Former state Sen. Clayton Hee surprised voters when he announced months ago that he would drop out of the governor’s race and challenge incumbent Sen. Gil Riviere in a fight for his old seat.

They are the only candidates and both are Democrats, which means the race will be decided in the primary. Senate District 23 includes parts of Kaneohe, the North Shore and Central Oahu.

While the unexpected race is one to watch, some candidates in other Senate districts are getting shots at open seats as incumbents seek higher office.

Sen. Gil Riviere, left, and former Sen. Clayton Hee have both voted supported environmental measures. Civil Beat

With Sen. Jill Tokuda running for lieutenant governor, Reps. Ken Ito and Jarrett Keohokalole are facing off in another winner-takes-all primary to represent Senate District 24, which includes parts of Kaneohe, Kailua, Heeia, Ahuimanu and Marine Corps Base Hawaii. Ito has represented his district since 1994, but Keohokalole has more money and House leadership support.

Sen. Josh Green, another LG candidate, is vacating his District 3 seat, which includes Kona and Kau. Hawaii County Councilman Dru Kanuha and former Councilwoman Brenda Ford will compete in the Democratic primary, with the winner facing Libertarian Michael Last in the general election.

North Shore Showdown

On the North Shore, incumbent Riviere is a Republican-turned-Democrat with a passion for environmental issues. Riviere, an Orange County, California, native who has lived in the district for nearly three decades, has represented the area in the House from 2010 to 2012 and in the Senate since 2014.

Riviere originally came to Hawaii after visiting the islands during a worldwide surf trip.

Hee, a Kaneohe-raised paniolo who’s spent 60 years in Windward Oahu, is seeking the Senate seat that he formerly held for a decade.

Riviere built his 2014 Senate campaign around opposition to North Shore development. Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat

Hee represented Molokai in the state House from 1982 to 1984. He was a state senator from 1984 to 1988, a trustee for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs from 1990 to 2002 and a state senator for District 23 from 2004 to 2014. Hee unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor in 2014 and weighed running for that office again this year after backing out of the governor’s race.

Hee endorsed Riviere after vacating his Senate seat in 2014 to run for LG.

Riviere “was the best of the bunch that was seeking the Senate seat, there’s no magic about that,” Hee said. “That’s all it is, the people who have asked me to run again have been disappointed with his record.”

Rivere questioned Hee’s motives in running for the Senate race after seeking higher office. Riviere has his own qualms with Hee’s record of community involvement as of late.

“I think the (District 23) senator really needs to be engaged and active and actually showing up,” Riviere said. “I think people appreciate having someone who’s always there for the community.”

Protecting lands zoned for agricultural use is a key issue for Rivere, as is getting a handle on illegal vacation homes.

High tourism numbers worsen traffic and wear down parks, beaches and trails, he said. The Hawaii Tourism Authority should be part of the solution, he said, adding that he had long advocated for additional funds for the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Riviere pointed to a bill he introduced earlier this year that would have transferred some of HTA’s budget to DLNR if the number of visitor arrivals exceeded 9 million in a year.

“We don’t have the infrastructure to support this huge influx, so we need to take better control of our natural resources,” he said.

Clayton Hee takes a break with his horse for the day, Jimminy.
Clayton Hee with his horse, Jimminy, in 2014. The challenger has served two stints in the Senate for a total of 14 years, as well as terms in the House and on the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board of Trustees. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Hee also cited environmental concerns among his main priorities and said he wanted to create a bypass road running through the North Shore area from Laniakea to Sunset Beach to ensure another travel option if roads become inundated.

“There’s no question that the sea level is rising — it’s already inundated many smaller (Micronesian) islands,” he said.

It’s important to ensure young people can stay in Hawaii, he said, noting a lack of good jobs and affordable housing. Hee, who introduced the bill to raise the minimum wage to its current level of $10.10 per hour, said he now supports raising it to $15 an hour and would introduce a bill to do so.

Riviere had $34,000 in his campaign fund, as of the latest June campaign finance report. He had received $14,000 and spent $10,000 this year.

Hee had about $100,000 as of June 30 and loaned himself $100,000 before dropping out of the governor’s race. He’s received $130,000 and spent $40,000 this year, though many of those expenditures and donations occurred before Hee switched races.

