history, and his goal after college was to come back to Hawaii and help his state in some way. By opting to run for the legislature, Tam found an avenue for his wish to help. His first major challenge was to unseat a 14-year, popular incumbent, former Representative Tom Browerin, in the Democratic primary.
“He was well liked in the state capitol and was part of the leadership. When folks saw me coming along, at first, I wasn’t welcomed. Many unions and other organizations hesitated with their endorsements,” Tam pointed out. “But I was honest with them, and they took the leap with me, and I eked out a victory. It was considered a big upset within the state.”
Then came the general election for the 22nd district seat and his subsequent encounter with the Republican nominee, Nicholas Ochs, who is also the founding member of the state’s Proud Boys chapter. Despite that ominous affiliation, Tam was undeterred about the potential hazards. I asked Tam if his family was concerned for his safety?
“Yes, my family is second-generation Asian-American, so they were worried. They didn’t want to see me or anyone else get hurt. And because of my background, my age, and my sexuality, they said that I was just asking for insults. But it wouldn’t have been the first time I encountered invectives. In the end, I just made up my mind to push forward with my best foot. If I didn’t at least try, I would never forgive myself.”
Tam told me that he was primarily concerned for the safety of his volunteers and supporters, many of them who were out in public wearing shirts and face masks bearing his name.
Inevitably, the hate spewed, but Tam persevered. “There was definitely some harassment,” Tam said, “Particularly from Och’s supporters on social media, and what they were doing was essentially drowning out his own message.”
I asked Tam what possible message could he have? Wasn’t the whole point of his campaign to garner attention, media and otherwise, and build the Proud Boys membership? “Yes, that’s true. My opponent didn’t have a vision, and at first my team and I didn’t really know how to oppose him. In the past you had what I’d call a legitimate Republican who ran on the issues. My opponent didn’t seem interested in that. We eventually decided not to pay any attention to him, because that’s what he craved.
“But I am happy that members of the community realized he didn’t represent the values of Hawaii. Groups like the Proud Boys will always exist unfortunately, but it’s up to us to not only tune them out, but to get our message out there and change minds so more people don’t join them.”
Tam lamented that Ochs ran a very nasty campaign. “It was really unfortunate. He said racist things toward Asian-Americans and degraded people of color. And, he had a number of inflammatory social media posts in the past that were called out. One of the posts on his feed was of him urinating in a sacred volcano, so voters in the district were immediately turned off.”
Ochs social media became so offensive during the campaign that Facebook and Instagram banned his accounts. This, and the fact that his message wasn’t directed at the district residents gave Tam the opportunity to fully press his agenda, and not have to explain his sexuality.
Interestingly, Ochs never brought up the fact that Tam was gay. “He was more intent on labeling me as a socialist and a liberal. And, people were more concerned about the economy and their livelihoods rather than my sexuality. But I had a lot of people in the LGBTQ community tell me that they were really excited about our campaign. They really wanted us to win, and they agreed with our agenda.
“Investing in our community, bringing down crime and climate change were major priorities of my campaign,” Tam emphasized. “As a coastal district, we will be the first hit from sea level rise. For Hawaii to prepare, we must start looking into mitigation efforts.”
For Tam so far, the job has been thrillingly challenging, with lots of late nights. “I actually lost my voice at one point by talking at so many meetings and constantly being on the phone, but it’s been worth it.”
I asked Tam about the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and if his district, and Hawaii in general, has been affected. “In Hawaii is not really happening to the extent that it is in the mainland because of our large Asian-American population. Last month, I spoke at a 'Stop Asian Hate Rally' in the state capitol. We want to show solidarity with our Asian brothers and sisters on the mainland and let them know we have their backs.”
At 28, Tam appears to have a bright future ahead of him, and because of his high-profile victory, he has become somewhat of an LGBTQ+ hero. I asked Tam how he felt about that and if he had any heroes of his own growing up? “It has been so humbling, with lots of messages from people around the world, and I’m just so grateful for each message I receive,” Tam said with a hint of modesty. “Growing up, there really wasn’t anyone I could look up to who looked like me; however, outside of that aspect, I have always admired former Congressman Barney Frank.”
As we said our goodbyes, I asked Tam if there was a significant other in his life? “Well, some people in my circle might want me to tell you that I’m available and single,” he said with a laugh. “And then some friends of mine would say I should just keep quiet about that.” Spoken like a veteran, practiced politician!
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.