In war, the soldier who “walks point” on patrol in enemy territory is always the first target.
So it was with Elle Cochran. During her eight years on the Maui Council, Elle walked point her first four years as the first grassroots candidate elected countywide to represent a fledgling progressive movement. In her last two-year term she was the most visible – and vocal – standard bearer for the Aloha ‘Aina (love the land) coalition running under the Maui ‘Ohana (family) banner.
The longtime Maui councilwoman lost her bid for the mayor’s office on Nov. 6.
From the outset of her tenure, the off-the-grid farmer, who “always has mud between my toes” and grew up in the 1970s above her mother’s bar in the “wild west days of Front Street in Lahaina,” called out Maui’s entrenched plantation-era power structure for “putting profit before people.”
Known to admirers and detractors alike as Elle, she kept Alexander & Baldwin Co., and Maui Land & Pineapple Co., squarely in her sights as she advocated for more local government transparency. She blamed the county’s lack of “truly” affordable housing on high-end real estate development. She sided with Native Hawaiians in their legal fight against corporate landowners trying to hold on to scarce, contested water diverted from small farms to “paved-over” population centers. She advocated freeing up corporation-controlled agricultural lands for small farmers to help Maui residents achieve food sustainability.
A festering splinter in the old guard’s backside, Elle refused to shut up and sit down, even when establishment peers played hardball and skipped committee meetings she chaired, forcing adjournment for lack of a quorum. When this tactic prevented her from passing legislation, critics labeled her ineffectual.
Elle was the progressive movement’s sole voice on the council from 2011 to 2015, but voters were paying attention. In the 2016 election she got the most votes of any council candidate. Also scoring high tallies were Maui ‘Ohana newcomers Kelly King of South Maui and Alika Atay of Wailuku-Waihe’e-Waikapu.
This election, women and grassroots candidates made history.
Six of the nine Maui council members elected were women and on Jan. 2, progressives will have a 5-4 council majority. But instead of having Elle as their new mayoral ally, they will work with veteran politician and establishment candidate Mike Victorino. Of nearly 50,000 votes cast, he defeated Elle by 4,979 votes.
She lost for several reasons.
Her campaign refused to accept donations from special interest groups that didn’t square with her conscience. Less money meant less media spending and high-visibility advertising. Victorino far outspent her: two weeks before the election he had a war chest surplus of $38,205.81. Elle had $13.25 in her campaign account.
Some voters were turned off by her part in a 1993 robbery of tourists at gunpoint in Lahaina, when she was arrested with a male friend later convicted of the felony and sent to prison. Elle, then 28, pleaded no contest to second-degree attempted theft, performed 200 hours of community service and served five years’ probation. In 2010 she received a certificate of discharge from the Maui county clerk which cleared her to run for public office.
Voter backlash also surfaced against Elle’s outlier “us versus them” criticism of revolving door politicians bound to the status quo through generations of financial, family, business, social and civic ties.
One longtime resident privately wondered if voters “view her, rightly or wrongly, as an angry young lady.” Elle turned 54 two days after the election.
“I have no regret. I worked as hard as I could.” — Elle Cochran
Addressing that negative attitude head on, like she tackles most things, Elle said in an interview before the vote she tried “to bring awareness of what really goes on in council politics … It is not a fun, happy, pleasant place to be a lot of the time. … I try to bring awareness of what’s going on but then I hear ‘Oh, there goes Elle again, she’s so anti this and anti that’.
“But I’m not. I try to be open and real, diplomatic, and do it in a polite, courteous and respectful way. It’s just not easy.”
Verbal sparring with fellow council members bent on neutralizing her effectiveness also drove voters to Victorino’s camp over concerns she could not be a strong mayor.
“I’ve never said I’d vote ‘yea’ with reservations or vote ‘no’ with reservation,” she said in the pre-election interview. “With me there are no reservations. It’s a clear yes or no. I’m behind it or I’m not. I don’t straddle both sides, I never sell out my values and my philosophy and what I stand for. Ever. What you see is what you get with Elle.”
What voters got on Election Day were opposing candidates with similar messages. The majority chose Victorino’s version.
“Elle’s voice on the council and the truth she spoke was the voice of the people,” said Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, Molokai’s incoming freshman council member, said after the election. “Victorino adopted a lot of Elle’s platform, but it was never her personal agenda, it was the people’s agenda. Elle has the voting record, she walked the talk.
“Elle spoke the truth and was raw about it. That’s Elle. A lot of people wanted to hear the raw truth, not sugar-coated. She was the lone Aloha ‘Aina voice for a long time. She paved the way for more of us. She empowered our communities, empowered those who felt their voices weren’t lifted up and had been shut out for a long time.”
The five Maui ‘Ohana council members emphasized in post-election interview questions their independence and willingness to collaborate with establishment candidates Riki Hokama, Lanai; Yuki Lei Sugimura, Upcountry; Alice Lee, who defeated progressive incumbent Atay, and Mike Molina, Makawao-Haiku-Paia.
“We each have our own style, skill set, experience and personalities,” Rawlins-Fernandez said. “We ran because we want to get things done.”
Her freshman colleague Tamara Paltin, representing West Maui, agreed that “we all have our own individual styles.”
“Elle has always been the spark that encouraged me to step up, from Honolua (Coalition) days to now the county council,” Paltin said. “I recognize that we would not be where we are today without the foundation she has laid and the battles she has fought to further our efforts to Aloha ‘Aina.”
East Maui council newcomer Shane Sinenci called Elle a ‘true champion for the people of Maui nui. It is clear who she works for by the monetary contributions she received for her political campaign … her efforts toward Aloha ‘Aina and environmental stewardship, and her dedication to the Hawaiian culture.”
King, re-elected to her South Maui seat, said Elle’s council staff was “very helpful to me in my first term.”
Natalie “Tasha” Kama, a first-timer in the Kahului seat, worked closely with Elle in a local nonprofit and said that since she’d been on the council “Elle has demonstrated her commitment to bringing about social justice change for Maui County. She has been a constant force for change before her role on the council, and I presume she will continue on.”
Three days after her defeat, Elle said “I have no regret. I worked as hard as I could.”
“What is there to be sad about?” she said. “There’s no ‘poor me’ or pity party that I lost, especially since the Aloha Aina majority can shine a bright light on the minority and keep fighting for the people.”
“I woke up early (the day after the election), laid on the beach, soaked up the sun, jumped in the ocean, visited my cultural advisor, went to my (Waiola) church and cleaned the grave of an unknown person buried there,” Cochran said. “It felt good to pull weeds, make the ground look nice. I’m a farmer, I get dusty and dirty.”
She said she’ll spend the next few months thinking about how to “put to use all the things I’ve learned, the first-hand insight, the experience I have to offer as a resource. I’m not going to curl up in a ball and hide in the (Honolua) valley.
“For sure I’ll still be protecting our reefs and reforestation of our watershed, diving in the ocean cleaning up marine debris, picking up trash on the beaches, up in the mountains taking care of invasive species,” she said.
“My husband Wayne wondered a few weeks ago ‘what ever happened to the surfer girl I married?’ she said, ending the interview to ride predicted high waves.
“The one thing I know for sure as I consider my future is that I’m going to get in a lot more surfing and spend more ‘think time’ at the beach.”
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