Michelle Kwock is running for public office, but you wouldn’t know from talking to her. Sometimes even she forgets.
“My chance of winning is extremely slim,” she says.
She’s not wrong. Kwock’s running as a nonpartisan, meaning she’s not affiliated with any political party in Hawaii.
Looking back to 1992, the earliest available data, no independent candidate in Hawaii has won office while running in a partisan race.
“I don’t have to win,” said Kwock, who’s a candidate for Senate District 13, covering Chinatown and Pacific Heights. “I’m throwing out a few ideas out there for consideration.”
She’s up against Democratic incumbent Karl Rhoads, who’s represented the area as a senator since 2016 and was the House member for the area for a decade beforehand. Matthew Tinay is the Republican in the race and Kapono Souza is on the ballot for the Green Party.
Kwock is one of two nonpartisan candidates who survived Hawai’s primary and will be on the ballot for the Nov. 8 general election.
The other is Brian Ley, a candidate in House District 4, which covers a chunk of the Big Island including Leilani Estates and Hawaiian Paradise Park.
He has a different goal: “Winning,” he said.
Ley’s running against Rep. Greggor Ilagan, the incumbent Democrat who won his seat in 2020, Republican Kekilani Ho and Libertarian Candace Linton.
It’s a high hurdle. Nonpartisan candidates run in Hawaii’s primaries each election cycle, with varied levels of success. This year, two of the nine hopefuls made it to the general, about the same as 2020 when two out of seven advanced. Actually winning office remains a challenge – but however short their time in the limelight, nonpartisan candidates are keen to use it.
In Hawaii, candidates run without party designation for mayor, prosecuting attorney, county councils and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
But in partisan races – for governor, lieutenant governor, and the state and federal legislatures – candidates don’t do well with voters unless they’re affiliated with a party.
This is because Hawaii’s election rules say you can only advance to the general election as an independent candidate if you get at least 10% of the total votes, or if you get more votes than the least popular partisan candidate.
Kwock only got 61 votes in the primary, but that was more than the 42 votes received by Green Party candidate Kapono Souza. And Ley only got 45 primary votes, but the Libertarian candidate in his race, Candace Linton, did worse with only 22 votes.
“The only reason I made it this far is because of the Green Party,” Kwock said.
Now she’s headed to the general.
The rules make it hard to advance — even Ilagan, the incumbent who Ley’s challenging, gives Ley “big respect” for managing to do it.
But Ley wasn’t surprised at the result. Linton is his ex-wife, and she ran as a Libertarian, as a favor, to help him advance.
Independents Don’t Fit With With Any Party
This wasn’t Ley’s first run as a nonpartisan candidate for the district.
He’s a passionate hunter and serves on the Big Island’s Game Management Advisory Commission, focusing on issues related to animal habitats and advocating for the use of feral pigs to help stem Hawaii’s food insecurity.
Ley explained that he’d contacted legislators to express some of these opinions, but was frustrated when he didn’t hear back.
“And I just said, ‘You know what, if they’re not even going to talk to me, I’m just going to run for office,’” he said.
“Most of the time I’m in the middle.” — Brian Ley
His first attempt in 2020 didn’t get very far.
Ley mistakenly believed that he’d automatically advance to the general, since he was the only nonpartisan candidate in his race, so he told people to feel free to vote for another party’s candidates in the primary. He was surprised when his name didn’t appear on the general ballot.
“I didn’t read the fine print on nonpartisan,” he said.
Different states take different approaches in handling nonpartisan candidates, and Ley had misunderstood Hawaii’s rules.
In Illinois, for example, independent and third party candidates must pass a threshold of petition signatures, which automatically puts them on the ballot for the general. In California and Washington, “jungle primaries” are used to advance the top two candidates regardless of party.
Despite the challenges nonpartisanship brings, Ley decided to try again in 2022.
He describes his views as sometimes left, sometimes right, though “most of the time I’m in the middle,” he said.
In his view, party politics make it hard to maintain this independent streak. Politicians, he said, are “not answering to the people anymore. They’re answering to the party.”
As an example, Ley pointed to Democratic efforts to abolish cash bail, which passed the Legislature earlier this year before being vetoed by Gov. David Ige.
“They’re the same thing as the Democrats, just the other end of the spectrum,” he said.
Kwock, 30, said her motivation was to give voters the option to vote for a younger candidate.
“If you look at all the candidates, they’re mostly middle-aged males,” she said.
As a younger, female, Asian candidate – one who gets around her urban district without a car, opting instead for a folding bike – she feels she represents a different demographic than Rhoads, the incumbent.
Rhoads, who also doesn’t own a car and has introduced pedestrian-friendly legislation, congratulates Kwock for advancing, and said that he’ll see her on the campaign trail.
Other than a few years at Boston University, where she studied biology and public health, Kwock has spent most of her life in the district.
She works for the Hawaii Department of Health as a national strategic stockpile planner, and is a strong proponent of car-less alternatives and health.
The victim of 10 bike thefts, by her estimate, Kwock has written guest essays for Civil Beat that argue for better bike parking options, as well as embracing telework as a new normal. One of her biggest priorities as a candidate is advocating for a better long-term care system, where caretakers don’t need to be employed 30 hours per week to qualify for state aid.
She doesn’t jibe with the Republican party – Donald Trump’s policies caused too much “chaos,” she said. Meanwhile, Democrats are always elected in Hawaii, and she wanted to represent something new.
“I am pretty sure my chance is really slim.” — Michelle Kwock
“I’m not too familiar with any of the other minor parties, so that’s why I decided, ‘why not run as a nonpartisan?’” she said.
Her decision to run was mostly spontaneous, though commenters on her pieces had also encouraged her to run, which helped.
Both candidates declared that they’d collect and spend no more than $1,000 for their campaigns, so they’re exempt from submitting regular finance reports to the Campaign Spending Commission, other than a final report at the end of the election cycle.
Previous election results show that nonpartisans who make it this far typically end up polling no more than 15% in the general.
Ley’s hoping to overcome these odds, but while Kwock said it’d be great if she wins, she’s not really considering it a possibility.
She was surprised she made it this far at all. And anyway, if she were to win, she doesn’t know what she’d do with her job at the health department.
“I’ll have to think about it, after November,” she said. “I am pretty sure my chance is really slim.”
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