With their incumbent vacating his seat to run for U.S. Senate, voters in Ewa Beach and Iroquois Point – one of only four Republican House districts in Hawaii – will decide this November whether to keep District 40 Republican or to vote in a Democrat for the first time in a decade. 

This may be a less consequential decision than it sounds.

“There’s too many regulations for a lot of businesses to come in here and do business,” said Wayne Kaululaau, one of the candidates. “People will probably say, ‘Wait, what party is he running for?’ But I’m a Democrat, I’ve been a Democrat for my entire life,” he said. 

Kaululaau isn’t the only Democratic candidate with Republican-esque leanings. While all candidates agree on education as being a priority issue for Ewa Beach, Democrats are hoping that their sympathy toward some socially conservative views will resonate with the voters in their district. 

“I am definitely probably conservative on a number of issues myself,” said Julie Reyes Oda, another Democratic candidate, chuckling before adding that she’s also “very liberal” on others. 

This shade of Democrat might have a hard time winning elections in places like proudly progressive San Francisco. But in Ewa Beach – where Republican Bob McDermott trounced his Democratic opponent by 15 percentage points in 2020 – it gives the Democratic candidates a fighting chance.

Portraits of four of the five candidates for House District 40. Starting from the top left and continuing in clockwise order: Rosebella Martinez, Wayne Kaululaau, Julie Reyes Oda, and Michael Starr. Janie Gueso, another candidate, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Clockwise from top left: candidates for House District 40 are Democrats Rosebella Martinez, Wayne Kaululaau and Julie Reyes Oda, and Republican Michael Starr. Janie Gueso, another GOP candidate, did not respond to multiple email and phone requests for an interview. Submitted photos

Relative to other districts on Oahu, Ewa Beach sports a young population. Almost a third of its residents are minors, while more than four-fifths of its households are families.

Far from downtown Honolulu, Ewa Beach grew from a sparsely populated area known for sugar cane plantations to a family oriented suburban community. 

One of the few relatively affordable spots left on the island, its residential layout ensures that many people need to commute outside the area for work. In rush hour traffic, this can stretch to about an hour or more each way in the car.

Kaululaau spent much of his career operating TheBus, which allowed him to eventually work his way up to president of the Teamsters Local 996 labor union, and he lamented the traffic leaving Ewa Beach each weekday morning. 

“We have to find different alternatives to get out of there,” he said.

He proposed that a bus-only lane on the highway could be a great option, though admitted being unsure of the idea’s legality. 

“It’s something I would really look at,” he said.

Improving Education Resonates With All

Drivers on their way to H-1 via Fort Weaver Road pass about 10 schools, including the largest in the state, James Campbell High, where more than 3,000 pupils are enrolled.

Education’s a salient topic in the district, its relevance reflected in how candidates market themselves – Kaululaau’s website, for example, refers to his experience as a Campbell security officer. 

In fact, of the five running – three for the Democratic nomination, two for the Republican – all list some sort of work experience for the state Department of Education. 

Generally, candidates running for office in Hawaii are in sync on the issues, says John Hart, a professor of communications at Hawaii Pacific University and frequent political analyst.

“All the candidates pretty much agree on what to do and what’s important,” he said. 

In the case of District 40, this is most evident in candidates’ approaches to education. 

“If you’re going to educate a population to be the absolute best they can be – the best possible education they can get – everybody is going to benefit, period,” said Michael Starr, one of the Republican candidates. 

Starr subbed in Leeward district classrooms for four years after working as a Tokyo-based data reporter for Bloomberg News and earning an MBA.

He supports implementing more computer science into the school curriculum, framing this as a way to boost students’ competitiveness in the global economy. The recipient himself of a private education at Westminster School in Connecticut, he articulated the view that improving education is the fundamental lever for improving society. 

“As long as the teacher’s saying, ‘I know everything, you know the rest and listen to me,’ then the kids aren’t learning how to learn,” he said. 

Campbell High has some great teachers, he said – but by fully shifting to an attitude of encouraging students to surpass their educators, it could become the best school in the state. 

Reyes Oda began subbing in the district before she eventually pivoted to teaching math at Nanakuli High and Intermediate. Like Starr, she also said that improving education is a priority.

“The best thing to do is having an educated bunch of people that’s out there to advocate for themselves in the proper venue,” she said. “Then you don’t have people who are being taken advantage of.”

