The leader of the Hawaii Republican Party likes to use the phrase “competition of ideas” when she describes her vision for local politics.

“The best thing we have to run on is to give Hawaii a balance or at least a two-party system where people can have a choice,” said Shirlene Ostrov. “Low voter turnout? There is a reason for that. There isn’t a choice.”

It isn’t a new argument, nor one unique to Hawaii. But the dominance of the Democratic Party here is unusual, because a majority of state legislatures, governorships and Congress are dominated by the GOP.

“Being a Republican is tough in Hawaii,” says Ostrov. “And it wasn’t just this year, it wasn’t just the election of Mr. Trump. It’s been that way, a steady decline of representation in our state Legislature.”

Shirlene Ostrov interview.
Hawaii GOP Chair Shirlene Ostrov in the Civil Beat office Sept. 7, stating the obvious: “Being a Republican is tough in Hawaii.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

That trend could easily continue. Republicans now hold just five of the 76 seats in the Hawaii Legislature. All four members of the congressional delegation and the governor and lieutenant governor are Democrats.

The GOP has struggled to find viable candidates. More than 40 of the 64 legislative seats on the ballot this year have no Republican candidate.

And yet, Ostrov thinks that her party may still be able to chip away at the Democrat’s legislative dominance in the Nov. 6 general election. Indeed, picking up a few seats would constitute a major victory for the minority party.

To do that, Ostrov says that she has been solely focused on recruiting candidates and campaign volunteers, training and funding them and putting Republicans in office. She’s had help from the Republican National Committee and the Washington, D.C.-based Leadership Institute.

“It’s not about policy but organizing the community,” she said. “That’s hard to do these days. But I think there is frustration with the current state of the state. We need a competition of ideas. Iron sharpens iron.”

Also-Rans And Unknowns

While Ostrov believes the party has several strong legislative candidates, this year’s “up ballot” candidates (those who have been running for federal and statewide offices) have been a mix of also-rans and relative unknowns like John Carroll, Ray L’Heureux, Cam Cavasso, Steve Lipscomb, Jeremy Low, Ron Curtis and Brian Evans.

Barring a miracle, Democrats including Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Sen. Mazie Hirono and former Rep. Ed Case are cruising back to Congress. Gov. David Ige and state Sen. Josh Green, who is running for lieutenant governor, are expected to triumph too.

The local GOP’s best prospect for a contested race is arguably state Rep. Andria Tupola, the House minority leader who is running for governor against Ige. The race also includes a Green party candidate and a nonpartisan.

Tupola is widely praised as a rising talent. But she is paired with running mate Marissa Kerns, an outspoken small businesswoman and unabashed supporter of Donald Trump. Kerns has publicly demanded that Tupola acknowledge that her voting record has been too liberal.

Marissa Kerns, a GOP candidate for lieutenant governor, has made opposition to Honolulu rail her top priority. Chad Blair/Civil Beat

Reporting on a party fundraising dinner last Friday launching the party’s fall campaign, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Sunday said that the unity message “wasn’t resonating” with Kerns, who was said to have cursed and complained at the event about what she perceived as marginal treatment of her by Tupola and the GOP.

Kerns told me Tuesday that she had wanted to sit next to Tupola at the dinner, where the keynote speakers were seated, and at one point raise her arm together with Tupola’s to show unity.

“The opportunity was not given to me,” Kerns said Tuesday.

Can they work together?

“You know what, we are a team but we have a different outlook on how we proceed and promote ourselves out there,” she said. “Our platforms are completely different. I am very conservative. I don’t have to explain anything else. We need to take our state back and take care of corruption and where all the tax money goes.”

Speaking of herself in the third person, Kerns added, “Marissa comes in to disrupt, to re-evaluate everything.”

Rep. Andria Tupola at Civil Beat’s Know Your Candidate event Aug. 2. She and her running mate, Marissa Kerns, aren’t exactly on the same political page. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Asked about Kerns’ demand for an apology, Tupola’s campaign spokesperson, Jo Ann Poly Calvo, said Tuesday, “I think that one is an old story at this point.”

Do the running mates have any planned appearances coming up?

“None scheduled so far,” Calvo said.

Are Tupola and Kerns a team, then? Calvo said she would get back to me with a comment from Tupola. Nothing yet.

Despite Kerns’ statement, she and Tupola do appear to share some views.

“Andria’s vision is to build a Hawaii where more people can stay in this place they call home for generations to come,” according to Tupola’s campaign website.

The way to do that is through decreasing the cost of living, creating healthy conditions for businesses to thrive and to champion education and the underserved.

I think there is frustration with the current state of the state. We need a competition of ideas. — Shirlene Ostrov

Kerns’ priorities include cutting taxes to lower the cost of living and ending corruption in state government. On Monday, she called on the Trump administration to cancel “all remaining federal dollars” for the first 20 miles of the “34-mile rail construction project” in Honolulu. (It’s unclear where the mileage figure came from.)

Kerns also wants a forensic audit of the project. She is worried that “tens of millions or more in property taxes will need to be immediately diverted” to rail construction. Property taxes are currently not tapped for rail.

