Charles Iona has a big presence on Kauai. Not because he’s a large man, although he is. It’s more that his roots run deep in Hawaii and he has for years chaired the county police commission.

So when the former Maui cop let rip a not-so-veiled threat on his Facebook page July 5, people took note. Some even feared for the perpetrator.

Iona ranted about the “mother f#%*~}^g p%*+K” who cut down political banners along Kaumualii Highway, calling the culprit a “puppet” of people opposed to genetically modified organisms and promising to expose him.

GMO Tiana Loranio sign

Kauai County Council candidate Tiana Loranio holds a sign along the road on Kauai.

Photo courtesy of Tiana Loranio

The signs that were removed had one thing in common: they were for candidates who support the seed companies like Syngenta and DuPont Pioneer that help drive the local economy and provide jobs for many families on the island’s rural westside.

The growing debate over GMOs and the associated pesticides that large agribusinesses spray on their crops has divided the community on Kauai and elsewhere throughout the state, escalating over the past two years as the neighbor islands have moved to pass laws restricting genetically engineered farming.

New faces have emerged in Hawaii’s political scene as a result, many energized by efforts to either protect ag jobs or ease the biotech industry’s grip on Kauai, Maui and the Big Island.

“It absolutely appears to have recruited some candidates who otherwise would not have bothered to run.” — University of Hawaii political scientist professor Colin Moore

It’s forced some incumbents to revamp their campaign strategies, no longer able to shrug off the GMO issue as a special interest championed by a small group of activists. Especially when tens of thousands of dollars are flooding campaign coffers from political action committees, both for and and against.

“The thing with a newly awoken community is the old tricks don’t work anymore,” said Ashley Lukens, who holds a doctorate in political science and serves as program director for the Hawaii Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit that supports organic farming.

“I don’t think it’s just this fetish opposition to GMOs,” she said. “I see a resurgence in participating in democracy.”

Few, if any, of the candidates for county and state seats are running solely on a pro- or anti-GMO platform. But it has served as a springboard for some to get involved in government for the first time and prompted others to broaden their base.

As the Aug. 9 primary nears, political observers are watching several bellwether races that could signal just how strong this issue resonates with voters.

On Kauai, eyes are on the state House race between Rep. Jimmy Tokioka and Dylan Hooser; the mayoral contest between incumbent Bernard Carvalho Jr. and Dustin Barca; and the 20 candidates vying for seven County Council seats, which include first-time candidates like Tiana Laranio and Arryl Kaneshiro.

Dustin Barca at Mana March

Kauai mayoral candidate Dustin Barca, center, at the Mana March against GMOs on Kauai, Sept. 8, 2013.

Sophie Cocke/ Civil Beat

On Maui, it’s the council races between Ellie Cochran and Kaala Buenconsejo, and Courtney Bruch’s effort to unseat the current chair, Gladys Baisa. Mayor Alan Arakawa has tried to remain neutral on the GMO issue, but the other five candidates running against him support efforts to label GMOs or otherwise restrict the seed companies operating in the county. At the state level, Terez Amato, who is campaigning on a platform of taking back government from corporations, is trying to wrestle the Democratic nomination for a Senate seat away from Roz Baker.

On the Big Island, Sen. Malama Solomon is working to keep her seat out of Lorraine Inouye’s hands.  In the council races, incumbent Maraget Wille is facing opposition from Ronald Gonzales and Sonny Shimaoka. 

And on Oahu, Sen. Clarence Nishihara, long the target of anti-GMO groups as head of the Agriculture Committee where labeling bills have died, is running against Roger Clemente.

As political experts note, the definition of “winning” this election doesn’t just mean getting the most votes.

“The conventional wisdom is the GMO candidates will not prevail,” Hawaii Pacific University communication professor John Hart said. “But that’s not to say if they don’t get enough votes, that people won’t start paying attention.”

There could be exceptions too. 

Kauai, with its history of turning back the Hawaii Superferry in 2008, ultimately leading to the interisland transit company’s demise, would be the most probable place to see an upset.

“If it happens on any island, that would be the island to look for it,” Hart said.

Meanwhile, the candidates are slugging their way through increasingly heated rhetoric and negative attacks over the GMO issue. Indeed, some political insiders have called it the ugliest election they have seen in Hawaii.

Carvalho’s executive assistant, Beth Tokioka, said she has never seen an election like this one.

“Is this who we are, Kauai? A bunch of petulant kids throwing a temper tantrum? I truly hope not,” she wrote on Iona’s Facebook post about the stolen campaign signs.

GMO Issue Changing Political Landscape

This long-simmering issue came to a boil last fall when the Kauai County Council passed a bill that requires large agribusinesses to disclose the pesticides they spray, create buffer zones and say what GMO crops they grow and where.

Huge crowds flooded the lawn of the Historic County Building and packed the council’s modest chambers inside for days of long, emotional hearings. The bill eventually became law in November after the council overrode Carvalho’s veto.

Hooser was among those wearing red “Pass The Bill” shirts as the council debated what to do with the measure. His father, Councilman Gary Hooser, had co-introduced the legislation with Councilman Tim Bynum, both of whom are seeking re-election and face opposition based on their votes.

Hoosers GMO

Kauai County Councilman Gary Hooser, left, poses for a photo with his son, Dylan Hooser, who is running for the state House, during the Mana March on Kauai, Sept. 8, 2013.

