It's only March and the 2014 Primary Election on Saturday, Aug. 9, is more than five months out. But even at this early date, it's easy to see that this year's election season has the potential for drama, fireworks and perhaps some surprises.
After reviewing the most recent list of candidates issued by the state election office (as of Friday, March 7) and talking to a number of the challengers, the Maui Weekly noted five trends that may have an impact in the countdown to November.
1. Republicans are alive and well and fielding candidates in Maui County.
State Rep. Joe Souki (left) (D) faces first-time Republican candidate Cranston Kapoi. Kapoi thinks Maui is headed in “the wrong direction.”
With the exception of former Gov. Linda Lingle, Republicans have not gained much traction in Hawai'i in recent years. Currently, all the elected officials representing Maui County are either non-partisan (mayor and council) or Democrats at the state and federal level. Though the Democratic dominance may continue, the Republican Party has already announced two opponents to local incumbent Democrats. They both think Maui is ready for a change.
State Rep. Joe Souki (D), the powerful Speaker of the House who represents Waihe'e, Wailuku and Waikapu, faces first-time Republican candidate Cranston Kapoi, 66, of Maui Boy Construction.
Kapoi said he decided to run because, "if no one else will do it, then I will do it." He thinks Maui is headed in "the wrong direction." Among the issues he mentioned were opposition to legalized marijuana. He also does not support same sex marriage. "They're not listening to us," he said. "A lot of people are fed up."
Likewise, State Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran (D) has a Republican challenger in Joe Kamaka, also a first-time candidate.
Kamaka, a businessman and owner of a security firm with 60 employees, said he expects to raise and spend in the vicinity of $60,000 in his bid to unseat Keith-Agaran. Kamaka feels that the incumbent's stance on the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment (the right to keep and bear arms) "is a weak point with a lot of people."
2. Environmental concerns take center stage.
Environmental issues have taken many forms since the last election. These include: opposition to Monsanto's biotechnology, or genetic engineering (GE), operations here; proposed county-level legislation to limit pesticide use and create buffer zones; cane burning; air quality; damage to the reefs; and others concerns about the impact of development on Maui's natural environment. The past year has seen multiple marches, rallies, talks and special events geared to environmental awareness.
Most recently, the SHAKA Movement (Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the 'Aina) began a countywide drive to gather the signatures of 8,500 registered voters here. Their goal is to put a temporary genetically modified organism (GMO) crop moratorium initiative on the ballot in November.
Likewise, in response to the pressure from environmental activists, farmers large and small who would be affected by proposed stricter regulations have become more vocal and pushed back hard.
Many Maui and Molokai farmers testified against proposed pesticide regulation sponsored by Councilmember Elle Cochran. And although they have not staged the kind of large events favored by those who support stricter environmental regulation, they appear to be increasingly well organized and determined to prevent what they see as encroachments on their ability to earn a living from agriculture.
Cochran already has two announced challengers in the primary, neither of whom appears to be focused on the environment. They are Ka'ala Buenconsejo and Fred "Rick" Nava.
Nava, 54, is the owner of a photo and video business on the West Side. Twice president and presently treasurer of the Rotary Club of Lahaina, he has been active in community affairs for many years. He said the motivation to run did not come from any particular opposition to Cochran as much as his feeling that "I can do a better job for the community."
Cochran's other challenger, Buenconsejo, 40, is the director of marketing for Na Hoaloha Ekolu, parent company of the Old Lahaina Luau, Aloha Mixed Plate, Star Noodle and Leoda's Kitchen and Pie Shop in Lahaina. The candidate said he plans to address key issues such as "affordable housing, jobs and adequate health care."
Turning to Kihei, John Fitzpatrick, 31, is a challenger on the environmental front. The University of Hawai'i Maui College (UHMC) biology instructor is a first-time candidate seeking the South Maui council seat presently held by Don Couch.
