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Hawaii’s Republican voters face a sharp choice in the race to carry the party banner into the gubernatorial election — and try to rescue the GOP from virtual irrelevance in state politics.
State Rep. Andria Tupola, a 37-year-old music teacher, is being touted by some former top GOP leaders as a fresh face who could revitalize the party.
“She’s educated, she’s articulate, she has a vision, and she knows where she wants to go,” says Duke Aiona, a two-term lieutenant governor from 2002 to 2010.
But in the only published poll, she also trailed 88-year-old John Carroll, a pilot, lawyer and former lawmaker, who has lost five previous races for statewide office. He contends he’s the real conservative in the race.
A third candidate, Ray L’Heureux, a former assistant schools superintendent and retired Marine lieutenant colonel, announced his candidacy in April but only started an active campaign in the last few weeks.
The last public poll, conducted in March by Mason Dixon Polling & Strategy for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, showed Carroll leading Tupola, with 40 percent of likely Republican voters saying they’d vote for him, versus 28 percent for Tupola.
Carroll, who has frequently appeared on Republican ballots, has more name recognition, according to the poll.
But Tupola has a more visible campaign, gaining some vocal supporters and showing an ability to raise money. According to the latest available campaign finance reports, Tupola had spent about $76,000 and had $37,000 on hand in December. Carroll had spent about $9,000 on his campaign and had about $1,300 in cash.
Whoever wins the primary will face a steep uphill battle in one of the bluest states in the nation.
In 2016, President Donald Trump received only 30 percent of Hawaii’s vote — his lowest mark in any state. The GOP holds only five seats in the state House and none in the Senate. And Democrats have controlled Washington Place since 2010, when former Gov. Linda Lingle completed two terms.
Former state Sen. Fred Hemmings Jr. says despite persistent problems stemming from Hawaii’s high cost of living and an economy based largely on low-wage tourism jobs, voters continue to support Democrats.
Meanwhile, he says, Republicans may be missing an opportunity to nominate a fresh face to fight the dominant party.
“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with the Republican Party,” Hemmings says. “It’s the fact that John Carroll is leading Andria Tupola in the polls.”
Carroll shrugs off such criticism with a laugh, saying, “Thanks, Fred.”
John Carroll says he wants to cut the state government workforce by 25 percent, conduct a forensic audit of the Honolulu rail project, and implement reforms to the state departments of education and Hawaiian Homelands.
He also wants to eliminate or amend the Jones Act, a federal law that requires goods shipped between U.S. ports to be transported on vessels built in the U.S. and staffed by U.S. crews.
Critics say the law drives up the cost of goods shipped between the mainland and Hawaii.
And Carroll says this has hurt not only residents, who pay more for goods, but also Hawaii’s ability to develop its agriculture industry because it costs 20 to 40 percent more to ship on U.S.-flagged ships.
Getting rid of the Jones Act will help manufacturing in Hawaii, as well, Carroll says, although he stresses that he wants to support only clean, non-polluting industries.
“I’m looking at one term,” Carroll says, explaining why his age will not hamper his ability to do the job.
Carroll addresses potential liabilities with self-deprecating humor. Married four times, Carroll volunteers that he was “a shitty father.”
“I’m proof that the good die young,” he says at another point. “I’ve been really bad.”
Carroll also discussed the controversial end of his legal career, which has been the subject of what he says is unfair reporting.
He practiced as a military lawyer and private attorney for half a decade before resigning from the bar in 2017 to avoid disciplinary action.
Carroll says the State Office of Disciplinary Counsel’s complaint sprung from an estate matter involving an elderly woman with a large estate and a younger man planning to marry her. Carroll says the man got mad that Carroll set up a guardian and conservator to oversee the woman’s assets and complained to the ODC.
The ODC found Carroll had improperly managed his client fund accounts, which Carroll admits, although he stresses he didn’t improperly take any funds. Carroll says he was planning to retire anyway and volunteered to relinquish his license rather than fight.
Although he’s leading in the polls, Carroll has lost some support recently because of negative campaigning by an advisor, Eric Ryan.
State Rep. Bob McDermott, for instance, says he withdrew his support for Carroll because of attacks Ryan made on Tupola, which culminated in Tuploa obtaining a restraining order against Ryan. McDermott, who at one point was running for governor himself, says Carroll was wrong to let this go on.
Carroll says he asked Ryan to stop denigrating other Republicans. But he also calls Ryan “a genius” who had “done a tremendous job for me.”
In any case, Carroll says he’s ready to represent the party in the general election.
“I’m going to rip Hanabusa or Ige apart in debates, if they’re willing to debate,” he says.
During a recent campaign stop in Manoa, Andria Tupola sounds a bit like someone running for mayor rather than for chief executive of a sprawling archipelago.
She talks about her hands-on activities back in her westside district such as directing traffic when the street floods and organizing volunteers to paint the locker-room at Nanakuli High & Intermediate School. Her 3,000-plus member Facebook group, Westside Town Hall, is a vibrant forum of discussion about community issues.