Courtesy of Dylan Hooser

The younger Hooser’s foray into this politically charged arena spurred him to run for the District 15 seat in the Legislature, a position his father held for years before rejoining the council in 2012.

“It got me to look deeper into what’s going on in our community,” Hooser said, adding that he is not concerned so much with the safety of genetically engineered food as the associated pesticide use.

While Hooser said it was a single issue that sparked his fire to run for office, his campaign has been about giving people a choice.

Tokioka, his opponent in the Democratic primary, is a four-term state lawmaker who ran unopposed in 2008 and 2012, easily won in 2010 and comfortably secured the seat the first time he ran for it in 2006.

“I don’t think he’s a bad guy in any way, we’re just polar opposites,” Hooser said, noting Tokioka’s votes in 2013 against marriage equality and GMO labeling.

Tokioka welcomed the competition, saying it keeps him or any other incumbent in a contested race honest and accountable. But he hasn’t enjoyed the anonymous attacks against him from the anti-GMO crowd. 

Rep. James Tokioka

State Rep. James Tokioka smiles on the last day of the 2014 legislative session, May 1.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

“It’s changing the landscape of politics on Kauai — and it’s not a good thing,” he said.

Tokioka sent out mailers to all the absentee voters in his district, which includes Wailua, Lihue and Koloa. Last week, he received one of the fliers back in his mailbox with comments scrawled across it about how he was a “murderer” and killed thousands of people through his support of pesticides.

The negative attacks have made Tokioka consider using a P.O. box, as other candidates often do, to limit his exposure to these types of insults. In the past as an elected official he has publicly shared his home address and cell phone number.

“It’s getting so divisive,” he said. “A lot of it is about this one issue and it’s sad. They’re attacking everything that you do.”

From Fringe to Mainstream

When the political signs were torn down last month on the westside, Iona immediately suspected someone opposed to GMOs was behind it. 

The banners that were removed were for Kauai County Council candidates Mel Rapozo, Ross Kagawa, Ernie Kanekoa and Arthur Brun along with those supporting the re-election bids of Gov. Neil Abercrombie, Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui and Carvalho. Incumbents Rapozo and Kagawa had voted against the GMO bill.

“This election is nasty,” Iona wrote in a July 5 post on his Facebook account. “I try keep everybody focused but there is so much one can take. I feel like taking off the leashes and let go the hounds.”

Within 24 hours of his post about the vandalized signs, the matter was resolved. Iona said someone called him, apologizing on behalf of their family member who took the signs and explaining that he suffered post-war trauma after being sprayed with Agent Orange in Vietnam.

Arryl Kaneshiro

Kauai County Council candidate Arryl Kaneshiro, who supports the seed companies, campaigns in this July 2014 photo.

Courtesy of Arryl Kaneshiro

Iona updated his Facebook status July 6, letting the public know that the banners were fine and there was no monetary loss. 

“Those of us who are Pro AG and Pro GMO, let’s continue a clean fight because we did and a polite form of justice prevailed,” he wrote.

Similar stories have unfolded elsewhere around the state, particularly on the neighbor islands where the major seed companies have set up shop and local governments are trying to restrict them.

The Big Island banned genetically engineered farming last year, save for existing crops like the papaya. And Maui voters will decide Nov. 4 if the county should place a temporary moratorium on genetically modified agriculture until it’s proven safe.

Arryl Kaneshiro campaign sign

Campaign signs for candidates supporting GMO agribusinesses, including Kaneshiro’s, have been vandalized during the 2014 primary election campaign.

Courtesy of Arryl Kaneshiro

Efforts to require GMO food to be labeled have so far been unsuccessful at the state level, but not without first drawing large crowds at the Capitol and heated discussions on the legislation.

Laranio, the council candidate, said she helped put on one of the first major rallies that jumpstarted the island-wide movement to pass the GMO bill on Kauai.

“We want to rebuild our community to become sustainable,” she said. “I realized the only way I can make a change in anything is to put myself in a place to make that decision.”

Like the other candidates, for or against GMOs, her campaign is not limited to that one issue. But it was a starting place and major motivator.

Not Going Away Anytime Soon

University of Hawaii political science professor Colin Moore said the debate over GMOs will be an issue for the next several election cycles.

“It absolutely appears to have recruited some candidates who otherwise would not have bothered to run,” he said. “I’m not sure they’re going to be successful, but it’s caught the whole political class here off guard.”

Established Democratic candidates, who for years have been able to run on union bread-and-butter issues, have still not figured out how to handle the GMO issue, Moore said.

“Now that it’s entered the mainstream, it’s going to be a rallying point, particularly for younger, more progressive people,” he said.

Iona, a well-known community leader, said in an interview that he has factored safety as much as effectiveness in deciding where and how to campaign for candidates.

“I’ve never seen tensions this high before, not in the state of Hawaii,” he said.

When venturing up to the north shore — “hostile territory” — to campaign with Kanekoa, his friend who is running for council, Iona said they went as a pair instead of in a large group so as to reduce the chance of creating a mob scene with one side yelling at the other.

“I might send out explicit symbols expressing the frustration,” he said, referring to his Facebook post. “But for me, there’s no role for violence. When this is all said and done, we’re all going to have to live on this island together.”

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