UPDATED Monday 11/19/2013 6 a.m.

Russell Kokubun is stepping down as director of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, in part to help Colleen Hanabusa with her U.S. Senate campaign, according to sources close to the campaign.

Kokubun, 65, is a former Hawaii County Council chairman, deputy planning director, executive assistant to the mayor and a state senator.

He is close to Hanabusa, and he is expected to help organize her campaign on the Big Island.

Update In a voice message late Monday, Kokubun told Civil Beat, “I am not going to work for Colleen’s campaign in a paid position or whatever. My whole intention is to retire and go back to my farm. I really want to complete my career cycle. I spent close to 30 years developing policy about agriculture and sustainability. And now I want to go practice it on my farm.”

Christine Hirasa, a spokeswoman for Gov. Neil Abercrombie, said Kokubun is retiring for personal reasons and is going to the Big Island to work on his family farm. She said he is not taking a paid position with the Hanabusa campaign.

But sources close to Hanabusa confirmed Monday that he will be leaving his post and will join her campaign in some capacity.

Kokubun has contributed $4,500 to Hanabusa’s congressional campaigns, including $2,000 to her Senate race this summer, according to federal campaign finance reports. He also was reimbursed $283 from the campaign for food and drinks at a grassroots event on the Big Island.

The Cabinet-level departure isn’t expected until early next year, but it comes at an awkward time for Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who is seeking re-election. Hirasa said Kokubun plans to tell his staff Tuesday what his intentions are.

Last December, Abercrombie appointed his lieutenant governor, Brian Schatz, to fill the late Daniel K. Inouye‘s Senate seat, ignoring the longtime senator’s dying wish to have Hanabusa replace him. Hanabusa is challenging Schatz in the 2014 Democratic primary.

Abercrombie picked Kokubun to run the agriculture department shortly after his 2010 election. Food sustainability is a top priority of Abercrombie’s New Day In Hawaii Plan. A former Senate vice president, Kokubun was expected to have strong working relationships with the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

He also has a strong record of supporting agriculture issues in the Senate, notably pushing through legislation that requires counties to identify prime farmland, which can’t be reclassified for other uses without a two-thirds vote by the state Land Use Commission, and subsequently, the Legislature. The law is designed to protect Hawaii’s agricultural land and goals of food sustainability from increasing development.

According to testimony he gave during his Senate confirmation hearing, Kokubun grew up in Kaimuki on Oahu, where he gained an appreciation for agriculture through his mother and grandmother and the family garden, which he has described as “essentially a small farm.” Kokubun later worked as a farm laborer on the Big Island. In 1978, he bought a vegetable farm in Volcano.

“Hawaii’s future relies heavily on our ability to enhance and expand our agricultural industry,” he said, adding that he wished to restore morale to the department and expand its presence on the neighbor islands.

But, as an Abercrombie cabinet member, Kokubun took heat for testifying before the LUC in favor of Hoopili, a large residential and commercial development that includes five schools and space for shops and restaurants. The development is supported by Abercrombie, but was vigorously opposed by environmental groups because it will displace large farm operations.

Kokubun’s department has recently been at the center of criticism for failing to be more aggressive in regulating pesticides, particularly on Kauai where the County Council just passed a measure to more strictly regulate pesticides and require biotech companies to disclose information on their use.

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