A third major Democrat announced his campaign for Hawaii governor on Tuesday, and he is banking on anti-rail sentiment to elevate him into office.

Clayton Hee, a former state senator and Office of Hawaiian Affairs board chair, made his announcement on his Facebook page.

He is challenging Gov. David Ige and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in the Aug. 11 Democratic primary.

“I am running for a number of reasons,” he said. “However the most important reason is because I want to see a better Hawaii for our future.”

Clayton Hee in the state Senate in 2013. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

That future is imperiled, Hee argued, because Honolulu’s rail project has grown from $5 billion to nearly $10 billion.

Because of legislation passed in special session last year, a portion of the hotel tax — including from the neighbor islands — is now being used to pay for a project that is no longer, as Hee reminded people, “on time and on budget.”

Calling rail “grossly mismanaged,” Hee said he wants to “stop the madness” of spending hard-earned taxpayer money on a project that he said is “out of control.”

The money could instead be spent on problems such as health care, affordable housing, care for the elderly and universal pre-school.

Reached by phone, Hee described rail as “a fatal illness” that was focused on Oahu but has now spread to the neighbor islands. Had he been governor during the 2017 special session, he would have vetoed the rail funding bill.

“I think people should be absolutely livid,” he said.

Hee said rail is a county issue. He argued that Oahu has other ways it can help pay for rail, such as increasing impact fees levied on developers, that do not hurt the middle class.

Hee also said he wants to authorize each county to levy its own hotel tax, something that is currently capped by the state.

Polarizing Figure

Glenna Wong, a spokeswoman for Ige’s re-election, offered no immediate comment Tuesday.

Keith DeMello, a spokesman for Hanabusa’s campaign, had this to say:

“We welcome the opportunity to compare ideas and vision with others who agree our state deserves effective leadership. This election will be about who the people of Hawaii believe has the clearest vision, ability and experience to guide our state into the next decade.”

Hee, who also served in the state House of Representatives, previously ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor and Congress.

The former teacher and business owner, 64, is well known. A former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he oversaw several controversial judicial nominees.

Hee also helped lead a legislative investigation into problems at the Hawaii State Hospital and was a leader in the hearings for a same-sex marriage bill that became law in 2013.

He has also been a polarizing figure. A 2011 profile in Civil Beat noted:

There is arguably no member of either the Senate or the House whose name and reputation elicits more colorful comment than Clayton Hee.

Some of the words used to describe the senator will not be printed here. Others will: smart, hard-working, persistent, principled and loyal, for example, but also aggressive, intimidating, egotistical, quick to anger and bipolar.

Neal Milner, a Civil Beat columnist and emeritus professor of political science, said there are few ideological differences between the three Democrats.

But Hee could be helped by the anti-rail crowd. Hanabusa helped forge the compromise legislation to continue paying for rail, and Ige signed the bill into law.

Milner said Hee enters the race as a possible spoiler, noting that neither Hanabusa nor Ige appear to have elicited much voter enthusiasm.

Hee, however, said there are many ideological differences between him and his opponents. If elected governor, he said he would submit bills to the Legislature to legalize recreational marijuana and to establish a multi-state lottery.

“And the reason is because rail is sucking all the financial oxygen out of the room,” he said, explaining that the state needs new revenue streams.

Several other Democrats have pulled papers to run for governor. State Rep. Andria Tupola and attorney John Carroll are seeking the Republican nomination.

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