Republicans are looking to recapture one Senate seat and hold on to another in the Nov. 3 general election, which could mark the first time in a decade that the GOP has held more than a single seat in the 25-member chamber.
In Ewa, Minority Leader Kurt Fevella is fending off a challenge from Rep. Rida Cabanilla, who is leaving her House seat to make a run in the Senate District 19 race. And former Minority Leader Sam Slom wants his District 9 seat back from Democratic Sen. Stanley Chang, who beat him in 2016 to represent Diamond Head to Hawaii Kai.
Fevella and Slom are among six candidates the GOP fielded in Senate races for the general election out of 14 Senate seats up for grabs this year. Six Democratic incumbents have no opponents in the general election and will go on to retain their seats.
The outcome of these races won’t likely alter the Senate’s Democrat-dominated leadership, but having more Republican senators could mean more discussion of alternative budgets, more dissent on measures and new coalitions in the Senate — all things Slom says he plans to do.
Republicans have not had majority control of the Senate since 1962. They haven’t even had significant numbers since 2008, when Republican Linda Lingle was governor.
Like other incumbents running this year, Fevella and Chang have a money advantage over their opponents. Cabanilla and Slom have raked in just a few thousand dollars each from various individuals, according to the candidates’ most recent campaign finance reports as of Aug. 8.
A clearer picture of each candidate’s financial position in the campaigns will emerge Thursday when the next round of campaign finance reports are due.
Slom spent nearly 20 years in the Senate, five of those as the chamber’s only Republican, before being unseated by Chang in 2016.
“This district has changed a lot in four years. It’s gotten older; there are more Democrats that have retired here,” Slom said. “But the problems are the same.”
Those problems include housing and the cost of living. Slom doesn’t support government mandated raises to the minimum wage, and has previously introduced bills to cut the inheritance tax and corporate tax.
He also thinks food and medical supplies should be exempt from the state general excise tax. Measures to do both were introduced last session but didn’t make it far. The administration has raised objections over potential revenue losses.
“Old people aren’t out there partying, they are eating and trying to take care of their medical bills,” Slom said.
Slom has previously introduced alternate budgets to those proposed by the Senate, and he said he plans to do that again if he wins by cutting some experimental programs in state departments that have underperformed.
He also doesn’t support the new stadium development in Halawa, and wants the rail line to stop at Middle Street.
Slom thinks the government needs to go beyond incentives to support new businesses, and has proposed designated zones where certain regulations are relaxed to help stimulate business and development.
While Chang has reservations over the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, Slom, along with a majority of the Legislature, supports its construction on Mauna Kea. He uses it as an example of projects the state can’t usher through to completion.
He also thinks the Legislature should have greater oversight of the governor’s emergency powers. He doesn’t want to limit those powers granted to mayors and the governor, but wants to require them to come before the Legislature if an emergency period must be extended beyond 60 days.
Slom is also critical of Chang’s plans to develop more affordable housing. For at least the last two years, Chang has pushed for aspects of those plans in the Legislature, but not all have been successful.
Chang’s plan, based on housing development policies in Singapore, would build along the rail line units priced at just over $300,000. Building industry leaders have said it could be done, but would require massive coordination between local companies, landowners and the government.
Chang believes the plan could help with climate change since centering the population around the rail line may lessen dependence on cars. He also hopes the plan could stimulate the economy by pumping money into the construction industry.
While not all aspects of his plan have caught on, Chang said he’s glad he and other lawmakers have at least started to tackle the issue and now have some proposals.
He hopes that, at a minimum, a measure to allow state lands to be leased for 99 years passes soon.
“It ensures comfort that they won’t outlive their lease,” Chang said of tenants. “That’s the security people are looking for.”
Bills that would do that died in the last two sessions.
This year will mark Chang’s first attempt to win reelection in Senate District 9. He beat Slom 13,400 votes to 11,900 in 2016 after a campaign in which he outraised and outspent the 20-year political veteran.
Chang’s campaign has been bolstered by support from various labor unions, which have been big spenders this year, as well as companies like Matson Navigation Co., Anheuser Busch, Outrigger Hotels and the local Realtors association.
He also has support from other lawmakers, including Senate President Ron Kouchi.
Slom’s campaign donors this year include Sharon Nagasako ($4,000), defense attorney Michael Green ($2,000) and “Broken Trust” author Randall Roth ($400).
Cabanilla, who was first elected to the House in 2004, says she’s ready to attempt to jump to the Senate. Former House representatives like Lt. Gov. Josh Green, former Honolulu City Council member Kym Pine and former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard — all of whom were elected around the same time as Cabanilla — have moved on from the House.
Cabanilla served as chair of the housing committee between 2009 and 2013. She also had a brief stint as majority floor leader before losing her seat in 2014 to Matt LoPresti, but she won it back in 2018.
Cabanilla also says she wanted to jump to the Senate because there’s half as many people she needs to convince to get onboard with any of her proposals than in the 51-member House.
Cabanilla was one of several representatives who pushed for a program to fly homeless people to the mainland. As Housing chair, Cabanilla was known as a homeless advocate and says she’s now frustrated with rising counts of the homeless in Hawaii despite more government money being spent to find solutions.
Now, she wants better oversight of how those monies are spent and called for more affordable housing.
Asked for more detail on her plans to address homelessness and housing, Cabanilla said she’d draft an “action plan” after the election.
“When I get there, I’ll write my action plan,” she said. “That’s what I’d do in business. It’s the same thing.”
Besides housing, she wants to introduce a bill that gives hemp farmers a chance to regrow plants if tests find that the hemp plant contains too much THC, the active compound in cannabis plants that makes one high.
Fevella also wants to grow the agricultural industry, and use it as a way to bolster tourism and the movie industry.
“Elvis Presley, look at his movies, the idea was advertising to tourists,” Fevella said. “Pineapples, coconuts, swimming, surfing everything about Hawaii. We need to go back to that concept.”
The state’s economy needs tourism to prop it up in the short term, but most industry leaders are also looking for ways to bring back a different kind of tourist, one that doesn’t just come for sand and surf.
But state lawmakers have looked to movies to help diversify the economy.
In 2019, the Legislature raised the annual cap on tax credits allotted to the industry to $50 million. Act 275 also necessitated a transfer of University of Hawaii West Oahu land to another state agency, presumably to create an area for movie production.
Fevella said he supports incentives for industries and agriculture, and also wants to help UH West Oahu’s efforts to bolster its creative media programs.
In his two years in the Senate, none of Fevella’s bills have made it into law.
He has supported several measures that cleared the Legislature, like a buffer zone around landfills and licensure of midwives. The only GOP senator also said he wants to try again to introduce a measure banning non-Hawaii residents from owning homes.
He has provided a dissenting voice in the Senate on gun measures and a bill to remove exemptions for police disciplinary records.
In the primary, Cabanilla easily defeated John Clark, her Democratic opponent, 4,500 votes to 2,600. Fevella, who ran unopposed, got 4,300 votes.
But Fevella — who is supported by labor unions like those representing carpenters, teamsters and public workers — has the money advantage with over $20,000 in his campaign chest. Cabanilla has about $5,100 as of Aug. 8, and most of her donors were individuals, not special interests.
Fevella’s profile has also been raised slightly with his membership on the Senate’s special COVID-19 committee, which has taken the governor’s administration to task over failed pandemic response efforts.
Fevella says he’d be glad to share the workload among other Republicans if they are elected. As it stands now, he’s assigned to all 16 Senate committees.
“I’m not a person that’s territorial. I’m open-minded and willing to work with them,” he said.
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