The Big Island race to represent the poorest Senate district in the state pits a lifelong environmentalist and successful businessman against the youngest person to ever be elected to the Hawaii County Council.

Sen. Russell Ruderman is campaigning for re-election against Councilman Greggor Ilagan. They’ve both been in their respective offices for four years.

And both point to their accomplishments during that time as the reason they deserve voters’ support in the Aug. 13 Democratic primary for Senate District 2, which includes Puna and Kau. The winner faces Libertarian Frederick Fogel in the Nov. 8 general election.

Senator Russel Ruderman Island Naturals HIlo Hawaii1. 15 july 2016
Sen. Russell Ruderman at his Island Naturals store in Hilo. He wants to continue working at the state level to help Hawaii produce more of its own food locally. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Ruderman, who was named Hawaii’s Small Business Person of the Year in 2015, owns a chain of organic food stores on the Big Island. He said he’s created 200 jobs in the private sector and voluntarily instituted a $10 an hour minimum wage at his stores a year before the Hawaii Legislature passed a law to gradually up it to $10.10 statewide by 2018.

If re-elected, he said, he’ll advocate for a $15 an hour minimum wage statewide.

It’s not just about a better wage to help residents cope with the state’s inordinately high cost of living, Ruderman said. It’s also about helping to solve problems like homelessness.

“We’re constantly talking about homelessness and poverty,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do as significantly or quickly as increasing the minimum wage.”

Ilagan has been campaigning around the district, holding fundraisers and using social media to attract voters and share his views.

He has pointed at how he funded the first Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii field trips for 447 students and 72 teachers for seven Puna schools, and how he worked with Mayor Billy Kenoi to add five police officers for Puna and a StealthStat traffic monitoring device to curb speeding in residential areas.

Candidate Greggor Ilagan from Hawaii island. 15 july 2016
Hawaii County Councilman Greggor Ilagan said he wants to become a senator to help streamline the permitting process to build more affordable housing. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The councilman also says on Facebook posts that he established a dedicated bus route through Hawaiian Paradise Park to help that 12,000-resident community with a safety and quality-of-life issue.

He said he feels good about his campaign as it enters the final two weeks, noting an uptick in “likes” on his posts.

‘Taking The Threat Very Seriously’

Ruderman considers Ilagan a strong challenger, but feels his own accomplishments in office and proven track record make him the better choice.

“I’m taking the threat very seriously,” he said. “My opponent is a very good campaigner — his campaign and his life are not really separate.”

But Ruderman said his team of volunteers is the strongest he’s ever had and feels optimistic.

Sen. Russell Ruderman and two men who want his job: Hawaii County Councilman Greggor Ilagan, a fellow Democrat, center, and Libertarian Fred Fogel.
Sen. Russell Ruderman, left, and two men who want his job: Hawaii County Councilman Greggor Ilagan, a fellow Democrat, center, and Libertarian Fred Fogel. Chad Blair/Civil Beat

He pointed at his success in bringing home millions of dollars for projects like a new library and community medical center in Puna, money to control albizia and fight rapid ohia death, funding for pilot projects to give laptops to students, new inspector positions for the Department of Agriculture and support for efforts to produce more food locally, one of his primary focuses.

He also touted a bill that requires insurance companies to issue policies even in a state of emergency, which became a battle when lava was threatening to destroy homes and businesses in Pahoa.

Ruderman said he feels good about the “fairly remarkable coalition” of supporters he’s built, noting that the three top public-worker unions endorsed him along with three environmental groups and the Hawaii Association of Realtors.

“It represents me because I’m both an environmentalist and a businessman,” he said.

Ilagan said he wants to help the county secure a greater slice of the overall state transient accommodations tax revenues, fight rapid ohia death and dedicate a community park on a 20-acre parcel in Hawaiian Paradise Park to bolster the community.

He noted on his Council website that he helped to successfully oppose an increase in the general excise tax. Another success, he said, was the establishment of the first Sakada Day Celebration last year. The Sakadas were Filipino men that the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association brought to Hawaii as unskilled laborers in the first part of the 20th century.

Ilagan’s mother brought him from the Philippines to the Big Island when he was 7. He graduated from Waiakea High School and enlisted in the Hawaii Air National Guard.

Senator Brian Schatz greets Sen Russel Ruderman after speaking on the 2nd day of the Hawaii State Democratic Convention held at the Sheraton Hotel. 29 may 2016
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz greets at the Hawaii State Democratic Convention in May. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

He said his six years of military service allowed him to travel the country and around the world until he was honorably discharged and ran for the Council in 2012. At 26, he was the youngest person ever elected to the Council.

