New Senate district boundaries on the Big Island have created a competitive Democratic primary race featuring longtime state Sen. Lorraine Inouye, first-term Sen. Laura Acasio and Wil Okabe, former head of the Hawaii teachers union.

Since 2014, Inouye has represented District 4 on Hawaii island, a large area that includes Hilo, Hawi, Waikoloa and Waimea. But the new legislative district maps drawn by the Hawaii Reapportionment Commission last January have shifted Inouye into District 1, which encompasses the greater Hilo area.

Gov. David Ige appointed Acasio to fill the District 1 seat in January 2021 after U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele vacated it to run for Congress, making her a relative newcomer but also the incumbent in the Aug. 13 primary.

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District 1 is still familiar turf for Inouye, who lives along the Hamakua coast just north of Hilo. She was born in Hilo and raised on a nearby sugar plantation in what she described as “the Filipino section.” A former hotelier, Inouye has previously served as Big Island mayor, county council member and planning commission member. She was also a state senator from 1998 to 2008.

Sen Lorraine Inouye Civil Beat post crossover panel.
Sen. Lorraine Inouye is running to represent District 1 this election after changes to district boundaries last January. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

“I’m the hometown gal,” she said.

Inouye’s long political resume is impressive but could also be a liability, said Acasio.

Voters are hungry for change, she said, especially in light of recent corruption scandals that have rocked Hawaii state politics — though none have involved Inouye.

Originally from Los Angeles, Acasio is a 25-year Hawaii resident who has worked as a public-school teacher, doula and lactation counselor. She served for five years on the State Central Committee for the Hawaii Democratic Party and three years as an executive board member of the Surfrider Foundation, according to her campaign website.

She’s passionate about environmental protection, civic engagement, and accountability and transparency in government.

“My approach in life I also apply in the Senate. It’s from a place of complete aloha and transparency, truth telling and integrity, and community-based learning,” Acasio said.

One of her overarching goals, she said, is to “transcend special interest politics that currently rule the Legislature” by supporting reforms to boost transparency. She touted the recent convening of the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct and said she’s hopeful the group comes back with good reforms, which includes proposals submitted by her office.

Sen. Laura Acasio is running to keep the seat that the governor appointed her to fill last year. 

The nine-member commission’s charge is to examine government practices, including election laws, open meetings, ethics, campaign finance, fraud and criminal prosecution laws. The body issued an interim report in March and is expected to release its final recommendations in December.

Okabe, a former teacher and former head of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, also served as managing director in the administration of former Big Island Mayor Harry Kim from 2016 to 2019, according to his resume.

He did not respond to messages seeking comment.

During the 2022 legislative session, Inouye served as majority whip while also chairing the water and land committee and vice-chairing the transportation committee.

Some of the top accomplishments Inouye points to include spearheading funding for major buildings and improvements at the University of Hawaii Hilo and at Hilo Medical Center. She also cites her support for the $93 million Hale Kaulike, the Hilo Judiciary Complex, and pressing for major improvements to Hilo Harbor’s Pier 4 cargo wharf, Daniel K. Inouye International Airport and Saddle Road, which connects Hilo and Kona.

During her prior tenure in the Legislature, Inouye said she secured funding for a new gym at Hilo High School and worked to develop portable recreational facilities for Kalanianaole School in Papaikou, among other accomplishments.

Wil Okabe served as managing director under former Mayor Harry Kim. 

If she wins the District 1 seat, Inouye said her top priorities will be improving transportation infrastructure, encouraging the construction of affordable housing projects, combatting homeless and tackling the effects of climate change.

Inouye said voters should choose her because of her leadership skills, deep experience, and the public confidence she has built over many decades in elected office.

“I’ve been there so long,” said Inouye. “There’s a lot of trust that people have given me.”

Acasio thinks voters in the district want new energy and alternatives.

“They want transparency in representation. They want their voices heard, not those of lobbyists. They want their lawmakers to be accessible,” she said.

Acasio also sees herself as someone who can bring greater collaboration between state and county government.

“I was surprised to learn that there is relatively little coordination between the two branches. And I have seen that when the two levels of government work together, greater progress is made,” Acasio said. “That’s something that I bring to the table.”

Inouye has raised $194,000 for her campaign, with nearly $48,000 donated to her from April 26 to June 30, the most recent reporting period. She spent $38,000 during that same period.

One of Inouye’s largest donors is Everett Dowling, president of the Maui-based Dowling Company. The real estate developer contributed another $2,500 to her campaign last month, bringing his total to the max $4,000 allowed for Senate races.

The Plumbers and Pipefitters political action committee has also given Inouye $4,000 this election. Other large contributors include is Barbara Umamoto, executive vice president of Hilo Fish Co., Hawaii Realtors PAC and the ILWU Hawaii PAC.

Acasio received $28,000 during the most recent reporting period this summer and has raised $35,000 since she’s been in office, spending just under $10,000 on her campaign to date.

Her largest three contributors are the pro-choice Patsy Mink PAC, former Hawaii deputy attorney general Edward Bohlen and Kim Coco Iwamoto, a business owner, attorney and former Board of Education member. They have each given $4,000.

Read more of Civil Beat’s election coverage here.

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