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Thielen challenges Hemmings’ return to Senate

By Michael Tsai

LAST UPDATED: 12:05 p.m. HST, Oct 31, 2012

After a two-year retirement, veteran Republican lawmaker Fred Hemmings says he is eager to re-enter the political arena and re-establish himself as a “common-sense guy” unafraid to take on the state’s dominant political party.

But to reclaim the Senate District 25 seat he left in 2010, Hemmings will have to prevail against a Demo­cratic challenger, Laura Thielen, who raised eyebrows during the summer with her own willingness to defy her party leadership.

While Hemmings ran unopposed on the Republican ballot in the primary election, Thielen had to overcome first the objections of the local Demo­cratic Party — which argued that she was ineligible to run as a Demo­crat because she had not been a member in good standing for the six months required by party rules — and then incumbent Sen. Pohai Ryan in the primary.

Thielen, daughter of Republican state Rep. Cynthia Thielen and former director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources under the Lingle administration, asserted that the party’s rules violate Hawaii law, which she said “allows primary voters, not the party, to determine who should represent the party in the general election.”

Ultimately, the party opted not to challenge Thielen in court nor expel her from the party, and Thielen went on to handily defeat Ryan in the primary.

Thielen said she is motivated by what she sees as legislative shortsightedness in loosening regulations on development — a trend that has immediate implications for a district that encompasses Kailua, Mau­na­wili, Enchanted Lake, Wai­ma­nalo, Hawaii Kai and Portlock.

Thielen noted how the proliferation of tourist-related businesses in Kailua has disrupted community life and how Hawaii Kai “has been developed to the gills.”

“We need to take a long-term perspective for the economy and long-term growth,” Thielen said. “We can’t just be all about ‘no,’ but we do have to find a way to deal with these land-use issues.”

And while she emphasized the importance of new developments being properly vetted through existing land-use procedures and regulations, Thielen, owner of Lili­noe Orchard in Wai­ma­nalo, said she also favors eliminating some of the unnecessary red tape that hinders prospective farmers from using agricultural land in Wai­ma­nalo.

Thielen said the state also needs to plan for the imminent influx of tourism and investment from China, Taiwan and Korea, the implications of which have not been felt in Hawaii since the Japa­nese bubble of the 1980s.

Hemmings said such concerns are nothing new to him, noting his own efforts to preserve residential neighborhoods in Kailua as a state representative from 1984 to 1990 and state senator from 2000 to 2010.

However, Hemmings said his most pressing concern is to help effect more fundamental changes.

“A one-party monopoly decreases competition and the quality of services,” he said. “Our community is best served with a balanced, two-party system.”

Hemmings said his years in the Legislature provided him the experience to know when and how to challenge the status quo. He pointed to his role as a driving force in judicial reform — “through sheer force of will and tenacity” — as an example of his ability to overcome majority opposition.

“There have been people in the past who have said that they’re going to be the voice of change or dissent, but they learn that you either play ball or you don’t play,” Hemmings said. “Experience is an issue here because I can hit the ground running. I won’t just be a senator for the district, but a senator for the state.”

Hemmings said he favors fundamental changes in public education.

“The Legislature throws money at public education, but with no substantial structural change, the results are the same,” he said. “We need more chartered schools, tax credits for early education opportunities, and we need to find a way to make sure that more funds in the education system actually get to the classroom.”

Thielen said she wants to see more money distributed at the school level versus at the district or state levels. She also favors more training for teachers and administrators and alternative certifications to allow those with degrees in specific disciplines, such as math and science, to teach without a teaching certificate.

Both candidates also agreed on the need to address the state’s lingering economic issues.

Thielen said her focus would be on helping small businesses survive and prosper. “Small businesses are where most people are employed and where new jobs and industries are created.”

Hemmings said he would seek to create a better overall business environment rather than focusing on developing specific new industries. “Governments create an economic environment in which a business can create itself.”

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