Sixteen sitting members of the Legislature are effectively re-elected outright as no one filed to run against them by Tuesday’s deadline to enter Hawaii’s state and federal election contests.
Those who won simply by filing for office included one Republican and 15 Democrats. Those uncontested seats amount to about one-fourth of the seats in the state Legislature that were available in this year’s elections.
Among the lawmakers who were elected outright are Senate Judiciary Chairman Gil Keith-Agaran (D, Waihee-Wailuku-Kahului), House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke (D, Punchbowl-Pauoa-Nuuanu) and House Majority Leader Scott Saiki (D, Downtown-Kakaako-McCully).
Republicans have struggled for years to recruit and field enough candidates locally, and Hawaii Republican Party Chairman Fritz Rohlfing said the party this year tried to identify the most promising districts to target.
“It’s just a very challenging task to take on an incumbent who’s well financed, who’s well known in their community, and to spend six months or even more that it takes to go door to door, to raise the money in order to challenge that incumbent,” Rohlfing said.
The Republicans now hold seven seats in the 51-member state House and one in the 25-member state Senate. Rohlfing said the main goal of his party this year is to protect those incumbents. The party will focus on the re-election efforts by the six Republican House members and state Sen. Sam Slom (R, Diamond Head-Kahala-Hawaii Kai), who face Democratic opponents, he said.
The next priority for the party was to field strong candidates for the three seats without incumbents this year, which Rohlfing said the party was able to do.
One of those positions is the District 13 state Senate seat, which has no incumbent because state Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland (D, Downtown-Nuuanu-Liliha) announced she will not run for re-election. Former state lawmaker and Honolulu City Councilman Rod Tam has filed as a Republican to run for that seat, and Rohlfing said the GOP is “thrilled” to have him.
Tam in 2011 was ordered to serve two days in jail and complete 300 hours of community service after pleading guilty to 26 misdemeanor and petty misdemeanor counts — charges related to overcharging the city for meals at Honolulu restaurants from 2007 to 2009.
Rohlfing said Tam’s record was cleared after he entered his pleas and complied with requirements imposed by the courts.
Rohlfing noted that the GOP here has not won a major statewide or congressional general election race since 2006, “so we’ve had a drought, and what we decided was we needed to build from the ground up with our party structure.”
“If we can pick up two or three in the House and hold our Senate seat, and pick up another seat in the Senate, as far as I’m concerned, I’m going to look at that as great progress,” Rohlfing said.
“Let’s face it, there are certain districts and certain incumbents that are much harder than others to defeat, so we’re going to have to leave that for another day,” he said. “I’m really pleased with where we are right now. I’m not satisfied because I think ultimately we need to be able to challenge the bulk of the incumbents. We’re not there yet, but we’re progressing in that direction, so I’m very pleased.”
As if to underscore the challenges facing the Republican Party in Hawaii, Rohlfing and party activist Michael Palcic engaged in a brief, heated exchange Tuesday during a news conference at the GOP headquarters in which each told the other to “shut the (expletive) up.”
The exchange included some shoving, and Rohlfing said the dispute was about whether candidates in contested Republican primaries can use the headquarters to hold news conferences to launch their campaigns.
Rohlfing said party policy is that announcements in contested primaries should take place outside the headquarters, but Palcic said party members should be able to use the headquarters itself.
Races that likely will be hard fought in either the primary or general elections this year:
>> State Rep. Isaac Choy (D, Manoa-Punahou-Moiliili) faces a primary challenge from Dale Kobayashi, who is the son of Honolulu City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi.
>> State Rep. Karl Rhoads (D, Chinatown-Iwilei-Kalihi) is leaving the House to make a bid for the state Senate, which has created a rare opening in the House district Rhoads now represents. Filing to fill that seat are Democrats Alvin Au, Daniel Holt, James Logue, Valerie Dionne and Firmo Dayao, as well as Republican Kaiwiola Coakley.
>> Rep. Beth Fukumoto Chang (R, Mililani-Mililani Mauka-Waipio Acres) is being challenged by former Rep. Marilyn Lee, a Democrat who represented the Mililani area in the state House from 1996 to 2012. Also filing for that race is Democrat Zuri Aki.
>> Sen. Sam Slom, 74, the lone Republican in the state Senate, faces a challenge this year by former Honolulu City Councilman Stanley Chang for his seat representing Hawaii Kai, Diamond Head and Kahala. Chang, a Democrat, served one term as a councilman before mounting an unsuccessful campaign in 2014 for the U.S. House seat currently occupied by Rep. Mark Takai.
Also challenging Slom, who underwent heart surgery this year, are Democrats Richard Kim and Michael Bennett.
>> Rep. Richard Onishi (D, South Hilo-Keaau-Honuapo) is facing a challenge by Kealoha Pisciotta, a Native Hawaiian activist and a plaintiff in the lawsuit that challenged the Thirty Meter Telescope’s land-use permit. Pisciotta is running as a Green Party candidate.
Also filing papers to challenge Onishi were Democrat Ainoa Alexander Naniole and Libertarian Gregory Arianoff.
>> Rep. Kyle Yamashita (D, Spreckelsville-Upcountry Maui) is being challenged by fellow Pukalani resident Tiare Lawrence, who has been active in environmental causes, including the fight earlier this year over Alexander &Baldwin’s diversion of streams in East Maui.
>> Ikaika Hussey, publisher of a local magazine, Summit, and the Hawaii Independent, an online news site, is a Democrat mounting a challenge to Rep. John Mizuno (D, Kamehameha Heights-Kalihi Valley). Carole Kauhiwai Kaapu is running for the seat as a Republican.