A pair of millennials is squaring off in the upcoming Democratic primary for House District 3 that includes parts of Hilo, Hawaiian Acres, Kurtistown and Keaau on the Big Island’s windward side.
Incumbent Chris Todd, 34, and opponent Shannon Matson, 36, will face one another in the Aug. 13 race. Both say they know and respect the other. And they agree on a lot, especially when it comes to the challenges their communities are facing.
There’s the crippling cost of living in Hawaii; the state’s severe housing crisis; sky-high food, gas and housing prices compounded by historic levels of inflation; climate change threats; crime and lack of public services in rural East Hawaii.
They also agree that the state’s general excise tax is regressive, and that wealthier people need to pay more of their fair share to decrease the growing income gap.
So, what sets them apart?
“It’s a difference in style. I’m a very easy person to get along with. I’m very much into building coalitions. Shannon comes from more of an advocacy background,” Todd said.
He took pains to say that doesn’t mean Matson is hard to get along with. They share many core values, Todd said. It’s more that his opponent has a background as an activist, a role that naturally implies pushing an agenda and being vocal.
“We may differ on some specifics or on how we prioritize our policy agendas. Beyond that, I think the most obvious contrast would be the six years of experience I have as a state representative,” Todd said.
Matson said their political fundraising distinguishes them.
She pointed out that she has only accepted donations from local residents to fund her campaign, with the exception of a $2,000 donation from the Patsy Mink PAC, which supports pro-choice female Democratic candidates. By contrast, Todd has accepted donations from unions representing teachers and longshore workers, a Realtors’ association, and an insurance and financial advisers’ PAC.
Matson had raised a grand total of $5,286 as of June 30, and spent just $237. Todd’s campaign donations total $55,742, including money left over from a prior race. He has spent $12,000 on advertising and related campaign expenses since January.
Todd and Matson were both born on the Big Island, graduated from the University of Hawaii, and are raising young children.
During a phone interview with Civil Beat, Todd’s 4-year-old daughter repeatedly, and understandably, sought her dad’s attention. Asked if he would like to reschedule for a more convenient time, Todd responded in a way many parents of young children might appreciate.
“I doubt there’ll be a better time,” he said, laughing.
Besides being a third-term legislator, Todd coaches football for the Hilo High Vikings and formerly worked at Suisan Fish Market and Hawaii Paper Products.
He said he’s motivated to seek re-election “to do more for working-class families in our state.”
Rising inflation on top of Hawaii’s already exorbitant costs are pinching nearly everyone’s wallets, including his own.
“On a personal level, it’s the first time I have had to make tough decisions at the grocery store,” he said.
He cites the roughly $7 cost of a dozen eggs at his local store as eye-popping. Todd lives in lower Waiakea, an urban neighborhood in the heart of Hilo’s industrial area.
“It feels like we’re heading to the tipping point.”
Matson is aware of the situation. A former health food store manager and yoga entrepreneur with two kids of her own, Matson watches prices closely and recognizes that food insecurity is a real problem among many households in the district.
During the pandemic she set up an emergency food distribution program, feeding about 100 families weekly.
More recently she was working as a social services navigator for Vibrant Hawaii up until last month. Vibrant Hawaii is a community-based organization that connects residents with resources and helps to build self-sufficiency.
“It’s important for constituents to have someone who understands what living in a rural area entails. While there are probably many areas that my opponent and I see eye to eye on, there is no substitute for lived experience,” said Matson, who lives in the Puna district.
If elected to represent District 3, Matson said one of her top priorities would be to get funding to improve road conditions. In the area around where she lives in the Hawaiian Acres subdivision, there are dozens of miles of unpaved roads with no maintenance by the state or county. They’re called roads in limbo.
“There’s zero infrastructure,” she said. “Everyone is on catchment, or they fill up bottles of water at one of the county spigot sites, and bring their water from there or they haul water in some fashion. Most of us are on solar or generators.”
Some households are connected to the electric grid. Others aren’t. And because individuals have to pay the utility if they want to connect to the grid, it’s cost-prohibitive for many.
“We have very limited services as far as police, fire and EMS,” she said. “If you’re having a heart attack, it can take them 45 minutes to get to you.”
Matson was active in the redistricting process because she was concerned the Census surveys were under-representing the population.
“It’s been neglected and ignored for far too long and ultimately it is resulting in our electorate being disenfranchised as voters, since we now primarily vote by mail,” Matson said, noting how many in the community have to wait long periods to get a P.O. box or use general mail delivery. “We need to make sure that everyone has equal and equitable access to secure and reliable USPS mail delivery. There’s over 1,000 people in my district alone who do not have access to their own mailboxes.”
This isn’t Matson’s first run for elected office. Two years ago, she challenged incumbent Richard Onishi and lost by almost 20% of the vote.
She served as vice chair of the Democratic Party of Hawaii from September 2021 to May 2022. She ran to become party chair but lost by 20 votes.
The winner of the Democratic primary will face Aloha Aina candidate Devinshaw McMackin. There is no Republican running in the race.
Learn more about Matson, Todd and other candidates seeking county, state and federal offices this election in their Civil Beat candidate Q&As here.
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