Maui business owner Tiare Lawrence knew she was a long shot when she decided to run against Hawaii state Rep. Kyle Yamashita in this year’s Democratic primary.

Yamashita has held the position since 2004 and had the financial backing of influential political players like the Hawaii Association of Realtors, Monsanto, Outrigger Enterprises and Alexander & Baldwin.

Lawrence, on the other hand, was an upstart community activist who had most recently made a name for herself organizing protests that were part of Hawaii’s emerging Aloha Aina movement. Among the hot-button issues Lawrence was concerned with were genetically modified foods, pesticide regulation, construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope and water rights on Maui.

Lawrence gained some traction in District 12, which includes Kahului and parts of upcountry Maui, but still lost to Yamashita, 50.6 percent to 44.2 percent. The total difference in votes was 352.

“There were some very promising showings by candidates who didn’t necessarily win their elections, but they certainly made a mark.” — Tim Vandeveer, Democratic Party of Hawaii

Lawrence considers her loss something of a victory for a first-time candidate. She already anticipates another run for office in 2018.

“My race was very, very close and I can’t throw in the towel just yet,” Lawrence said. “I owe it to my community to keep running and to keep fighting for our future.”

She wasn’t alone. Lawrence was one of at least eight progressive candidates who ran in the Aug. 13 primary after taking part in a boot camp called the Kuleana Academy run by the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action to train people in the grueling art of unseating an entrenched incumbent.

Tiare Lawrence, lower right, protests outside of the State Capitol. She got her start in politics as an activist.
Tiare Lawrence, lower right, protests outside of the state Capitol. She got her start in politics as an activist on Maui. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

UPDATED: While most of the candidates lost — challenger Fern Rosenstiel was drubbed by Nadine Nakamura by a 26 percent margin in House District 14 on Kauai — the mere fact that they ran helped boost the number of contested legislative races in the Democratic primary from 24 in 2014 to 30 in 2016.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Nadine Nakamura as an incumbent.

“There were some very promising showings by candidates who didn’t necessarily win their elections, but they certainly made a mark,” said Tim Vandeveer, chairman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii. “I’m encouraged personally by more people participating in our elective process. I think it’s a healthy thing for democracy when people are engaged and involved and take the time to devote their lives to public service and who care enough about the issues to run for office.”

The progressive challenge from those who went through the Kuleana Academy won’t divide the party as much as it will refresh it, Vandeveer said.

‘Catalyzing Change’

The Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action was born out of the anti-GMO movement that has evolved over the past couple years to advocate for a broader-based environmental and social justice agenda that pushes for economic equality. Its new academy graduated 21 people this year.

Although the academy bills itself as nonpartisan, its graduates who ran for office were mostly progressive Democrats who supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for president. They are often critical of business and development interests that pump money into local campaigns.

Many are members of the grassroots campaigns that have protested the proliferation of the GMO seed industry in Hawaii — particularly as it relates to undisclosed pesticide use near schools, parks and homes — and the construction of the TMT atop Mauna Kea on the Big Island.

Kuleana Academy Graduate State House District Primary Result (% of vote received)
Jonathon Wong District 2 Lost (18.1%)
Tiare Lawrence District 12 Lost (44.2%)
Alex Haller District 13 Lost (36.1%)
Fern Rosenstiel District 14 Lost (32.6%)
Patrick Shea District 49 Lost (25.2%)

Kauai County Councilman Gary Hooser, president of the alliance, said the organization is using the Kuleana Academy to empower more people to get involved in Hawaii’s political process, which can be intimidating and insular.

He said a priority of the program is to identify and train emerging leaders who will run for office, managing campaigns or simply testify during legislative hearings.

“The Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action is committed to empowering communities and catalyzing change,” Hooser said. “How do you take the so-called Bernie people and the TMT people and the food-justice people and support that to have a renaissance of civic engagement? That’s what we want. Because regardless of your ideology, it is a sad testament to our democracy that so few people show up and vote.”

“How do you take the so-called Bernie people and the TMT people and the food-justice people and support that to have a renaissance of civic engagement?” — Gary Hooser

The academy was launched this year with the support of the Hawaii Center for Food Safety, Planned Parenthood and Americans for Democratic Action. Through a series of workshops and weekend retreats held on Oahu and the neighbor islands, participants learned about public speaking, campaign finances, social media and how to use voter rolls and other election databases in campaigns. Instructors included current and former politicians and community activists.

Among the guest speakers were U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, former Hawaii Gov. John Waihee and state Rep. Chris Lee.

The academy is accepting applications now for 2017 and will feature a similar syllabus and speakers, although there will be a larger emphasis on fundraising and campaign finance.

Keeping The Bern Alive

Hooser said there’s still a lot of work to be done, especially considering most of the candidates fielded through the alliance and the academy lost in the primary. Even Hooser received a scare, coming in ninth place out of 13 candidates in the Kauai County Council primary. If he doesn’t break the top seven in the November general election, he will lose his seat.

He partially blames low voter turnout for primary results that weren’t particularly favorable for Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action candidates. But he also knows that many of them were first-timers without much name recognition. The trick now is to keep them active and willing to run again.

Gary Hooser. editorial Board. 2 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Kauai County Councilman Gary Hooser wants Hawaii’s Democratic Party to move farther to the left. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

Hooser said much of the alliance’s success came on neighbor islands, where issues such as GMOs, water rights and TMT have become flash points. He pointed to Maui County Council candidate Trinette Furtado’s advancement to the general election.

He said Jen Ruggles’ upset win for a seat on the Hawaii County Council can also be looked as a positive step for the academy since she participated in some of the workshops and is getting campaign help from one of the graduates.

“Even though we didn’t win a lot of seats, we came close in a few,” Hooser said. “I believe we moved the needle in terms of awareness of the issues that are near and dear to our hearts.”

Sustaining the enthusiasm could be difficult, however.

How will the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action get people who were pulled in by the Sanders candidacy in 2016 to keep the feeling the Bern in 2018?

“The foundation of Hawaii’s Democratic party is still in this relationship between the unions, the developers and the politicians where everyone gets paid.” — Colin Moore, University of Hawaii political science professor

“The problem with insurgent movements like this is they get discouraged very easily and they often don’t have the resources to sustain themselves,” said Colin Moore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Hawaii. “This is the challenge for that movement. They have to now use that enthusiasm to create a real organization that will nurture these candidates.”

The Kuleana Academy might be a good first step, Moore said, to deepen the progressive pool of candidates in Hawaii. But those candidates still must differentiate themselves from established Democratic officeholders.

Moore said the Democratic establishment will continue to rake in big donations from developers and the business community. It’s also cozy with the labor unions. That doesn’t leave a progressive newcomer a lot of room to work with when it comes to gathering more support.

“It can be tough for them to break in,” Moore said of the progressives. “The foundation of Hawaii’s Democratic party is still in this relationship between the unions, the developers and the politicians where everyone gets paid.”

Tiare Lawrence remains optimistic. She says that knocking on doors and meeting with prospective constituents gave her a better handle on the issues facing her community and boosted her name recognition.

The Kuleana Academy gave her a foundation, she said, and she expects to build off of it in 2018. She anticipates many of her fellow academy graduates will do the same.

“At the end of the day we’re still committed to being part of that change that’s needed for future generations,” Lawrence said. “I think 2018 is going to be a very interesting year. We are going to have a lot more candidates who are going to consider running again. We’ll have new candidates as well.”

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