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Gov. Colleen Hanabusa? Lt. Gov. Josh Green? U.S. Rep. Doug Chin?
The possibility that Hawaii may elect a host of new leaders in the 2018 elections moved closer to reality last week when Congresswoman Hanabusa made official her plans to challenge Gov. David Ige next August.
It set off ripples in Hawaii’s political pond that may end up swamping the careers of several incumbents, from Congress on down to state legislative races throughout the islands.
At minimum, the state will have several new leaders in important offices who could take Hawaii in fresh, unexpected directions.
On the same day that Hanabusa announced, two state senators — Green of Hawaii Island and Will Espero of Oahu — said they are running for lieutenant governor.
They join state Sen. Jill Tokuda of Oahu and Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa in the race for the No. 2 spot in state government, even though the current lieutenant governor, Shan Tsutsui, hasn’t officially launched his planned campaign to replace the term-limited Arakawa.
All are Democrats, and the Democratic Party of Hawaii is all but certain to retain its grip on the reins of power. The only Republicans elected to partisan positions in Hawaii are the five who serve in the state House.
Given the volatility of the national electorate and the ambition of local pols, some candidates could drop out or switch races, while others may emerge.
But here’s my take on the probable 2018 candidates for major races, based on conversations with more than a dozen akamai folks.
The Ige-Hanabusa showdown appears assured — unless Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho plays spoiler. Or, maybe Carvalho, who is term-limited, decides to run for LG or hope for a Cabinet position.
With Hanabusa’s entrance, though, it’s unlikely other gubernatorial wannabes will emerge on the Democratic side. State Rep. Andria Tupola is a possible Republican candidate, now that her GOP colleague Bob McDermott has decided to stay in the House of Representatives.
Ige is seen as a bland, if efficient chief executive with no scandals and several Cabinet stars such as Attorney General Doug Chin.
As promised, he cooled 1,000 school classrooms. The unions got their pay raises and the economy is humming. There has been no scandal. But his poll numbers are dismal.
Hanabusa says Ige lacks vision, and she is perceived on paper as the stronger candidate, in no small part because of her more forceful personality and experience. However, neither she nor Ige are compelling public speakers.
How will two Americans of Japanese ancestry split the vote of the ethnic bloc with highest voter turnout?
And will Hanabusa’s pattern of aspiration — she ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2014 and successfully for her old seat representing urban Oahu just last year following the death of U.S. Rep. Mark Takai — turn voters off? Or fire them up?
As of this writing, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard are widely expected to easily win re-election. And U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz is not up until 2022.
Hirono had two surgeries for cancer this year, but she says she has recovered and is looking forward to her campaign.
Much of the attention will be on the 1st Congressional District seat being vacated by Hanabusa.
Her campaign field coordinator, Reena Rabago, said Hanabusa will not resign to run for governor, as U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie did in 2010. So there will be no winner-take-all special election like the one that sent Republican Charles Djou to Washington, D.C., for less than eight months.
Instead, there will be a primary and general election to elect a representative for a fresh term beginning in January 2019.
Among those considering jumping into the 1st Congressional District race is state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim of Oahu, who finished second to Takai in the 2014 primary.
“I am seriously looking at it,” she said. “A number of people have approached me, so I am talking with my family.”
But Kim, who has deep legislative experience and a business background, said her mother has been ill and in the hospital.
“I want to wait until I see how she’s doing, to make sure that she is OK, before I make a decision.”
Also weighing a run is state Rep. Kaniela Ing of Maui. Even though the Valley Isle is part of the 2nd Congressional District, candidates do not actually have to live in their districts.
“There are progressive groups pushing me to throw my name in for Congress,” said Ing. “These seats don’t open up very often, and they provide a really good opportunity to push our values. Ultimately, where I want to be is where I can best make an impact on Hawaii’s working families.”
Ing, who stressed his years working on Oahu at the Legislature and his time at the University of Hawaii Manoa (where he was the student body president), said Honolulu’s biggest problem is that it is becoming a place only for the “super rich.”
“Every politician says we want to change that, but there are donors — that elite 1 percent — that add to the problem,” he said, channeling Bernie Sanders. “The only way to change that is a grassroots campaign.”
Other names mentioned include state Sens. Karl Rhoads and Stanley Chang, who finished a distant third behind Kim and Takai in the 2016 congressional race.
But the name that garners the most excitement in some Democratic circles is Chin, the hotshot AG who seems to sue the Trump administration every other month or so.
Chin did not return a call seeking comment. (On Wednesday, he joined yet another lawsuit against Trump, this one over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals decision.)
Supporters say he has terrific name recognition and is a relatively fresh face. He is also precisely the kind of candidate sought by many Democrats to confront Trump in D.C.
Chin isn’t thought to be interested in the job of lieutenant governor.
If Tsutsui resigns to run for Maui mayor, the succession falls first to the Senate president and then to the House speaker. Ron Kouchi and Scott Saiki are said to not be interested.
The AG is next in line, followed by the Budget and Finance director. Hello, Lt. Gov. Wes Machida?
Other politicians whose names are being discussed for other offices are Speaker Emeritus Joe Souki (for LG), state Rep. John Mizuno (LG or CD1), Honolulu City Council member Ernie Martin (state Senate, maybe) and former state senators Clayton Hee and Gary Hooser.
There is also speculation that former Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi may be eyeing a return to politics, now that his legal and ethical challenges appear behind him.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s name surfaces for higher office, too, but he may be damaged goods because he is so closely tied to the albatross that is Honolulu rail. Other legislators or City Council members may suffer — or benefit — for their stance on rail.
But there will be new faces at the Legislature come November 2018, including a replacement for Rep. Marcus Oshiro, who Gov. David Ige nominated to serve on the Hawaii Labor Relations Board.
Candidates are already jockeying for the Senate seats being vacated by Green and Tokuda, and for House seats being vacated by the representatives now running for Senate.
And not just Democrats are running for office.
Shirlene Dela Cruz Ostrov, chairwoman of the Republican Party of Hawaii, said the proliferation of open seats is an opportunity for the minority party to offer a different brand.
“We feel like people are feeling weary, perhaps, about a dominant party that isn’t exactly working out great all the time,” she said. “So we are going to put out the message that not only are we an alternative to voters but also for candidates who want to be serious and to help us create some change.”
Ostrov said it was too early to announce possible contenders. But she did say the local GOP is being advised by the Republican National Committee.
On the other side of the aisle, Democratic Party of Hawaii Chairman Tim Vandeveer likes his party’s chances, given the deep bench of candidates.
“It’s a good problem to have, given the fact that our party really covers most of the political spectrum in the state,” he said.
Vandeveer said his party will remain neutral for the primary. But they will not take any general election races for granted. He is aware of the RNC’s efforts already on the ground in Hawaii, and he said Democrats would guard against any notion that Republicans can gain locally as they have in other states.