Preliminary reapportionment maps for Oahu are being branded as a “gerrymander” by one longtime Democratic lawmaker, and others plan to lobby hard for changes in the proposed plans that would force a dozen Democrats into primary contests with other incumbents in 2022.
As House speaker, Saiki appointed two members of the reapportionment commission that will give final approval to the new House and Senate district maps, and he is positioned to have considerable influence over the final product.
Saiki last week declined to be interviewed about reapportionment but said in a written statement that “over the next two months, the reapportionment commission will receive public comments, review the initial draft, and potentially revise the maps. I expect that the commission will do this in a bipartisan and fair manner.”
The nine-member state reapportionment commission is tasked with redrawing House and Senate districts as well and the U.S. House district boundaries using data from the 2020 U.S. Census.
Redrawing the boundaries is done to ensure each district has approximately the same population so that every resident gets equal representation.
This year, the process is being driven largely by population growth in the Ewa area and Kapolei at a time when the populations in many neighborhoods in East Honolulu have stagnated.
That means districts in the urban core need to expand to capture more people, and the commission has proposed that a House district in urban Honolulu be dissolved and replaced with an entirely new district in Ewa.
The East Honolulu House district that would disappear is now represented by Democratic state Rep. Bert Kobayashi, and the preliminary maps would redistribute pieces of his territory including Waialae, Kahala and Diamond Head among the surrounding House districts.
When asked if that plan is fair, Kobayashi replied that “it is a clearly gerrymandered map,” citing peculiar-shaped House districts with odd fingers of territory grafted onto existing districts that reach out into communities such as Diamond Head, Manoa and Waimanalo.
Kobayashi, who is part of the leadership faction that rules the state House, said he is unclear what role Saiki had in developing the initial maps, if any. “We don’t know what happened, and who led who,” he said.
“It could have been that the members of the (reapportionment) technical committee didn’t know what they were doing,” Kobayashi said. “I mean, ignorance and incompetence has been a reason many times for what happens at the Legislature.”
The new maps would place Kobayashi in the same House district as fellow Democrat Mark Hashem, but Kobayashi predicted that there will be “dramatic changes,” in the weeks ahead as the reapportionment commission accepts public input during a series of hearings, and faces pressure from critics of the maps.
The commission is scheduled to meet Thursday to take a preliminary vote on the proposed maps, followed by a series of public hearings for Oahu and the neighbor islands. It must finalize the maps by Feb. 27.
There is also some unhappiness in Leeward Oahu, where the new maps would combine Democratic state Reps. Matt LoPresti and Sharon Har in the same district, setting up a Democratic primary between those two incumbents.
LoPresti alleges he is being targeted by Kevin Rathbun, another Republican appointee to the reapportionment technical committee, after LoPresti defeated Rathbun’s daughter Amanda Rathbun in the 2020 Democratic primary election.
“It’s not about me … It’s about the process having no integrity, when you have a guy drawing the lines for his kid,” LoPresti said. “That’s never happened before. There’s never been anything close to that before.”
The proposed new maps would separate LoPresti from much of the Ewa Beach district he now represents, and combine his Ewa Beach neighborhood with Kapolei, where Har lives.
That potentially sets up a 2022 Democratic primary race with Har, who is a member of the dissident faction in the House, and has been estranged from the House leadership under Saiki.
Amanda Rathbun was living with her parents when she ran in 2020, but the new maps would separate the Rathbuns and LoPresti by putting them into different districts. LoPresti points out that would prevent any primary rematch with LoPresti in the event that Amanda Rathbun decides to run again.
Kevin Rathbun said that his involvement in the reapportionment process was vetted by the state office of elections and the attorney general’s office, and he was cleared to participate. He also said his daughter Amanda Rathbun has moved out of the district and the Ewa area, and does not plan to run again.
In Pearl City, Takumi and fellow Democratic state Rep. Gregg Takayama were also combined into the same district under the new maps, potentially setting up a primary race there. Takayama’s district was essentially expanded into the Manana area, including the neighborhood where Takumi lives.
Takumi is a longtime lawmaker, but he appears to have fallen from favor with House leadership under Saiki. Takumi was abruptly removed from his plum position as chairman of the House Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee after the 2020 election but said he does not know why.
Takayama, meanwhile, has been weighing a run for the state Senate, hoping to represent the Pearl City and Pearl Ridge neighborhoods that elected the late Sen. Breene Harimoto. But the new maps would essentially block that plan.
If Takayama made a bid for that district next year, he would face Democratic state Sen. Bennette Misalucha in the primary. She was appointed to Harimoto’s seat by Gov. David Ige last year after Harimoto’s death, and Misalucha went on to win a special election in November for Harimoto’s old seat.
The proposed new maps adjust the Senate district boundaries in a way that neatly excludes Takayama from Misalucha’s district. That was done by slightly expanding the district now held by Democratic Sen. Clarence Nishihara to include “a couple blocks” of the Momilani neighborhood near Waimano Home Road, Takayama said. That is the exact area where Takayama lives.
“My only regret would be that if the maps stay the way they are, I would not have the opportunity to run for the late Sen. Breene Harimoto’s senate seat, because Breene and I had worked together on many community projects benefiting our Pearl City community,” Takayama said.
The proposed new maps would also combine Holt and fellow Democratic state Rep. Takashi Ohno in the same district, and Holt said he will be lobbying the commission to seek changes to prevent that.
Holt is another lawmaker who is at odds with the House leadership under Saiki, and argues his status as a dissident accounts for the reapportionment proposal that would revise the district boundaries that could pit him against Ohno in the 2022 primary election.
If he cannot persuade the reapportionment commission to change the proposed maps, Holt said he will move so that he can continue to represent the Chinatown and Kalihi neighborhoods that now make up the bulk of his district.
Another lawmaker who said he may be forced to move is Democratic state Rep. Adrian Tam. The proposed new maps would separate Tam from almost all of the Ala Moana and Waikiki district Tam now represents, and would place him in Saiki’s mostly Kakaako district.
Tam said in a written statement on Sunday that unless the maps are changed, he is planning on moving so that he can continue to represent most of the Waikiki and Ala Moana neighborhoods he represents today.
In the Senate, meanwhile, the preliminary maps put freshman Democratic Sen. Laura Acasio in the same Hilo Senate district as longtime Sen. Lorraine Inouye. That would set Acasio up for a very difficult primary race with Inouye, who is a former Hawaii County mayor.
Ige just appointed Acasio to the Hilo Senate seat early this year to replace U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele, who was elected to the Congress.
Insiders at the Capitol suggest the new Hilo maps may be linked to some hard feelings when Acasio hired Kim Coco Iwamoto to work in her office during the legislative session this year. That was just months after Iwamoto nearly ousted Saiki in the 2020 Democratic primary.
Saiki won that primary race against Iwamoto by just 167 votes, and Iwamoto is expected to run for the seat again next year.
Acasio has been a political supporter of Iwamoto for years, and acknowledged that her hiring Iwamoto caused a stir at the Capitol last January. But Acasio said she doesn’t know if it could have affected reapportionment in any way.
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