The first time Clayton Hee ran for lieutenant governor of Hawaii, he campaigned on his horse at the corner of Beretania and Punchbowl streets.
The horse was named Lucky, but Hee’s attention-grabbing stunt didn’t win him the race. Matt Matsunaga defeated him by a 2-to-1 margin, though Hee finished ahead of third-place Donna Ikeda, a former state senator and member of the Board of Education.
Matsunaga, a former state senator and son of U.S. Sen Spark Matsunaga, had the greater name recognition in that competition. At the time, in 2002, Hee was fresh off a sometimes rocky tenure at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
By running against Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui in the Democratic primary this year, Hee shakes up not only that race — Tsutsui is a former Senate president who took the LG job after Brian Schatz was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 2012 — but also the governor’s race. Gov. Neil Abercrombie faces a spirited challenge by state Sen. David Ige, who is backed by former Govs. Ben Cayetano and George Ariyoshi.
On Sunday, at Iolani Palace, Cayetano stood near Hee as he formally announced his candidacy.
Hee’s run for higher office also shakes up the state Senate. Not only will Hee, the powerful and controversial chairman of Judiciary and Labor, not be around next session, but Ige will no longer be chairman of the powerful and sometimes controversial Ways and Means.
Surrounded by dozens of supporters including his wife, Lynne Waters, Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro and Princess Abigail Kawananakoa, Hee said if elected he would use the LG’s office to address homelessness, climate change and animal welfare.
He also said he wanted to serve “as a bridge” to deal with Hawaiian issues involving the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. Both agencies have troubled histories and have recently been in the headlines. Hee, a Native Hawaiian, is a former OHA board chairman.
Hee said he had researched running for LG, and polling suggested he would do well in a run against Tsutsui. But he stressed that he decided to run not because of poll numbers but because of his desire to take his public service career to a higher level.
“It’s about doing more for the state of Hawaii,” he said.
Asked why he decided to announce on Mother’s Day, Hee responded there was “no better day” than Mother’s Day. He recalled losing his own mother two years ago at this time.
A Rolls Royce carrying Princess Abigail Kawananakoa arrives at Iolani Palace for Hee’s announcement.
Unlike presidential races, Hawaii governors and LG’s don’t run as a ticket per se. In addition to Hee and Tsutsui, two other Democrats have also pulled papers for the contest, but they are far less well known.
Hee said as a Democrat, he was prepared to run with either Abercrombie, his friend of more than three decades, or Ige, his longtime Senate colleague. He declined to speculate how his candidacy would affect the governor’s own chances for re-election.
Tsutsui, who has already racked up major union endorsements, released a statement regarding the changed race: “I am humbled by the support I’ve received from the people of Hawaii and I look forward to a spirited campaign that will allow us to take our message to the voters. In the meantime, there is much work to do as Lt. Governor and I will continue to work hard to meet the needs of Hawaii’s people.”
The window to file doesn’t close until June 3, and there could yet be other entrants. The name of state Rep. Calvin Say, the speaker emeritus, is one of those that have been bandied about.
But Hee brings with him nearly a half-million dollars in cash on hand, as of the last reporting period for campaign contributions — far more money than any other state legislator.
Hee is a heavyweight in other ways, too.
The bill to increase the state’s minimum wage this year was his, and he was involved in the deal that will protect hundreds of acres at Turtle Bay. He also skillfully ran the contentious hearings for Michael Wilson to be confirmed to the Hawaii Supreme Court.
Prior to that, Hee’s legislative victories including passing civil unions and same-sex marriage and banning shark finning in Hawaii waters.
Hee’s record has not been embraced by everyone. State Rep. Richard Fale, a Republican, last month announced his intentions to run for Hee’s District 23 seat. Fale was among the most vocal opponents of same-sex marriage.
Hee’s departure from the Senate now opens that seat to Democrats. On Sunday, Hee said he’s backing Gil Riviere, a former Republican who lost his House seat to Fale two years ago but has since switched to the Democratic Party. Riviere stood near Hee as he made his endorsement.
Some of Hee’s Senate colleagues will likely not be sorry to see him go.
Hee is a dominating figure, even in a chamber full of huge egos. Under Senate President Donna Mercado Kim, Hee and other senators have unsuccessfully sought to change leadership.
With Kim running for Congress, there will almost certainly be big changes in store for the Senate following the elections. Ron Kouchi for president? Michelle Kidani as WAM chair? Gil Keith-Agaran leading Judiciary?
Campaign signs for Clayton Hee’s run for lieutenant governor await deployment.
The job of lieutenant governor in Hawaii usually entails little responsibility and typically serves as a holding place before moving on to higher office. Schatz, Cayetano, Ariyoshi, former Gov. John Waihee and U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono are former LG’s.
Hee said he believed he could do “much more” in the LG job, saying a lot depended on the kind of person who holds the seat.
A more immediate question is how a contested Democratic primary for lieutenant governor might influence the hot races for governor, U.S. senator and the 1st Congressional District. It’s a very busy campaign season, and political signs are already dotting the landscape.
Will voters be able to keep track of all the races and candidates? How will debates and other joint appearances be finessed?
Will it be Abercrombie-Tsutsui in the general or Abercrombie-Hee? Or Ige-Hee? Or Ige-Tsutsui?
Former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann also wants a rematch against the governor — Abercrombie trounced both candidates in 2010. He’s running as an independent, and a running mate — perhaps a neighbor island politician — could make for a competitive three-way contest.
Hee’s LG run is also a reminder of how everything old is new again in Hawaii politics.
Hannemann and Abercrombie first faced off in 1986, with Saiki prevailing in the general election to win a term in Congress. Saiki is now chairwoman of the GOP. Charles Djou is again running for the CD1 race that he held briefly after Abercrombie stepped down to run for Congress. Colleen Hanabusa got into Congress after defeating Djou.
Cayetano is supporting Ige for governor and Hanabusa for U.S. Senate. Akaka is also supporting Hanabusa. Hirono got into the Senate after Akaka retired. Waihee is leading efforts on the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission.
And Hee himself ran for Congress in 2006, losing to Hirono in a race that also featured Hanabusa, Matsunaga and Schatz. On Sunday, Matsunaga, a Honolulu attorney, was among those attending Hee’s announcement that he’s seeking higher office once again.
Contact Chad Blair via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.