DOE Department of Education building.
Education is a salient topic in family-oriented Ewa Beach. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Attracting good teachers – and retaining them for longer than just a few years – is necessary for this, each candidate said. This can be done through increased pay, a topic addressed by Gov. David Ige’s signing in June of a state Senate bill to do just that.

But no candidate said that Act was sufficient. 

“Let’s put it this way: no matter what they think of right now, it’s still not enough compared to the national average,” said Kaululaau. 

Rosebella Martinez – a candidate for the Democratic nomination, and a former teacher at Lanakila Baptist School – said that teachers could be further enticed if they were provided housing.

“Housing is the most expensive thing that we incur here in Hawaii,” she said. 

While each candidate expressed strong opinions on education in general, some were less comfortable taking a stance specifically regarding sexual education.

Rep. Bob McDermott, the current GOP incumbent who’s now running for U.S. senator against Democrat Brian Schatz, partially made his name by opposing Pono Choices, the culturally sensitive DOE sexual education program aimed at preteens. 

Asked about a bill that McDermott opposed earlier this year seeking to mandate LGBT inclusivity training for teachers, Reyes Oda was hesitant to impart her own opinion. 

“I would really like to see how Ewa Beach feels about this,” she said. “If I was going to represent Ewa Beach, I really got to represent Ewa Beach, not me.” 

Man surfing in Ewa Beach, with the Honolulu skyline and Diamond Head far off in the distance.
Ewa Beach’s distance from downtown Honolulu means that many parents spend hours of their workday commuting through traffic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

More broadly, the DOE allows parents to pull their children from classrooms when the material being taught is controversial, a policy that Reyes Oda said she supports when it comes to sex education. 

Each Democrat made a point to stress that sex education in schools should have limits. 

“We should educate the kids according to the age-appropriate education,” said Martinez. 

While she’d prefer if people just abstained from sex before marriage, “nowadays, you cannot tell that to kids. So you have to educate them to know what to do … then they can choose,” she said, drawing on her experience in the medical field when she’d encounter pregnant teenagers.  

Kaululaau went as far as saying he thinks sex education should be restricted to the home, though added that as a legislator he’d want to talk with the community and go with the majority opinion.

“That’s who I work for,” he said. 

Republican Stronghold

The district has voted for McDermott, a Republican, since 2012. After a tight first race in which he won by only 2 percentage points over Chris Kalani Manabat, his winning margin has increased; when Martinez first opposed him in 2014, he beat her by 24 percentage points, his first of four double-digit victories over her.

She’s hoping this time will be different. 

“I think I just need to educate the voters that being a Democrat is not as bad as they think,” she said, using her personal aversion to abortion as an example while also clarifying that she’s pro-choice for other people. 

Reyes Oda – who’s also pro-choice – said that when she knocks on doors, she builds to this position by starting from a place she thinks Republicans can understand: She supports guns, citing her experience making her own bullets with her stepfather while growing up. 

“I think Republicans on that side, they like individual rights – and I do believe in that, too,” she said. “But it’s not pick and choose whenever you feel like it.” 

For his part, Kaululaau would prefer abortion only being allowed in certain cases: rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother. He noted that he wouldn’t want to criminalize it, though also repeated the stance that in general, he’d want to stay in line with his constituents’ beliefs.

Colin Moore, director of the University Hawaii Manoa’s Public Policy Center, said he wouldn’t be surprised if a Democrat wins the Ewa Beach House seat this time around.

“This is a relatively conservative Democratic Party,” he said.

There’s reason to believe he could be right. Financial reports show that Kaululaau’s raised the most money in the race so far, largely coming from local labor unions.

In some ways, the parties here generally differ less than in other areas of the country. 

Even Starr’s position against relying on school vouchers diverges from the typical Republican script.

“It’s a stopgap – it’s not a long term solution,” he said. “A long term solution is that every single school moves up.” 

Starr originally pulled papers as a Libertarian before switching to Republican, reasoning that the parties’ overlaps would be enough to make a viable case for himself for the nomination. 

He faces Janie Gueso, whose family runs Silva’s, a grocery and liquor store that’s a staple of Ewa Beach. Gueso did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

For Starr, who’s spent significant periods of time living on the mainland or abroad, Hawaii’s unique political landscape can be surprising. 

Maybe, he theorized, it has to do with Hawaii’s physical distance from the mainland, which could make people from both the Democrat and Republican parties err toward political self-sufficiency. It’s definitely no San Francisco.

“Even the Democrats here sound libertarian sometimes,” he said. 

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