During the event, supporters spoon out chili and rice, and kids from Kamehameha Schools, Tupola’s alma mater, serenade the audience, warming up the crowd before the candidate takes the stage.
She sings opera, in Italian, to start her speech. She then uses her big voice to pepper the crowd with stories, Socratic questions and streetwise jokes. She’s animated, acting out dialogues with herself.
The theme that emerges in the speech is exemplified by the Nanakuli locker-room story: one where people connect with their community and volunteer to improve things while government helps but mostly gets out of the way. Tupola talks about holding town hall meetings, volunteer efforts to remove abandoned cars from roadsides and drives to provide free prom dresses to underprivileged girls.
Tupola alludes to her work as a Mormon missionary in socialist Venezuela as influencing her decision to be a Republican.
Asked during her speech how she plans to help create higher-paying jobs, she points to Mana Up, a business accelerator offering advice to entrepreneurs running small businesses producing retail, beauty or value-added agriculture products.
Later, during a follow-up interview, she stresses the need to develop the state’s agriculture industry to grow the economy, but offered few other details.
She also says she’s “allergic to taxes” when discussing why she voted against a $2.4 billion plan to bail out the Honolulu rail project during a special legislative session in August — a project that would provide a link between her district and downtown Honolulu.
But in campaign literature, Carroll says he’s the true conservative while Tupola is a Republican in name only.
In an interview, Tupola stressed that the bill she supported merely calls for a study to show the costs and benefits of the universal income, which could be a cost-effective replacement for other government services.
“I would love to have a study to point to and say, ‘This is how much it costs,'” she says.
But Carroll maintains he offers the best path.
“The only way we can hope to make Hawaii affordable is to repeal the failed policies my opponent has supported and then repeal the long-established failed policies put in place by Democrats over the past 64 years,” Carroll says in a Facebook post.
Other Republican officials remain behind Tupola.
“With her name on the ballot in November, it would make for a very intriguing race,” Rep. Cynthia Thielen, one of five Republicans in the House, says of Tupola. “If we want to have a vibrant leader who’s been out there day to day showing her ability, we get behind Andria. And I hope that’s what people who pull a Republican ballot do.”
Ray L’Heureux waited until April to announce he was running. And he is just now starting to raise money.
But GOP leaders insist he’s for real.
“He’s absolutely a real candidate,” says Shirlene Ostrov, chairwoman of the Hawaii Republican Party. “He did come in late, but he’s been working hard.”
He has the most executive branch experience of the three candidates, and he’s shown an ability to turn things around.
When L’Heureux took over as the assistant superintendent for the Hawaii Department of Education’s Office of School Facilities and Support Services in 2012, the office’s school bus program was in disarray. The Hawaii State Auditor had just issued a report showing an antiquated, poorly managed system: costs for bus services had nearly tripled since 2006 to $72.4 million, and the DOE had no system to ensure the bus contractors were charging a fair price and providing good service.
L’Heureux, now 56, brought in a team of consultants to begin modernizing the system. When auditors came back about three years later, they reported 85 percent of their recommendations had been implemented or were in progress.
L’Heureux had left by then, but his successor, Dann Carlson, credits L’Heureux for initiating the turnaround.
“Ray L’Heureux was instrumental in putting into place the incredible changes that we’ve seen in our Student Transportation Branch,” Carlson says in an email.
L’Heureux’s platform focuses on infrastructure, education and the economy. Some of his ideas show a pragmatic approach to dealing with problems. For example, L’Heureux says the state should consider using procurement exemptions allowed by law to speed up backlogged school maintenance.
“It should not take 18 months to build a covered walkway,” he says. “It should not take four years to build an auditorium.”
In addition, he says, a one-size-fits-all collection of policies and procedures set up to run Hawaii’s statewide school system just doesn’t work. A school in Hana, Maui, has much different needs than, say, Kaiser High School on Oahu, he says.
“Schools should be empowered to deliver the education that is needed for that community,” says L’Heureux, president of the Education Institute of Hawaii, a think tank.
The state needs to create more incentives to recruit and retain teachers, such as providing affordable workforce housing for teachers and helping pay off student loans for University of Hawaii education majors who agree to teach for at least five years, he says.
To boost the economy, L’Heureux says the state should work to develop high-tech industries, especially biotechnology and nanotechnology. Although economic development types have for years touted the benefits of supporting the technology sector as a way to create high-paying jobs, he says, “the things being developed now have not been talked about.”
L’Heureux left his last job amid some controversy.
He was chief executive of a nonprofit that supports the National Park Service’s operations at Pearl Harbor when the Associated Press reported that the group’s board had suspended L’Heureux with pay based on an anonymous letter alleging misconduct. L’Heureux says he eventually resigned his position at Pacific Historic Parks because of “philosophical differences” with the group’s board chairman.
As for his campaign, L’Heureux says he’s started building an organization: he has a senior advisor and social media manager on board and is about to bring on a treasurer-fundraiser.
“We’re building the airplane as we’re flying it,” he says. “It’s one of the caveats of getting started late.”
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