POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Oct 27, 2012
Chris Kalani Manabat, who won a crowded Democratic primary, faces former state Rep. Bob McDermott in the House race to represent Ewa Beach and Iroquois Point, but the campaign trail has been full of potholes for the first-time candidate.
First, the Democratic Party informed Manabat that he wasn't a member of the party as required by law when he filed to run in the primary for the new 40th District, although he thought he had joined a couple of years earlier.
Then the Republican Party accused Manabat of misleading voters by touting his six years of experience working at the Legislature while neglecting to point out that his boss is his mother, Rep. Rida Cabanilla. And now the city clerk is looking into a complaint alleging he registered to vote at an address where he doesn't live.
Manabat, 28, flatly denies the residence claim and said he has submitted evidence to the clerk, including his rental agreement and a Hawaii state ID card issued in April, verifying that he lives at the Ewa Beach home where he is registered. As for his personal connection to Cabanilla, he said he left that out of his campaign because he did not want to use his mother's reputation to elevate his candidacy.
"I wanted to avoid any possible merit transfer from my mother to me," he said.
Republican Party Chairman David Chang, however, questioned Manabat's qualifications to be Cabanilla's office manager and called the situation "clearly nepotism." A Waipahu High School graduate, Manabat has taken courses at Kapiolani Community College but has not earned a degree.
"This whole thing reeks of favoritism, inequity and preferential treatment," Chang said. "It is precisely the type of behavior that gives our honest and decent public servants a bad name."
Manabat said he worked his way up at the Legislature, volunteering for two years in his mother's office before being hired as a legislative aide. He became chief of staff in November when his predecessor quit unexpectedly.
"It being so close to session, I was the only one at the time she was comfortable with, who knew how the office worked," he said. "At the time I was the most qualified person for her."
His Republican opponent, McDermott, who served in the state House from 1996 to 2002, said one of the first pieces of advice he received at the Capitol was not to hire his relatives.
"It's not illegal and you're allowed to do it, but it doesn't pass the smell test," McDermott said.
There is no legal prohibition against nepotism, but the state ethics code forbids legislators from using their positions to secure unwarranted privileges, contracts or treatment for themselves or others.
In his complaint alleging fraudulent voter registration, unsuccessful primary candidate Joseph Rattner said he doesn't believe Manabat lives at the Ewa Beach home of Patrocinio Bolo, a former staffer for Cabanilla. Rattner noted that Cabanilla herself gave a Kaipuu Street address, in Kaimuki, for her son when she listed him as her campaign chairman in a report filed in July with the Campaign Spending Commission.
Manabat, however, said he has lived with the Bolo family since January. The confusion, he said, is because his mother simply made a copy of her 2011 organizational report when she filed campaign documents this summer and neglected to update his address.
As far as his party membership, Manabat attributed the discrepancy to a mix-up in paperwork, and quickly joined the party once it was brought to his attention. The state Office of Elections leaves it up to the political parties to enforce membership rules, and the Democratic Party did not pursue a challenge in court.
The district that Manabat and McDermott are vying to represent lies east of Fort Weaver Road and includes Ewa Beach, Ewa by Gentry and Iroquois Point. Republican Rep. Kymberly Marcos Pine represented much of the area but is challenging Tom Berg for his City Council seat.
McDermott, executive director of the Honolulu Council of the Navy League, said he pushed to ensure that federal impact aid went to education when he was in office, and would focus on upgrading schools if elected.
A father of eight, McDermott previously ran for Congress and the City Council but lost both bids. He earned his bachelor's in economics and master's in business at Chaminade University, and has been endorsed by the General Contractors Association and the National Rifle Association.
"The issues first and foremost for me are twofold," he said. "Repair and maintenance of the schools, and I think we need a new high school. And secondly, we need to stay ahead of the curve on transportation issues."
"I will be a much better legislator than I was 15 years ago," he added, "because I'm older and wiser, and I have a lot more relationships with good people who can help me on both sides of the aisle."
Manabat said he will focus on education and security in the district if he is elected, and feels well prepared to serve the community given his years at the Legislature.
"I honestly believe that if I am to be elected, I will hit the ground running. I can start passing legislation right away to benefit people in Ewa," he said.
"My main goal is going to be getting another high school for Ewa," he said. "I also want to get another police substation so police response time is faster and there is more police presence so people feel safer. I'm just looking to serve my community, the community that I grew up in."