Two years ago, state Sen. Lynn DeCoite narrowly kept her seat against one of Hawaii’s most well known community leaders, Walter Ritte. She’s aiming to do so again in the August primary, but this time it’s a three-way battle in the Democratic race for Senate District 7.

Maui County locator map

DeCoite and Ritte are both from Molokai. For the last eight years, DeCoite has served as a state lawmaker while also running one of the largest family-owned sweet potato farms in the state. Ritte, meanwhile, has become a legendary figure for his unwavering fight for Native Hawaiian rights, starting in the 1970s when he fought to stop the bombing of Kahoolawe to more recently protesting to halt construction on Mauna Kea.

Joining them in the race is Leo Caires, an entrepreneur and community leader from Kula. According to his campaign website, he’s served on a number of community boards, including on Maui County’s Cost of Government Commission and as the past chair of the Hawaii Board of Voter Registration.

Caires was also among three people — including DeCoite — selected by a group of Maui County Democrats last year who were tasked with finding possible replacements to fill the seat left vacant after now-disgraced former Sen. J. Kalani English retired. Caires did not respond to requests for comment.

The governor ended up choosing DeCoite, who is asking voters to elect her to continue representing them. She and the other two Democrats will face off in the Aug. 13 primary election. The winner moves on to the general election in November, going up against Republican Tamara McKay, who is unopposed in the primary.

Vote By Mail Ballot UPS Collection Box Elections 2020
Hawaii voters will start receiving ballots for the Aug. 13 primary in the mail by July 26. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2020

If history repeats itself, this year’s rematch between DeCoite and Ritte is bound to be a competitive one. During the last election in 2020, DeCoite was asking voters to re-elect her for a third time to represent House District 13. She won by just 94 votes. It was so close that it prompted a mandatory recount.

Whoever voters end up picking for the job this time around will be responsible for representing residents in one of the most physically — and financially — diverse Senate districts in Hawaii. Known as a “canoe district,” District 7 stretches across four different islands, including Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe and a massive rural swath of Maui from Upcountry to Paia to Kipahulu.

Among some of those living in the district: kalo farmers on Molokai who’ve stewarded land for generations to feed their families; Upcountry ranchers; residents of towns like Paia, Makawao, Pukalani and Hana; and even Larry Ellison, the tech billionaire who for $300 million bought 98% of the land on Lanai, where a growing number of longtime families are at risk of being pushed out.

If voters choose DeCoite to continue representing them, she said she’ll build on her experience to continue advocating for the funding and programs her constituents need while also being careful to acknowledge that each community requires its own set of unique solutions. Asked about her top priorities, DeCoite said: “It’s making sure the resources there are like urban Honolulu.”

Rep Lynn DeCoite during cesspool forum held at the Capitol.
DeCoite was first appointed to the House by Gov. David Ige in 2015 following the death of former Rep. Mele Carroll. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

In her almost eight years as a lawmaker, she said some of her proudest accomplishments include winning hundreds of millions of dollars for major projects in her district, fighting to stop Alexander & Baldwin from taking water from East Maui streams and, this year, helping to secure $600 million for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to build more homes.

“It’s always been about the basics — water, food, shelter, education — being able to survive in Hawaii and not having to leave,” DeCoite said.

Besides advocating for millions of dollars to upgrade and support local schools and teachers, she’s also pushed for bans on certain sunscreens that harm reefs and was an early champion of efforts to curb the dire overpopulation of deer, which are eating crops, destroying cattle pastures and hurting other delicate ecosystems on Maui, Molokai and Lanai.

Invasive deer are wreaking havoc on farms, ranches and neighborhoods across Maui County. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

Another major focus is trying to bring jobs to communities, particularly Molokai, where many residents have had to leave to seek out work elsewhere. That’s a point on which DeCoite is critical of her challenger, who’s been among those to protest development.

“From what I’ve seen, even on Molokai, our culture has left,” DeCoite said. “And people might say, ‘Oh, I like this lifestyle,’ but look at the families and name families that have left this island… Is that the lifestyle we want?”

Ritte sees it differently.

“What is my kuleana? What is my responsibility?” Ritte said. “It’s the same that I’ve been doing all of my life, which is to protect the life of these lands and to pass it on to the future generations.”

In the 1970s, Ritte was among a group of activists who occupied Kahoolawe to stop the U.S. Navy from using the island as a bombing range. Their efforts are credited with igniting the modern Hawaiian renaissance, ushering in an era of heightened cultural awareness, protection of Hawaiian rights and environmental stewardship. Decades later, he’s still a fierce activist and was among dozens of kupuna who were arrested as recently as 2019 for protesting the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea.

Walter Ritte gestures to other TMT protesters as he is among the kupuna arrested in 2019 for blocking the Mauna Kea Access Road. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Among the field of candidates trying to represent voters in Senate District 7, Ritte said he’s the person with the longest track record of fighting to protect Hawaii’s lands. If voters end up deciding he’s the best man for the job, he said he’ll work to help communities shift away from relying on “extractive” industries like tourism and instead invest in building circular economies — ones that focus on reusing, recycling and keeping resources within communities, rather than sending profits away to foreign-owned companies and investors.

As a state senator, he said he’d help advocate for communities looking to embrace traditional practices of land stewardship and farming, which sustained thriving Native Hawaiian communities for centuries. He also aims to drastically increase funding for the Department of Land and Natural Resources, an agency he argues has for too long been neglected by those putting together the state’s budget.

And to both spur the creation of jobs and boost environmental protection, he wants to stand up a workforce development program targeted at training residents in erosion control to prevent the islands from losing precious topsoil that’s choking shorelines and reefs.

Red dirt runoff on the west side of Molokai.
Red dirt runs off on the west side of Molokai. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“Everybody is — and rightfully so — is concentrating on jobs and homes and homelessness and those kinds of things that are happening within the cities,” Ritte said. “My kuleana is going to be making sure that we do not forget about what keeps us alive in the middle of the Pacific, which is our natural resources.”

This is an important election year for Maui County. In the months to come, voters will also be asked to reelect the mayor or choose a new one, along with weighing in on who they want to represent them in each of the nine seats that make up the Maui County Council.

They’ll also have the chance to support or reject a number of ballot measures, including those that could require the county to operate as a bilingual government and create a separate housing department. Plus, there are two other Senate and six House seats up for re-election in the county.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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