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The state House race between Democratic freshman Rep. Stacelynn Keahaulani Eli and Republican Diamond Garcia has become one of the hardest fought legislative contests this election as the GOP tries to gain ground in the Legislature.
The District 43 House seat runs from Ewa Villages to Nanakuli and Maili on the Leeward Coast, and until two years ago it was represented by Republican Rep. Andria Tupola. She vacated the seat in 2018 to make an unsuccessful run for governor.
Eli replaced Tupola in the House that year, but her fellow Democrats believe she is now vulnerable in her first run for re-election. Garcia made a surprisingly strong showing his first bid for office in 2018, when he earned more than 4,000 votes in an unsuccessful campaign for the state Senate seat that includes the House District 43 neighborhoods. Incumbent Democrat Maile Shimabukuro won with 5,800 votes.
Democrats in the House and their allies are donating generously to Eli’s campaign, including more than $6,000 in contributions from various public worker unions this year, and $13,000 from private sector unions involved in the construction trades.
Another $7,600 in contributions flowed directly to Eli from the Hawaii House Political Action Committee and her Democratic colleagues in the House, and another $4,000 was kicked in by a cadre of top-tier lobbyists who operate at the Capitol.
That largesse allowed Eli to raise more than $70,000 for her campaign as of Sept. 26, while Garcia raised about half that amount.
Garcia’s donors included Trump Hawaii Victory Campaign Co-Chairman Allen Frenzel, former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle and Republican House Minority Leader Gene Ward. Garcia works as Ward’s chief of staff at the Capitol, where the Republicans hold just five out of 51 House seats.
Garcia, who will turn 23 on Election Day on Nov. 3, is a Nanakuli resident whose primary focus is homelessness, which he said has been steadily increasing on the Waianae Coast.
Garcia’s own family ended up homeless “multiple times” during his childhood, and he said he has two siblings who are homeless today. Garcia sold books door-to-door as a teenager to help cover the cost of his education at Hawaiian Mission Academy, and graduated from the Seventh-day Adventist Hartland College before returning to Hawaii.
He said his experiences growing up made him a Republican, and obviously influenced his policy proposals.
He recalls a time when most of the adults around him were selling their food stamps to get money for drugs. He still has friends who are addicts and have small children, and “they sell their food stamps for cash, and their kids go hungry, and to me, that’s just not acceptable,” he said.
One of the first bills he plans to introduce would legally mandate that cashiers demand identification from people who use electronic benefit cards under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as “food stamps.”
He also wants the Department of Human Services to sink more resources into helping the homeless, including helping them to obtain legal identification. The lack of ID cards for homeless people is a critical problem because it prevents them from applying for benefits and finding work, he said. They also need bus passes to get to job interviews and to help them apply for housing, he said.
“If you are on assistance, DHS should be helping you to get on your feet, period,” he said.
Garcia is also concerned about truancy, which has been on the upswing during the pandemic. He wants to find ways to get youth back in school, whether it be a hybrid online form of instruction or in-person classes.
He also wants to overhaul the educational offerings in schools in the Leeward Coast to focus more on vocational and technical education, because 70% to 80% of the students in his community end up in blue-collar jobs, he said. The schools should be preparing them for that, Garcia said.
Eli, 36, got a pass in the 2018 general election when her would-be Republican opponent Sailau Timoteo was deemed mid-election to be ineligible to run because she was born in American Samoa and was not a U.S. citizen.
This year Eli has the advantage of being an incumbent, and cites her successful effort to secure $36 million in public facilities construction projects for the district during her first term.
That included $28 million to add a fifth lane on Farrington Highway between Helelua Street and Hakimo Road to ease the flow of commuter traffic; design and planning money for an auditorium for Nanakuli High School; and funds to build a covered area over a pavilion at the Nanakuli Public Library.
She also secured money for solar panels on a covered parking area at Nanakuli Elementary School to provide green power and emergency power for the school, which doubles as an emergency shelter.
Eli was raised on Hawaiian homesteads in Nanakuli and graduated from Nanakuli High School, and describes herself as a fifth-generation homesteader. Her grandfather was a civil engineer and her father and brothers work or worked in construction, and Eli was a department manager and interior coordinator for Lowe’s Home Improvement until she was elected.
She served on the Nankuli-Maili Neighborhood Board for two years, was active with the Young Democrats of Hawaii, and was deeply involved in the nonprofit Nanakuli Performing Arts Center.
More recently, as a lawmaker she has been scrambling during the pandemic to answer inquiries about unemployment, food distribution and financial assistance. She volunteered to help with unemployment applications and food distribution events, and described her efforts tending to constituents’ needs as “my actual job.” Her campaign is secondary, she said.
“Right now my focus is opening the economy, getting my constituents and the rest of the state back to work,” she said. Her district was hit hard by the lockdown and its impact on the Ko Olina Resort, which employs many of her neighbors.
Small vendors in the district have also been struggling after the pandemic closed the small open air craft fairs and markets, and Eli said she has been trying to find new venues for those vendors.
Gov. David Ige has been in negotiations with the public worker unions over possible public employee furloughs, which Ige hopes to use to cut payroll costs by $300 million to help the state cope with a huge budget shortfall. Eli declined to say what what she thinks of that idea. “I’m still watching it,” she said.
Garcia also said he is not prepared to say if he supports furloughs for public workers. “If it’s going to be blanket across-the-board, I don’t know, that might hurt us even more,” he said. “I can tell you one thing, I don’t support any furloughing in the (Department of Education), period,” and he would oppose any move to cut teachers’ salaries.
On the issue of minimum wage, Eli said she would like to see the state minimum wage increased “at some point,” but “I think right now I’m more focused on just opening up the economy.” She declined to say whether she believes the current $10.10 per hour minimum wage is too low.
Garcia said that given the severe impact of the pandemic on small businesses in Hawaii, he does not support any increase in the state’s $10.10 per hour minimum wage for at least the next five years. “The fact is, most places that you start off at pay more than $10.10,” he said.
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