Lynn DeCoite and Walter Ritte are probably two of the best-known people on Molokai – they have each been active community leaders for years — but they seem to be tugging the rural island in opposite directions.
They are competing this year in the Aug. 8 Democratic primary to represent House District 13, a so-called “canoe district” that includes Lanai and Molokai as well as Hana, Haiku and Paia on Maui.
Ritte, 75, is famous statewide for his many years of activism and demonstrations, including his involvement in the pivotal protests on Kahoolawe in the 1970s, and his role last year at the barricade on Mauna Kea blocking construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.
He is an outspoken critic of genetically modified crops including the GMO seed industry, and has fought initiatives that would expand the tourism footprint on Molokai. Tourism is “something that we need to control,” he said, and the pandemic has dramatized the need to grow more food in Hawaii.
DeCoite, 49, is more the establishment candidate. She was appointed to the House seat by Gov. David Ige in 2015 following the death of former Rep. Mele Carroll, and won election to the seat in 2016 and 2018.
She runs one of the largest family-owned sweet potato farms in the state, operating a farming and ranching operation with her husband on Molokai on Hawaiian Home Lands and leased state lands.
DeCoite’s sweet potato is not GMO, but she supports farming of genetically modified crops and “all kinds of agriculture, because I know for a fact, you cannot feed the people without it.”
When the pandemic began, DeCoite said she donated thousands of pounds of sweet potato and worked with food banks to distribute groceries – including genetically modified items – “and I never see nobody turning away the food,” she said.
DeCoite said she farmed GMO seed corn under a contract with Monsanto for four or five years in an effort to diversify her farming operation, but said she later dropped the crop.
Ritte surprised some observers when he filed in May to run as a Democrat instead of linking up with the newly formed Aloha Aina Party, but he said that was largely an issue of timing.
Aloha Aina was unable to qualify for the ballot in 2016 and 2018, and Ritte wasn’t sure as he prepared to run if it would make it this year, either. The new party is “definitely” more in line with his values than the Democrats, “and maybe next year I’ll be part of the Aloha Aina Party,” Ritte said.
Although he is running as a Democrat, Ritte said he thinks the values of the ruling party “are dictated by a lot of the outside corporations coming to Hawaii.”
“Everything we’re doing here in Hawaii is either imported or being done by corporations coming from the outside. That’s one of the problems that we have here in Hawaii,” Ritte said.
Ritte describes himself as a fishpond operator and a hunter, and he argues state government should be investing a much larger share of its resources in promotion of food crops for local consumption.
He also wants greater investment in the state Department of Land and Natural Resources for environmental protection of public lands, and wants to create a state conservation corps to put people to work removing invasive species, replanting native forests and handling similar tasks.
Ritte first became known statewide for his role in the Kahoolawe protests, where activists traveled to the island in an effort to stop the military from bombing it for target practice. Those protests are seen as a turning point in what is sometimes described as the “Hawaiian Renaissance,” or revival of Hawaiian activism and culture.
Ritte was sentenced in federal court to a six-month jail term and fined $500 in 1977 for venturing to Kahoolawe as part of those protests, and newspaper accounts described that as the stiffest sentence imposed on a protester at that point.
But Ritte also has a fairly lengthy record of other arrests, and only some of his encounters with law enforcement over the years involved protesting. Ritte said he does not recall how many times he was arrested – “I’ve never stopped to count,” he said — but said he was never involved in a violent protest.
In 1978, Ritte was arrested on a felony marijuana charge, and took a deferred acceptance of guilty plea in that case. He went on to become part of the first group of Hawaiians to be elected in 1980 to the board of trustees for the newly created Office of Hawaiian Affairs, but another arrest in 1984 led to his removal from that office.
In that incident, Ritte was a passenger in a truck that was stopped on Molokai Ranch on suspicion of illegal night hunting. He was eventually convicted of firearms and ammunition charges along with illegal night hunting and hunting without a license, and he was sentenced to a five-year term of probation and a one-year suspended jail term.
Ritte also pleaded no contest in 1988 to creating a fire hazard after a rubbish fire in his backyard caused a major brush fire.
The fire burned for days on forest and range land around Kaunakakai, and newspaper stories put the amount of land that was scorched between 4,500 and 9,000 acres. The prosecutor in that case wanted Ritte jailed for the incident, but the judge sentenced him to a fine and 500 hours of community service instead.
A decade later, then 53-year-old Ritte was charged with two counts of criminal property damage after he was accused of burning down a cabin that was being renovated on Molokai Ranch in 1995, and destroying 5 miles of ranch water pipeline in 1996.
Ritte, who has often been an outspoken critic of plans to expand tourism on Molokai, was acquitted of damaging the pipeline, but eventually pleaded guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge of third-degree criminal property damage in connection with the fire. Under the terms of a plea agreement, prosecutors dropped a felony charge, and Ritte was sentenced to a year of probation and 500 hours of community service.
And last year, Ritte was among a group of kupuna or Hawaiian elders who were arrested on Hawaii island for blocking the Mauna Kea Access Road to prevent construction of the $2 billion Thirty Meter Telescope. That case is still pending in Hilo District Court.
DeCoite was a member of the Molokai Planning Commission and the state Board of Agriculture before her appointment to the House in 2015, and was also part of the Molokai Workforce Development Agricultural Working Group.
She cites her efforts to help Hawaii farmers comply with federal food safety requirements as one of her top accomplishments in office. The requirements demanded that some farmers change the way they operated and increased their costs, and an inspection to demonstrate compliance could be expensive, she said. Some farmers were simply giving up and shutting down.
DeCoite helped to arrange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in state funds to be earmarked for grants for farmers who were trying to adjust their operations and become certified.
She also pointed to her efforts to secure construction funding for schools in her district, including Haiku Elementary School, Paia Elementary School, Molokai High School, Hana Elementary and High School and Lanai Elementary and High School.
Recent projects include $18 million the Legislature appropriated for new classrooms at Paia Elementary to help support the Hawaiian language immersion program there, and $110 million lawmakers approved for design and construction of a bypass road to route traffic around Paia.
She compares the employment situation on Lanai, which has more jobs, with that of Molokai, where “we don’t have the jobs, because protests have stopped a lot of it. At some point you’ve got to agree that some of it was good, but a lot of it, we need jobs, because we believe culture is key, carrying on generational families. So, if there’s not jobs, your culture leaves.”
DeCoite is critical of Ritte’s efforts to limit the growth of tourism, saying the protests have helped to drive out both tourists and investors, and limited job creation, she said. Still, DeCoite said the pandemic demonstrates that Hawaii has become too dependent on tourism, and she also argues the state should boost support for agriculture.
The winner of the primary election will face Republican Robin Vanderpool of Paia and Aloha Aina candidate Theresa Kapaku of Hana in the November general election.
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