Andy Sexton spent much of his music career playing political fundraisers.
A singer and accomplished saxophonist, Sexton was always comfortable in front of an audience. But it wasn’t until this year when the Aloha Aina Party was organized that Sexton decided to take a chance and run for office.
The party was a breath of fresh air and offered a new voice in the Hawaii political scene at a time Sexton was trying to answer one question for himself — what do Native Hawaiians want?
“I decided the best way I can try to make a difference is to get into the race,” Sexton said, adding that he was not sure what he was getting himself into.
Sexton’s opponent in the Nov. 3 general election is House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti, who was first elected in 2006 and has maintained a comfortable lead over challengers in each general election since then.
Sexton along with the other Aloha Aina candidates and party leaders are getting ready for an uphill struggle in their first general election, especially against strong Democratic incumbents like Belatti.
Updated: They all have a long way to go in a state that has never seen a third-party candidate win any state elected office.
Third parties have, in the past, won seats on county councils before those races became nonpartisan. They’ve also had an impact on elections by either drawing votes away from Democrats or Republicans or forcing incumbents to run competitive races.
In the August primary, most of the 15 Aloha Aina candidates received between 1% and 3% of votes in their respective races, according to a review of election results. The party’s political action committee reported no contributions and spending in all of 2020.
Days before the Aug. 8 election, the party had to reorganize to meet requirements set by the Federal Election Commission so that Jonathan Hoomanawanui, a candidate for Hawaii’s Second Congressional District, could advance to the general election.
The party also had to reorganize because Aloha Aina Party Chair Donald Kaulia said two of the party co-founders, Pua Ishibashi and Desmon Haumea, had to be removed from the party’s LLC because they were running as candidates.
Ishibashi has since returned to work with the party after losing his bid to represent Hawaii island on the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board of Trustees. Haumea advanced to the general election and will face Gregor Ilagan and Hope Cermelj in the race for House District 4.
But after overcoming those hiccups, the party has brought on more volunteer staff to redesign its website and help marketing, according to Kaulia.
The party elected to not run competitive races in the primary election and instead focus its candidate resources on the all-mail Nov. 3 general election. Ballots are expected to be mailed out around Oct. 5.
Campaigning will ramp up after the party’s first convention, planned for Oct. 16, where the party will unveil its 2020 platform, Kaulia said.
He declined to dive into specifics but said that it will involve much of the party’s founding principles. The party plans to stump on issues like economic diversification, renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and investment in future industries like space and the health care system, according to Kaulia.
“I’m anticipating the work involved with candidates getting into their districts and earning those votes,” Kaulia said.
Kaulia, a descendant of Hawaiian Kingdom loyalist James Kaulia, said the party still plans to target registered voters who did not cast ballots this election. Prior to the pandemic hitting Hawaii, the Aloha Aina Party and its candidates helped register people to vote.
Turnout for the primary was 51.2%, the highest it’s been in decades thanks to a new vote-by-mail system and a hunger for new faces in local politics. Kaulia hopes to target the approximately 388,000 voters who are registered but did not cast ballots in the primary election.
Turnout for general elections tends to be higher than primaries, especially in presidential election years.
Kaulia hopes to attract some of those voters with promises to reform business and education, and find new ways to drive economic growth.
“Did we fix anything when COVID-19 hit? We should have focused on the people, and ways to survive,” he said, recounting stories from now-jobless hotel workers on Maui and Hawaii island.
A “hunger for change” is what drew Sexton to the party.
“For me, the Aloha Aina Party was a breath of fresh air for education and politics and making voices heard,” the Makiki resident said. “It’s for folks that are quiet, that don’t talk but want to.”
Sexton said his work with the Papakolea Community Center has exposed him to issues residents in the district face.
Since Oahu has been on lockdown since Aug. 27, Sexton’s campaign has relied on cold calls in lieu of door-to-door visits and contacting friends and family to help spread the word about the upcoming race.
Joseph Simpliciano, an Aloha Aina candidate in the race to represent Waianae and Makaha in House District 44, first pulled papers in March to run as a Republican. By the time Simpliciano filed in April, shutdowns brought by the coronavirus had already damaged the local economy.
“It was this whole COVID-19 situation,” Simpliciano said in explaining his decision to run on the Aloha Aina ticket. “We realized that capitalism failed. It doesn’t sit right with islanders or the way we conduct ourselves.”
Simpliciano, a Waianae neighborhood board member, was one of the Aloha Aina Party’s top vote-getters, receiving about 6% of votes cast in the primary election for his district. Shaena Hoohuli, who is running to represent the neighboring House District 43, also got 6% of the votes in her race.
Third parties in Hawaii have not been successful.
Most have platforms that tend to fall somewhere on the political spectrum already encompassed by the Democrats and Republicans. So what often results is the third party cannibalizing votes from either party while never winning election themselves, former state representative and political observer Jim Shon said.
Shon said a new party that’s likely to draw some votes from Democrats in the state may help out Republicans in their races. It would be tough for a party to distinguish its platform from promises already made by either of the two larger parties.
“The third party thing is a kind of fantasy idealism that backfires for its purposes,” Shon said.
But third parties and factional Democrats have managed to get races closer than would be comfortable.
In Hawaii politics, there’s the example of the 1994 governor’s race, in which former Democratic Gov. Ben Cayetano won a plurality of votes, but Frank Fasi’s Best Party along with the Republican and Green party candidates captured 62% of votes in the race.
No third party candidate has won a seat in either chamber of the Legislature since statehood. In 2016, the Libertarian Party fielded 10 candidates for legislative seats. All were thumped by Democratic incumbents and finished last in their races.
This has not stopped those groups like the Aloha Aina Party from trying.
In the general election, the party is fielding 15 candidates, one to represent Hawaii’s Second Congressional District and 14 legislative races.
The party is forcing four House incumbents — who would have otherwise cruised to re-election — to run competitive races.
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