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Key Democratic supporters split over governor

The Takamines, longtime legislators, differ with the ILWU

By Derrick DePledge

LAST UPDATED: 2:13 a.m. HST, Sep 15, 2010

HONOKAA, HAWAII » Yoshito Takamine and his son, Dwight, have represented this lush state House district on the Hamakua coast north of Hilo since statehood.

Arm-in-arm with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the Takamines have helped keep the district among the most traditionally Democratic in the state even after the sugar plantations that once drew workers together went out of business.

This year, in the Democratic primary for governor, the Takamines and the ILWU are on different sides.

"Neil has been with us from the very beginning," Yoshito Takamine said on Friday afternoon as he was waving signs for former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie on Highway 19 across from Tex Drive In. "He's a man that has been helping the working people, helping the needy, the elderly."

The ILWU is behind former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann. "We strongly believe in this race that Mufi will be the right person to lead us," said Isaac Fiesta Jr., president of ILWU Local 142, who lives down the highway in Honomu.


» A look at Kapolei voting district

"Unfortunately, we are on opposite sides. But I think we've just got to move on, right?"

Abercrombie is doing better than Hannemann among traditional Democrats and union households, according to the Hawaii Poll sponsored by the Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now.

Hannemann has to be able to compete here and in other traditionally Democratic districts and then hope to surpass Abercrombie in more independent swing districts to have a chance. The ILWU has purchased radio advertisements on the Big Island this week to help Hannemann among traditional Democrats, who are among the most likely to vote on Saturday.

The House district here is caught between preserving its historic, plantation-era past and an uncertain economic future. Unemployment is at 10 percent on the Big Island, compared with 5.8 percent on Oahu. The fertile soil is still suited for agriculture, and farmers and ranchers are making a go with taro, coffee, bananas, lettuce, ginger, cattle and goats. But there has been no replacement for sugar cane.

Companies have proposed harvesting eucalyptus trees for veneer in Ookala and as biomass for electricity in Pepeekeo. County, state and federal planners are working on an agricultural park in Kapulena on sugar cane land the county acquired in lieu of property taxes after Hamakua Sugar Co. went bankrupt in the early 1990s.

"The community is hurting. We need more jobs. We need diversification," said George Zweibel, an attorney who has helped residents with home foreclosure problems.

Zweibel said the district should be an agricultural hub, a potential leader in the state's move toward food and energy security. Abercrombie has made food and energy security a significant part of his platform and has won the endorsement of the Sierra Club Hawaii chapter. Hannemann has said he would seek to improve the state's land and water use policies and market local ag products on the mainland and internationally.

"I think there really needs to be a very strong push on sustainable energy," Zweibel said.

Lisa Shackelford, who works with her husband at a photovoltaic power design and installation company in Paauilo, said people here want to see more job creation but also want to preserve the country lifestyle.

"We have to figure out how to have it both ways," she said. "We want to preserve what we have out here."

Abercrombie's promise to restore confidence in public education and decentralize power so school principals have more control also appears to be breaking through with residents. Hannemann has said he, too, would empower principals and would also name a work force development czar to identify ways to keep more students from leaving the islands after graduation.

Educators and parents have heard similar promises in the past. "I love the political rhetoric. But we'd also love to see the rhetoric turn into implementation," said James Denight, the new principal at Laupahoehoe High & Elementary School.

Denight said schools, while under pressure to meet state and federal academic benchmarks, also need to include more art, music and physical education as companions to basic reading and math requirements. Abercrombie, at a recent debate, mentioned art education as a priority and said he would consider Hawaii joining a multistate lottery to help finance art programs.

"You need to the lengthen the school day and pay teachers more," Denight said. "But in the era of shrinking budgets, how do you do that?"

Yoshito Takamine, the son of Japanese immigrants who worked the sugar plantations, helped make the ILWU a political force on the Big Island. He said this year is not the first time he has broken with his union. In 1986, he said, he favored Honokaa-born John Waihee in the primary for governor over union-backed Cec Heftel, who was ahead in the polls. Waihee won.

"They said, 'John Waihee no more chance,' " Takamine recalled. "I said, 'I disagree.' "

Many residents in this old plantation town, where Takamine is an institution, are unsettled by the split. The Hamakua Times, the community newspaper, is in the midst of a multipart series celebrating Takamine's life and union sacrifices. The ILWU hall, however, has a large Hannemann banner out front.

"I saw Yoshito out there waving signs," said Jolly Embernate, who works in real estate and has a coffee shop. She said she prefers Hannemann because he is a "local boy" who stood his ground on the Honolulu rail transit project.

"I thought they were all supposed to stand together?"

Yoshito Takamine represented state House District 1 from 1958 to 1984. His son Dwight represented the district from 1984 until 2008, when he moved to the state Senate district covering the region.

State Rep. Mark Nakashima (D, Kohala-Hamakua-North Hilo), took over for the younger Takamine two years ago. He is focused on food and energy security, infrastructure improvements to roads and schools, and assisted-living and long-term care options for the elderly.

The former field director for the Hawaii State Teachers Association, who is in his first re-election campaign, is not taking sides in the primary.

"Because of my relationship with the ILWU and the Takamines, I'm remaining neutral -- publicly -- in the gubernatorial race," Nakashima said.

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