Goals For The Next Four Years

If re-elected, Ruderman said, he will continue to push for more money to improve highways in the district and see other projects to completion, including the library and community medical center in Puna.

He also wants to fight for animal-rights bills, restore geothermal issues to county control and at least generate a public discussion on letting the counties decide if they want to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

“I want to represent my community, which I love very much and has been horribly underserved for the past 30 years,” Ruderman said.

After seeing Philadelphia become the first major city to pass a tax on sugary sodas in June, Ruderman said, he doesn’t see why Hawaii couldn’t do the same.

Candidate Greggor Ilagan from Hawaii island. 15 july 2016
Ilagan says he’s had to do a lot of campaign work on the ground due to limited funding. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

His Big Island colleague, Sen. Josh Green, a medical doctor, has introduced such bills but they haven’t gotten much traction. Ruderman said he may steal a page out of Philadelphia’s playbook and make the campaign about helping education by directing the tax revenues to schools.

“If they can do that, why can’t we do that here?” he said, noting how Hawaii has among the highest percentage of people with diabetes.

Ilagan said his priorities if elected to the Senate are “health, education, environment, employment, affordable housing, resiliency and transportation.”

He wants to bolster medical residency programs to help attract and retain physicians, who are sorely needed in the district.

Ilagan also plans to push to improve the financial literacy of residents.

Honolulu Civil Beat Civil Cafe Sen Russell Ruderman at Captiol with Sen Maile Shimabukuro, Janet Mason and Carmille Lim. 17 march 2016
Ruderman says a tax on sugary sodas could help Hawaii’s education system and diabetes problem. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“I feel that in this modern age now we have a tendency to swipe our credit cards and all of a sudden we have a hard time managing our finances,” he said, noting that he wants to hold financial workshops in the district.

“A lot of the problems we have … are financial problems,” he said.

Ilagan said he worked to create an arborist position in the county to help combat rapid ohia death and the spread of invasive albizia trees.

Streamlining government services is another area of focus, Ilagan said. In particular, he wants to speed up the permitting process for affordable housing by moving certain state functions, like the Department of Health’s approval of septic systems, into the county building division.

Campaign Cash

Ruderman and Ilagan are spending similar amounts of money.

Ruderman is almost $31,000 in debt from loaning his own money to his campaign. He’s the wealthiest member of the Legislature, according to financial disclosure forms.

The senator raised $8,740 from Jan. 1 and June 30, almost entirely from donations of less than $200.

Councilman Greggor Ilagan speaks during a community meeting in the district.
Ilagan speaks during a community meeting in the district. Courtesy: Greggor Ilagan

Ilagan had $1,160 cash on hand as of June 30 after raising $27,705 during the six-month period. The bulk of his contributions came from donations of $500 or more.

Both are spending money on signs, bumper stickers, T-shirts and websites.

Ruderman rented an inflatable children’s play area for a community fundraiser and has used his campaign money to buy baby onesies and potholders.

Ilagan has spent his funds on hula hoops and a kiddy pool for campaign events that have featured iPad and glow-in-the-dark bracelet giveaways. He said organizing community events came at the expense of sending out mailers or taking out newspaper ads.

“That means I have to go door to door more. I have to be more visible. That takes a lot of time and energy to do but I feel good. Our social media has actually been getting a lot of traffic,” Ilagan said, noting upwards of 1,000 “likes” on a recent Facebook post, rivaling the amount some Big Island mayoral candidates are getting on their posts.

The councilman scored the help of Senate President Ron Kouchi in October to help get his campaign going with a $500 donation along with support from labor groups and the business community.

Senate President Ron Kouchi during recess after special session. 12 july 2016
Senate President Ron Kouchi has donated to Ilagan’s campaign. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Ruderman and Kouchi’s relationship went south at the end of the 2015 legislative session when Kouchi ousted Donna Mercado Kim as president. Ruderman had wanted to keep Kim as the leader, but factions within the 25-member Senate realigned to install Kouchi.

As a result of the ensuing reorganization, Ruderman lost his position as chair of the Agriculture Committee. But he said he’s still been able to get work done.

“I have been fairly effective as a minority voice this past year,” he said. “It allows you to speak more freely.”

Ruderman said his colleagues have reminded him that the power structure is always in flux, and to remind himself that it’s temporary.

“Despite my president trying to unseat me, I have quite good relationships with most of the senators,” he said, adding that his success in business came from building relationships.

Ilagan said his support for the current majority that controls the Senate would help him be more effective.

“I’m in a much better situation,” he said. “It’s like the state Legislature is a big pie and not one senator can get the whole pie, and not even one senator can get half of the pie. I feel I can get pieces of the pie — more than the crumbs we are getting now.”

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