Fitzpatrick, who holds an undergraduate and master's degree in ocean science from UH Manoa, is an opponent of development in Olowalu because he believes it will accelerate the decline of the already fragile reef in that area. He also testified in support of Cochran's measure for stricter pesticide control at the local level and creating buffer zones around sensitive areas like schools, parks and homes for the elderly.
Though she has not officially declared yet, Terez Amato has put up a Website announcing she will run against incumbent State Sen. Roz Baker (D-West and South Maui), who currently heads the State Senate's Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee. As its chair, Baker drew the ire of the anti-GMO contingent when, last year, she refused to hear proposed legislation relating to this topic.
The Amato candidacy may be seen as an indicator that Baker will need to explain her views more fully to voters. Whether or not the challenge is successful, it will cost the incumbent time and money and require her to clarify her position.
3. It's dj vu all over again with Molina, Pontanilla and Apana.
If the names of some of the challengers seem extremely familiar, it's because they are all veteran politicians. Challengers Mike Molina and Joe Pontanilla have both had long careers on the Maui County Council. After they reached the mandatory term limits and could no longer continue to run for these seats, they both became special assistants to Mayor Alan Arakawa.
Now that they have been out of office for a number of years, the law allows them to begin anew, and they are each seeking seats they formerly held.
Pontanilla has announced his intention to run against incumbent Don Guzman, who currently holds the Kahului District seat, and Molina will face incumbent Mike White, who holds the Ha'iku-Pa'ia-Makawao seat.
These races are closely watched, because it is anticipated that the close connection of both challengers with Mayor Arakawa may come into play. Arakawa has a large countywide organization. Observers speculate that he may use it directly or indirectly in support of Molina and Pontanilla.
Challenger James "Kimo" Apana (D) also has a long political history. A former Maui mayor and longtime member of the Maui County Council, he has filed to run for the State House against incumbent Rep. Justin Woodson (D), a freshman legislator who was recently appointed to the seat representing Kahului, Pu'unene, Old Sand Hills and Maui Lani. Apana, 51, cited his interest in the Maui Memorial Medical Center and keeping an eye on legislation that would impact workers at the hospital as a key concern. He also mentioned the need to focus on expanding pre-school education.
4. There are signs of life on Lana'i with Alberta de Jetley.
Lana'i resident Alberta de Jetley has pulled papers to run against longtime Lana'i incumbent Riki Hokama. Though Hokama has faced opposition in the past--even opponents who have succeeded in winning the Lana'i precincts--he has always carried the rest of the county by decent margins.
DeJetley may prove more of a contender. A writer and publisher of Lana'i's only newspaper, she has good media skills, is widely known locally and has many ties to Maui--especially to Hana, where she lived for many years.
5. Mayor's race challengers are a mixed bag.
The mayor's race is usually the centerpiece of off-year elections, but Mayor Alan Arakawa, thus far, seems to face only token opposition.
Token or not, there are already four candidates who have signed on to challenge him--Alana Kay, Carson Nemoto, Tamara Paltin and Ori Kopelman. Of this group, only Kopelman and Paltin responded to the Maui Weekly.
Kopelman, 52, ran for mayor four years ago when he placed eighth in a field of 11. At that time, he said he spent "about $1,000" and received about 150 votes. His second try is again geared to promote his vision of "Mauitopia" (his own utopian variant described at mauitopia.org). He thinks the county "should be run more like a business" and puts himself forward as the man to effect changes.
He pointed to various bottlenecks in local government, and noted that it still takes an excessively long time for average people to get building permits. A former vice-president of an engineering firm, Kopelman said he has worked in a supervisory capacity in a company that grew from 50 to 500 employees in only a few years.
Also running for mayor is first time candidate Paltin, 36, an ocean safety county employee living in Napili. Paltin has been active in the Save Honolua Coalition, and also has a deep interest in completing the community planning process and making sure the results are reviewed by the public. "You see a lot when you're a low-level frontline employee," she said. "You see where the waste is and ways to do it better." She sees the mayor's job as a challenge "to take county government out of its 19th century bureaucratic style."
Editor's note: A few additional candidates have filed since this story was written.