State Sen. Sam Slom has held the District 9 seat representing East Honolulu for two decades, but a pair of Democratic candidates are spending thousands of dollars in hopes of unseating Hawaii’s only Republican senator.
Stanley Chang is the clear frontrunner in the Democratic primary. The former Honolulu City Council member raised $45,000 over the past six months and has stacked up endorsements from the Hawaii Government Employees Association and influential construction unions.
Chang, 33, represented neighborhoods stretching from Ala Moana to Hawaii Kai on the Council from 2011 to 2015. He made an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2014. East Honolulu residents are used to seeing him sign-wave on the side of the road, wearing a yellow lei and a boyish grin.
Mike Bennett hopes that won’t be enough.
The 50-year-old opthamologist who founded the Retina Institute of Hawaii is running for office for the first time and has already spent over $9,000, mostly on advertising.
Bennett is running as a Democrat but talks about fiscal accountability and transparency with the same fervor as Slom. But Bennett describes himself as socially progressive and thinks that he will be more effective working within the Democratic Party than Slom is outside of it.
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A third Democratic candidate, Richard Kim, is a musician who declined to speak to Civil Beat for this report. He hasn’t received any campaign contributions and has so far spent about $2,000, mostly on Facebook ads.
Slom said he welcomes the competition but takes issue with the contention that he hasn’t been effective as a GOP caucus of one in the Senate.
Slom serves on every committee and is often the lone voice of dissent. His office has published an alternative state budget for the last several years, and he has gained the respect of his colleagues even if they make most of their decisions behind closed doors in the Majority Caucus room.
The 74-year-old senator had quintuple bypass surgery three months ago, forcing him to miss two critical weeks of the legislative session.
“I did that on purpose just to show that a Republican does have a heart,” Slom joked.
Local political analyst John Hart said he thinks any Democrat will have an uphill battle to unseat Slom in District 9, which stretches from Kahala to Hawaii Kai. The district is wealthier, whiter and more conservative than many other parts of Oahu, including Chang’s more expansive former City Council district.
But former University of Hawaii political science professor Neal Milner, a Civil Beat columnist, thinks Slom is vulnerable because Chang is a “formidable campaigner.”
“You always have to be very careful in this state if you’re Republican not to get too optimistic,” Milner said.
Chang, an attorney and Harvard graduate, had about $7,500 in cash on hand at the end of last year and raised $46,800 over the last six months.
His biggest donation this year was $4,000 from the Hawaii Committee on Political Education, AFL-CIO, a federation of unions.
Change’s latest campaign filing from June 30 showed he spent over $5,700 this year but still had more than $48,500 left.
His top expense was $2,225 for campaign signs. He also spent $1,357 for food and beverages during a recent campaign fundraiser at the Pacific Club, where he solicited donations ranging from $100 to $2,000.
Hawaii Kai residents have been receiving mailers, headlined “Stanley Chang Listens,” that emphasize the work he did as a councilman to “clear Waikiki sidewalks” of homeless, fund road repairs and block salary increase for Council members.
The mailers stand in contrast with Chang’s TV ad when he was running for Congress, in which he hailed progressive policies like abortion rights and gay marriage and cited the need for universal preschool and labeling genetically modified food.
Despite the shift in policy emphasis, Chang said he’s not worried about turning off conservative voters with his progressive ideas.
“This is a district that has voted for President Obama overwhelmingly twice,” he said. “I don’t think that this district can be taken for granted by any individual or by any party.”
He noted his plans to address homelessness, including delivering psychiatric and mental health services to homeless people wherever they may be, and cited the need to provide more housing through rental vouchers. Chang said he hears concerns about homelessness frequently from East Honolulu residents.
Still, Colin Moore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, said Chang’s longtime support for the Honolulu rail project could a vulnerability. Chang wouldn’t say Thursday whether or not he would support a tax increase to fund the rail project, indicating he wants more answers about how the project became 60 percent over-budget.
Bennett is critical of the rail project and doesn’t support raising the general excise tax on goods and services to subsidize it.
In fact, Bennett wants to phase out the GET completely, saying it is regressive and could be replaced by a consumption tax or tax on people with higher incomes.
Bennett is relatively unknown, but he’s more specific than Chang regarding what he’d do and why. He wants to increase pay for teachers, change how insurance companies reimburse health-care providers and send homeless people who violate laws out of the state.
“Hopefully people will look beyond the name recognition,” he said, noting that he’s been working to gain support on social media, canvassing and sign-waving.
Milner thinks that Chang’s broader network of support will help him churn out more support than Bennett, but hasn’t written the physician off.
“People always talk about wanting someone who’s not a politician,” Milner said. “Here’s a chance to see how successful a political amateur will be.”
Moore is more cynical.
“I don’t think that there’s any hope that he would win the primary,” Moore said of Bennett.
That’s despite Bennett’s decidedly more conservative bent in comparison to Chang and the demographics of the district.
“It might (make a difference) if he were well known but he’s not,” Moore said. “I don’t think voters are making such fine policy distinctions in a state Senate race in a primary.”
Policy differences may matter more in the general election. Slom’s record includes pushing for fiscal responsibility, helping Hawaii establish a law that says you don’t have to retreat if you’re in a situation where your life is threatened, and promoting privacy by getting rid of the use of Social Security numbers on various government documents.
But there’s a question of whether Slom will be able to keep up with Chang on the campaign trail.
The senator has printed a few fliers but hasn’t spent any money on advertising yet this year. Slom has less than half as much money in the bank — about $23,000 as of his last campaign filing deadline.
Slom said he usually focuses on sign-waving, knocking on doors and attending community events. He said he has never run a TV ad.
“I’m going to have a difficult time though quite frankly walking (through the district) as much as I have in the past,” he said. In contrast, Bennett said he’s already knocked on hundreds of doors and Chang said he plans to knock on thousands.
Most of his contributions range from $100 to $200.
Moore said Slom could be tainted by the national Republican Party’s shift to a more inflammatory rhetoric under its presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
“The Republican Party has taken this sharp right turn and is representing these somewhat troubling anti-immigrant views that don’t play particularly well for Hawaii voters,” Moore said.
Hart questioned whether it would be good for Democrats to have all the seats in the Senate, even if they already have control over both chambers.
“I think it would actually be frankly better for the Democratic Party if they did not have that (Senate District 9 seat),” Hart said. “When you virtually have all the seats you no longer have any excuses.”
Milner said he wouldn’t be surprised if the district voted for Chang, noting the long-term trend has been for Republican districts in Hawaii to turn blue.