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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 13, 2006

Shift in demographics crucial to Case strategy

 •  Akaka vs. Case
Read up on the race between U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka and U.S. Rep. Ed Case
in the Democratic primary for the Senate in September.

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer

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PAHOA, Hawai'i One of the assumptions in U.S. Rep. Ed Case's challenge to U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka in the Democratic primary for Senate is Case's belief that politics in Hawai'i is changing with the state's new demographics, that people are no longer so knee-jerk Democrat, but want candidates who are closer to the middle, regardless of party.

If the congressman is right, then fast-growing neighborhoods here in the Puna district of the Big Island, and places like 'Ewa on O'ahu and Kihei on Maui, could be interesting battlegrounds in September.

The population here is in bloom, as people move from town, other islands and the Mainland, attracted by affordable housing and a country lifestyle. Building permits for new homes in Puna increased from 356 in 2000 to 1,282 last year, according to the county's planning consultant.

In Hawaiian Paradise Park, the largest subdivision, the population has jumped from just over 7,000 in 2000 to 10,550 last year. A new three-bedroom home on a one-acre lot is going for about $330,000.

Sheryl Ogawa, a social studies teacher at Pahoa High & Intermediate School, said four new neighbors have moved in or are building houses on her street this year, one from O'ahu and three from the Mainland.

"I think both candidates have their strengths here," Ogawa said. "But I also think people want change. I'm looking for change."

Jan Stickney, who lives in Orchidland and works with the disabled, said the demographic shift might influence the primary.

"What I sense is the old style not so much Democrat or Republican, but the Hawai'i style is becoming less prominent and the Mainland mentality is becoming more prevalent," she said.

The Puna district traditionally has been Democratic and, on paper, may be more favorable to Akaka, who has the support of the party's establishment. But Case, who grew up nearby in Hilo, won precincts here when he ran for governor in the 2002 Democratic primary against Mazie Hirono and held the territory during his special election and 2nd Congressional District victories.

Big Island Mayor Harry Kim, a friend of the Akaka family, said he has seen the tension the primary has caused among many Democrats.

"There's a lot of people who have supported Akaka over the years, and many of these same people have supported Case," the mayor said. "And these people now find themselves having to make a choice between the two. This is getting to be a very difficult race.

"I hope it doesn't become too personal, but how can it not be?"

Gary Safarik, who represents Puna on the County Council, said many of the people he has talked with are reluctant to say who they favor.

"I think the margin here is going to be razor thin," he said.

Both campaigns have identified voters and precincts statewide where the candidates might excel and will target these voters with telephone calls and mail over the next several weeks. With most of the state's population on O'ahu, much of the effort is concentrated there, but the Neighbor Islands have been more solidly Democratic and are not being overlooked.

Akaka has more money and resources than Case and, according to people familiar with both campaigns, has a more extensive get-out-the-vote operation that is using a voter-identification program to target infrequent but likely Akaka voters. Akaka is also receiving help from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and labor unions such as the Hawai'i Government Employees Association and the Hawai'i State Teachers Association.

The reach of labor unions should not be underestimated. At Pahoa High, for example, an HSTA notice on the bulletin board in the administration building reminds teachers to sign-wave for Akaka on Tuesdays.

Don Weeks, the principal broker at Pahoa Realty, said the establishment is protecting the senator. "The real uphill battle that Case has is the record in the People's Republic of Hawai'i in re-electing incumbents," he said.

Weeks, a Republican who plans to cross over and vote for Case, said Akaka also may be helped by his opposition to the war in Iraq. "A lot of people, both Republicans and Democrats, are fed up with the way it's going over there," he said.

Rasmussen Reports, a New Jersey firm that did polling on the primary last week, found that Iraq was the top concern among voters, followed by the economy.

Julie Foster, a retired special-education teacher from California who is helping her son run a surfboard shop, said Iraq would influence her vote.

"I'm totally against the war," said Foster, who lives in Kapoho and will vote for Akaka. "I think it's the biggest mistake our country has ever made."

Jack Mead, a former executive chef at Morton's steakhouse, sold his house in Kaimuki and used some of the money to buy an acre in Hawaiian Paradise Park, where he is building a home for his wife, Cameo, and young daughter. His wife has family on the Big Island so the move was for personal, as well as lifestyle, reasons.

"My wife likes Case because he's shaking it up. He's going against the old boy network," Mead said. "I guess I'd like to see a debate between the two."

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com.