Many voters may not get the chance to directly size up Tupola and Kerns against Ige and Green, however. Tupola has unsuccessfully challenged Ige to debates on six islands.

“He claims to represent the people, so we should be open and transparent about our knowledge of community issues and our plans to address their pressing needs,” said Tupola in a press release Sept. 7.

Thus far, the only Ige-Tupola joint appearance is set for Oct. 29 on KITV, a debate that will include Civil Beat’s participation. Late Tuesday, the Ige campaign announced it was accepting an invitation to “a unique format” event Oct. 15 on KHON that includes Green and Kerns “in a simultaneous discussion.”

“The Ige campaign is not aware if the other candidates have accepted KHON2’s invitation,” the press release states.

Calvo, Tupola’s campaign spokesperson, said, “We don’t have a KHON debate on the books. First I’m hearing about this.”

Focus On Legislative Races

As former Republican Party chair and governor, Linda Lingle showed a promising way to grow the GOP is to win the top offices and bring others along on the coattails.

But Ostrov’s focus is “down ballot,” and she identified several races where Republicans might break through. They include two open legislative seats representing the Ewa Beach area.

Kurt Fevella is a former Campbell High football standout active on the neighborhood board and dealing with homelessness. He faces Rep. Matt LoPresti, who hopes to succeed fellow Democrat Will Espero, who resigned the District 19 seat in June to unsuccessfully run for lieutenant governor.

“It’s an open seat, and Matt has his challenges,” said Ostrov, referring to an embarrassing moment in August when LoPresti apologized after removing an opponent’s campaign flier from a constituent’s door.

LoPresti’s Senate bid opened House District 41, where former Democratic lawmaker Rida Cabanilla aims for a comeback. Ostrov has high hopes for Republican Chris Fidelibus, who founded an ocean diving and fishing business and works as a Realtor. Ostrov notes that Fidelibus is married to “a beautiful Filipino lady” active in the Catholic Church.

“Rida Cabanilla has her challenges and is controversial,” said Ostrov.

Cabanilla’s indiscretions include misusing campaign funds and helping a nonprofit obtain $100,000 in grant-in-aid money to clean up a plantation cemetery.

Ostrov is also banking on Diamond Garcia (“a wonderful young man”) to unseat Sen. Maile Shimabukuro in the District 21 seat representing Waianae. Same story with Repubican Val Okimoto, a CPA and substitute teacher looking to succeed Rep. Beth Fukumoto in Mililani in a race against former Democrat lawmaker Marilyn Lee.

One key to GOP victories, said Ostrov, is to demonstrate that the party has values that resonate with what she described as the conservative views of many Asians and Hawaiians.

“Things like accountably, where we want our government to be accountable for reckless spending,” she explained. “We don’t want to give all responsibility over to government. We think a strong family, communities and churches should have some responsibility. Opportunity too, the American dream, which is hard to reach here.”

‘RINOs, Whackos, Neophytes’

But headaches and obstacles to Ostrov’s goal continue to mount.

Sai Timoteo, Tupola’s chosen successor in House District 43, was ruled ineligible to run because she was born in American Samoa.

Meanwhile, The Washington Examiner reported Tuesday that a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel was filed asking for an investigation to determine if Don Benton, director of the U.S. Selective Service System, violated the Hatch Act by speaking at the Hawaii Republican Party fundraiser.

And, earlier this month, Mark Blackburn resigned as the party’s finance chairman.

An image from an Aug. 24 Hawaii Republican Assembly press release. 

“Our party is unable to spend its money and support its nominees because Committeewoman (Miriam) Hellreich, along with Vice Chairman Pat Saiki, are colluding with the one-man-band of Eric Ryan,” Blackburn said in a press release. “Eric Ryan exists only to stop the Hawaii Republican Party from fulfilling its role as the political opposition to Hawaii Democrats.”

Ryan leads the Hawaii Republican Assembly, a breakaway group that argues the state GOP is not sufficiently conservative. He has called Tupola a RINO (“Republican in name only”), a “liberal whacko” and “the socialist prom queen of litter pickups.” He calls Ostrov a “neophyte” who “is single-handedly torpedoing the 2018 campaign through an unprecedented level of incompetence, corruption, dysfunction, and megalomania.”

Of the Timoteo challenge, Ostrov said the party believed that Timoteo was, in fact, qualified.

“It is unfortunate that she is not on the ballot, but we have to focus on other races,” she said.

About Benton, Ostrov said he told her he was at the Hawaii dinner in his private capacity.

As for Blackburn and Ryan, Ostrov said the Hawaii Republican Party is just like the national party and also the Democratic Party in that it represents a “spectrum” of views. She said she was grateful for Blackburn’s work for the party and noted that Ryan was kicked out of the state GOP.

“Anybody who pops their head out to run the party and to try and be successful will get whacked down,” she said. “And that’s just the way it is. But I can’t say that it’s been fun. It’s very, very tiresome.”

Ostrov concludes: “But in the end I know I am doing the right thing. And I would say that the rank and file are behind me. This us an unpaid position. It is my hobby, but I believe in it. I’ve been in battle before. This is a little bit more personal, but we have to unite the party and move forward. We need a competition of ideas.”

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