Rivere wasn’t shaken by his opponent’s money advantage.

“I’ve got all the money I need to deliver my message,” he said.

Hee has consistently held a progressive voting record. He has voted in favor of gun control, abortion rights, sex education and gay marriage.

Riviere voted against civil unions as a Republican. As a Democrat, he voted in favor of issues such as medical aid in dying, reducing marijuana possession penalties and allowing changes to gender on a birth certificate.

Open Seat On The Windward Shore

Keohokalole, a Native Hawaiian state representative whose  family has been in the islands for 500 years, assumed office in 2014. He’s lived in Kaneohe his whole life.

Sea level rise is already problematic during king tides, he said, and homelessness is an important issue on the Windward Shore, where he said it doesn’t get much attention.

Keohokalole said key issues such as the cost of housing can’t be neglected any longer. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Keohokalole pointed to the high cost of living on the Windward side of Oahu and said seniors on fixed incomes are hit particularly hard.

The median price of homes in Kailua is more than $1 million, according to data from real estate firm Locations.

Keohokalole hopes to bring an urgency to the office if elected.

“Now these issues are bubbling up into crises because we haven’t been paying attention, and now we have the political will because they’re top of mind in the community,” he said. “We can’t just throw money at these problems.”

Ito, a Kalihi native who’s lived in Kaneohe for 45 years, said he’s long heard younger candidates campaign on the promise of change and a lower cost of living.

“I see that kind of talk all these years and it’s not easy,” he said.

Ito said the state is underfunding its charter schools. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

An Air Force veteran, Ito noted that Senate District 24 includes the Marine Corps base. He said he understands military lingo, and the concerns of men and women in uniform.

Charter schools are important to the state representatives, a former teacher and House Education Committee chair. Charters are supposed to be places of innovation, he said, and need to be better funded in order to build or buy school facilities.

Charter schools receive less per pupil funding than other public schools. Many rent their buildings.

Ito said he wants to prevent the over-urbanization of Kaneohe.

Ito had $55,000 as of June 30. He had received $29,000 and spent $25,000 this year.

Keohokalole had $68,000 as of June 30. He’s received $49,000 and spent $36,000.

Keohokalole has maintained a more progressive voting record. Ito has generally voted along party lines on key votes, but has dissented on issues that involve guns, or gay and transgender rights.

Big Island Race Focuses On Health Care

Former Hawaii Council Councilwoman Brenda Ford and current Councilman Dru Kanuha will square off in the Democratic primary on the Big Island. Both cited housing and health care among their top priorities.

Brenda Ford 

Ford is originally from California. She’s lived in Kona for more than two decades and spent eight of those years on the Hawaii County Council.

Ford said she opposed the commercialization of rural Kau and supported efforts to boost the number of Big Island health care professionals by establishing a local training program.

She stressed the need for affordable housing, and emergency shelters with camping huts for homeless individuals living on the street. People with mental health problems are more amenable to treatment once they’re off the street, she said.

“I’m very protective of the people on this island and I would be the same way in the state,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to be taken advantage of.”

Ford has received a total of $4,000 from Rep. Richard Creagan and his wife, Marilyn. Creagan represents the area in the state House.

Dru Kanuha 

Kanuha, who’s lived in Kona his whole life, is making his first run at a legislative seat. He said he’s seen changes to the landscape in his lifetime and wants to protect the environment from threats such as cesspools.

Kona is growing quickly, he said, and there’s a need for affordable housing.

He wants to secure funding for a new hospital in an underserved area, and increase access to health care by expanding the reach of professionals the state already has.

“Keeping our community healthy, to me, is the primary kuleana of government,” he said. “It’s especially important here in West Hawaii since this Senate seat is so big and encompasses such a large area.”

The primary winner will face Libertarian Michael Last in the general election.

Michael Last 

Last, a New York native who’s lived in his district for 25 years, is retired from his work as an electrical engineer. He runs for public office often.

He wants to legalize gambling, stop forcing people to pay taxes and limit government assistance in events such as natural disasters — but that’s not why he’s running.

“If I wasn’t running, the Senate seat (District) 3 this year would be decided in the primary,” he said. “Giving them the choice means more to me than winning the seat.”

Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author