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Oahu Politics Manipulating Maui’s Central District

Maui Beach (photo: sunsplash, flickr)

Maui Beach (photo: sunsplash, flickr)

For the past four Hawai’i legislative sessions there has been a rebellion against the good’ol boy, ethically challenged Calvin Say faction by a group fed up with Rep. Say’s leadership.  An example of Say’s, shall we say, loose interpretation of ethics rules was the situation with supporter Rep Joe Souki.

Souki took a paid job as a lobbyist for the chemical corporations who wanted to kill the proposed ban on plastic bags – while he was serving in the Legislature! Souki asked Speaker Say whether he could be a lobbyist for these corporations and not only vote on the measure  but also speak against it on the floor.  Say’s response?  “Oh sure.  That’s no ethical conflict

Now you may be saying to yourself, “This sounds like typical GOP behavior.”  You’d be right but you’d be wrong about the party to which they belong.  Yep, these guys are masquerading as Democrats.  That’s because Hawai’i is so thoroughly Democratic that one cannot usually be elected as a Republican and if some miracle occurs and one is elected, one is completely shut out of any power or ability to influence legislative actions. Thus many Democrats are really Republicans who’ll join any party in order to get into power.

In 2008 the struggle between the Say supporters and those fed up with the corruption came to a head with both sides evenly matched.  Only one vote was needed to topple Say and his group.  Say’s new target was dismantling Hawaii’s environmental laws at the behest of the corporations financing their campaigns.  This did not go down well with half the House.

Enter little Central Maui House district.  Long-time House member, Rep Bob Nakasone, owner of the Ameritone Paint franchise in Kahului, was suffering from lung cancer.  Say prevailed upon him to run for one more term, knowing that it was dicey whether Nakasone would even live long enough to take office.  Nakasone was re-elected and made exactly one vote before succumbing to his disease.  That single vote put Say back in power for 2 more years.

After that Rep Nakasone’s seat was vacant and stayed that way for months.  Central Maui had no legislative representation thanks to Oahu’s manipulation of their election.

In Hawai’i the District Council of the Democratic party (if the State official is a Democrat) puts forward three names for the governor to pick as a replacement.  On Maui, the actual workers of the party (precinct and district officials) are much more progressive than the candidates who usually win the popular vote.  So here’s what the District Council gave to then-governor Lingle (yep, the same Lingle on whom the GOP is pinning their hopes for a GOP Senate) as a choice.  I imagine there was a lot of gleeful laughter by the District Council members as they gave right-wing Lingle these candidates:

– Maui Police Department Central Dispatch Office supervisor Kehau Filimoe’atu – a union leader and Hawaiian activist

– Maui County Democratic Chair and Chair of the Maui Sierra Club, Lance Holter (whose organization had sued Lingle over the Superferry and won.)

– Former Department of Land and Natural Resources head and Maui attorney, Gil Keith-Agaran.

Figuring Gil Keith-Agaran was the least progressive candidate, Lingle (after waiting until the very last moment) picked him.  What a mistake!  Picking an extremely intelligent, well-educated and above all, ethical man for the position is just as bad as picking a progressive if you want corrupt politics to continue.  Low key, soft spoken, immensely knowledgeable and celebrated for being one of the few Maui Filipinos to achieve such success,  Keith-Agaran was easily re-elected.

That one vote toppled Speaker Say in 2010

Fast forward to this day.  Say is desperate to retake power.  But he just doesn’t have the votes. The solution?  Get someone to run against Rep Keith-Agaran.  Rumor has it Say and his supporters on Oahu are courting Maui County Councilmember, Joe Pontanilla.  Pontanilla terms out this year and will be left at loose ends.

The problem?  In Hawai’i, voters and party officials strongly discourage challengers to popular incumbents.  Witness, the career-killing animosity Ed Case experienced when he primaried  Sen Daniel Akaka.  (Sen. Akaka is retiring this year and Ed Case is trying again but carrying the baggage of the ire he engendered previously.)

So what does Joe Pontanilla face if he primaries popular Gil  Keith-Agaran?  Quite likely he’ll suffer a humiliating defeat at the polls.  Keith-Agaran has brought home the bacon for his district. He’s well known and popular with the voters.  He’s been endorsed by the ILWU, who can make or break a candidate.

If, by some miracle, Pontanilla were to win the primary, he’s most likely counting on his vote to return Say to Speaker and thus to be rewarded by some plum committee assignments.  But will that do any good if the other Democratic legislators react the way they reacted to Case’s temerity in challenging a popular incumbent?  Will the voters of Central Maui see all their funding and projects dry up?  Can Say’s influence protect him from an vengeful Senate and Governor?  I wouldn’t want to be in Pontanilla’s shoes to find out if Say can really protect him.

This attempt by Oahu’s Rep Say to manipulate Maui politics is doomed to failure this time.  Most likely knowledgeable people are counseling Pontanilla to reject this attempt and not allow himself to be used as an Oahu pawn.  And this may be the last you’ll hear of any attempt to primary Rep Gil Keith-Agaran.  Ex-Speaker Say will have to look elsewhere for his come back.

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