By David Shapiro
Board of Education member Denise Matsumoto was effusive after cruising into the Nov. 2 general election with 79,315 primary votes, compared only 31,680 for her runoff opponent Keith Sakata.
"People hopefully recognize that the incumbents who are running are doing a good job," she said. "I think what they know is that they're happy with the people on the board."
Matsumoto's self-congratulation is disingenuous considering that she prevailed not by honorably defending her 16-year record against all comers, but by badgering her leading challenger out of the race. Former U.S. Rep. Cec Heftel had planned to run against Matsumoto in the BOE's Honolulu district until she pleaded with him to run instead for an O'ahu at-large seat, where Heftel led all candidates with 82,502 votes.
It's bad enough that Matsumoto feels so entitled to keep her job that she sees no shame in openly begging challengers to leave her alone.
But it takes real nerve to crow about how much voters love her after scheming to narrow their choices.
Even with Heftel out of her district, Matsumoto's victory numbers weren't nearly as resounding an endorsement as she'd have us believe. There were 46,969 blank ballots in her district in addition to the 58,519 votes received by her two opponents, leaving Matsumoto with the support of fewer than 43 percent of voters who turned out.
Incumbents Herbert Watanabe on the Big Island and Garrett Toguchi in the at-large race also advanced to the general election with similarly small percentages of votes. Not exactly ringing approval of sitting board members.
The blank ballots tell the story of this school board primary more than 25 percent in the Honolulu and at-large races, 31 percent for the Big Island seat and 40 percent for the Kaua'i seat.
These non-votes represent a combination of public disgust with our underperforming school system and the board that oversees it, and confusion over the convoluted system by which we elect the Board of Education.
Voters this year faced a dizzying field of 28 candidates seeking six available seats. O'ahu district races are decided by voters islandwide, and candidates from each neighbor island district must court voters on all the neighbor islands, making it impossible to get to know unknown challengers running on shoestring budgets.
With news media attention focused on elections for mayor, prosecutor and the Legislature, there was little easily accessible information to help voters separate the school board candidates and their stands.
Which leaves the races to be decided mostly on name recognition and endorsements from unions representing school employees, giving overwhelming advantage to incumbents.
The system satisfies few, but fixes have been politically elusive. Democratic lawmakers support dividing the school board into manageable districts without islandwide or interisland voting, but it would require expanding the board from 13 to 17 members to avoid apportionment problems on the neighbor islands. Former Gov. Ben Cayetano felt we'd get a more qualified school board if members were appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.
Gov. Linda Lingle wants to break up the statewide school system into locally elected boards, arguing that elections closer to home would draw higher quality candidates more in touch with local communities.
All of these solutions are preferable to current school governance, and it's time for the Legislature to stop dithering and put them on the ballot as constitutional amendments so voters can choose one. Until then, the only thing for sure is love them or not Denise Matsumoto and her friends who have brought our schools to where they are will keep coming back.
David Shapiro can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.