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Kauai County Councilmen Mel Rapozo and Ross Kagawa, the lone members to oppose the county’s controversial GMO disclosure bill last year, are now more popular than ever among voters.
They took the top two slots, respectively, in Saturday’s crowded primary race — the best either has ever done in any election.
The third-place finisher, first-time candidate Arryl Kaneshiro — another staunch supporter of the genetically engineered seed companies that provide many jobs on the island’s westside — followed closely behind.
The Kauai County Council race was one of several elections in Hawaii that political observers were monitoring to see how well candidates running on pro- or anti-GMO platforms performed.
None of the new candidates who wants to pass laws that would require GMO labeling on food products, banish GMO companies or restrict their use of pesticides won a seat or is positioned well to do so in the general.
But as political experts have noted, winning this time around wasn’t necessarily about getting the most votes. Some see a foundation being laid that may take multiple election cycles to produce tangible results.
“We might be witnessing the beginnings of a leftward movement in the Democratic Party here,” Hawaii Pacific University communication professor John Hart said Monday.
“Their short-term goal was not a success, but it has put people on notice that they can field candidates and get some votes,” he said.
If the same candidates run again in two years, raise money from progressive political action committees on the mainland and build alliances with groups that have similar agendas, Hart said the future could be bright for the anti-GMO candidates.
It was a flurry of legislation at the state and local levels that motivated many to run for office this year.
The Big Island banned genetically engineered farming last year, save for existing crops like the papaya.
Maui voters will decide Nov. 4 if the county should place a temporary moratorium on genetically modified agriculture until it’s proven safe.
And the Kauai law requires large agribusinesses to disclose the pesticides they spray, create buffer zones and say what GMO crops they grow and where.
Incumbents took political hits over their support of restrictive GMO laws but most are expected to keep their seats.
Kauai County Council Chair Jay Furfaro and longtime Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura both finished ahead of Rapozo in 2012. But on Saturday they ended up fourth and fifth, respectively.
Councilmen Gary Hooser and Tim Bynum, who co-introduced Kauai’s GMO bill, are sitting in the sixth and seventh seats heading into the general, just hundreds of votes ahead of the next two candidates.
Councilman Mason Chock, who was appointed to his seat last year and voted for the GMO bill, finished 10th. He will advance to the general, but historically it’s rare for someone to move into the top seven from that far down.
Other candidates, on both sides of the issue, are in a similar position as Chock. They’ll advance to the general but it would be highly surprising if they win a seat.
“We might be witnessing the beginnings of a leftward movement in the Democratic Party here.” — John Hart, HPU communication professor
First-timer Tiana Laranio, who helped organize some of the first anti-GMO protests on Kauai, came in 14th; Felicia Cowden, another candidate opposed to GMOs, finished 12th; and Arthur Brun, who works for Syngenta, ended in the 11th slot.
Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr., whose veto of the GMO bill was overturned, easily defeated first-time candidate Dustin Barca by an almost two-to-one margin. But that was a much closer contest than he had in 2010 against Diana LaBedz, whom he defeated with 77 percent of the vote.
Not unlike Carvalho, state Rep. Jimmy Tokioka found himself having to campaign harder this election because of much more organized and better-funded opposition.
Tokioka, who voted against bills to require GMO labeling at the state level, easily defeated first-time candidate Dylan Hooser, the councilman’s son who found his political calling last fall at rallies in support of the county’s pesticide-disclosure law.
Despite winning two-to-one, it was the closest race Tokioka has had since 2006, the first time he ran for the House. He was unopposed in 2012 and 2008 and won by a three-to-one margin in the 2010 Democratic primary.
In other races, Maui County Councilwoman Elle Cochran, a strong anti-GMO advocate, fended off Kaala Buenconsejo, who received over $100,000 in super PAC money.
Maui state Sen. Roz Baker kept her seat out of anti-corporation candidate Terez Amato’s hands, but it was close. Baker won by 451 votes, 52 percent of the vote.
The public will have to wait until November to know how Courtney Bruch, former director of GMO Free Maui, will fare against Council Chair Gladys Baisa. They are the only two candidates in the race to represent upcountry Maui so they automatically advanced to the general.
On the Big Island, state Sen. Malama Solomon lost her seat to Lorraine Inouye, who said she’s open to a GMO labeling bill.
In a key Hawaii County Council race, incumbent Maraget Wille, who sponsored the Big Island’s GMO bill, easily held off opposition from Ronald Gonzales and Sonny Shimaoka.
Of course, most voters don’t choose candidates based on just one issue. So the reason all of these candidates did as well as they did is certainly up for debate, whether they were fueled by organic granola or genetically engineered papaya.
What is clear are the results of the primary, which show strong support for candidates on Kauai who support seed companies but also a willingness there and on the other neighbor islands to let most incumbents keep their jobs despite their position on the issue.