Hawaii’s Neighbor Islands could play big role in race for governor
By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer
In the 1970s, then-Hono- lulu Mayor Frank Fasi famously lost two close gubernatorial campaigns against Gov. George Ariyoshi by capturing the most votes on O'ahu only to be drubbed by the incumbent on the Neighbor Islands.
Flash-forward to 2010, where a three-way clamor for supporters is taking shape in the governor's race. Republican Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona and former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat, are announced candidates. Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, a Democrat, is expected to join them in May.
Most political observers believe winning the vote on the Neighbor Islands remains a key component to a successful gubernatorial campaign. Perhaps even more so today.
The Neighbor Islands were home to 28.6 percent of registered voters in the 1959 election that followed statehood. After a sharp decline in the 1960s, Neighbor Island voters climbed back up in numbers, making up 32.5 percent of registered voters by the 2008 general election.
With dramatic changes in the socioeconomic landscape of Maui, Kaua'i and Hawai'i counties in more recent times, experts say the formula for capturing the electorate outside O'ahu has become more complex.
"The old ways of winning elections aren't necessarily going to work now," said Rick Castberg, a political science professor at the University of Hawai'i-Hilo.
In the 1970s, the Ariyoshi camp relied greatly on Democratic strongholds such as Hilo and Wailuku to help carry the day, as well as on major backing from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represented workers at sugar plantations and the docks.
"Historically, the Neighbor Islands have been dominated by the unions, the ILWU in particular," said Dan Boylan, a longtime political analyst and a professor at the University of Hawai'i-West O'ahu.
"That's all changed. The power of the union is simply not what it once was."
Large sections of Maui and the Big Island are now populated by Caucasians from the Mainland, he said. Today, only Kaua'i County remains unswervingly Democratic, according to Boylan.
Ed Tanji, a veteran Maui journalist and political observer, agrees that Mainland transplants tend to be more independent voters.
"In any given community, there's a diverse mix of interest groups," he said.
In 2002, when Republican Linda Lingle beat Democrat Mazie Hirono for the governor's seat, only Kaua'i went Hirono's way.
The results were a shock to many, according to Castberg.
"It was a surprise that somebody could come from being mayor of Maui and become governor," he said.
While Lingle became the first county mayor since statehood to ascend to the governorship, a mayor from Honolulu, the state's largest county, has yet to make that leap.
Mufi Hannemann, Hono- lulu's mayor for the past six years, is expected to try to change that, and would appear to be a small step ahead of the other gubernatorial candidates when it comes to recognition on the Neighbor Islands.
Hannemann has often been put forward as the spokesman for the Hawai'i Council of Mayors, a club formed in late 2006 that includes all four county mayors and meets regularly on common interests.
Hannemann is the only one of the original four still in office.
The council provides a platform for the Honolulu mayor to show himself as a municipal executive who plays well with others and, in particular, his colleagues on the Neighbor Islands.
In January, Hannemann testified on behalf of the council before the Legislature, urging lawmakers to preserve the counties' share of hotel room tax revenues. The four mayors also collectively negotiated contracts with government unions when talks with Lingle appeared to be at a stalemate.
"He is very much aware of the issues that confront Neighbor Islanders, and he's very much committed to working on behalf of the Neighbor Islanders, as is evident in his working relationship with the three other county mayors through the Hawai'i Council of Mayors," said Elisa Yadao, a strategist in Hannemann's previous political campaigns and spokeswoman for E Ho'o- mua Hannemann, the committee created to gauge interest in a gubernatorial campaign by the Honolulu mayor.
E Ho'omua Hannemann already has held rallies on Maui, Kaua'i and the Big Island, as well as in Honolulu.
"If and when Mayor Hannemann decides to run for governor, the Neighbor Islands would be a cornerstone of the campaign," Yadao said.
She also pointed out that Hannemann benefits from having spent several years on the Big Island as an executive of C. Brewer and Co.
Abercrombie and Aiona also have made moves to garner Neighbor Island votes at this early stage of the governor's race.
Andrew Aoki, deputy campaign manager of Abercrombie For Governor, said the campaign has coordinators on all major islands, including Moloka'i and Lāna'i.
"It's important ... for Neil to really go out there and find out what the issues are and what the concerns are, because I think what anybody will tell you is that people on the Neighbor Islands often feel like they're ignored or seen as secondary in importance," he said.
Over the past month, Abercrombie has campaigned on Maui and the Big Island and opened headquarters in Līhu'e and Kona. A Hilo headquarters is scheduled to open next month.
"We think that every island has a pretty unique situation, at least that's what we're finding," Aoki said.
"And what we're learning is that a lot of the future of Hawai'i depends on the Neighbor Islands because a lot of the innovations in entrepreneurship are going on there and are on the leading edge of what's happening."
The Aiona camp wants to go after every vote in every district, and grassroots campaigns have sprung up throughout the state, said campaign spokesman Travis Taylor.
Of 13 regional chairs in the Aiona campaign, eight are on the Neighbor Islands.
Headquarters are being opened on each of the major islands over the next two months, starting with East Hawai'i and O'ahu next month.
"Neighbor Island working families and businesses form an integral part of our statewide grassroots organization and they will be key to electing Duke Aiona as our next governor," Taylor said.
Aiona has an advantage over Abercrombie and Hannemann in being able to use his position as lieutenant governor to regularly visit the Neighbor Islands, he said.
Taylor also pointed out that in 2006, the Lingle-Aiona gubernatorial team won each of the 51 House districts, for a statewide sweep.
Although the campaigns report that organizational efforts are in full swing, neither Castberg nor Tanji said they've seen accelerated political activity by any of the major candidates on the Big Island and Maui, respectively. But both noted that the election season is still young.
So what will it take to win the Neighbor Islands in 2010, especially when all three major candidates are O'ahu-based?
ILWU support is still deemed critical enough that there was an internal fight among union leaders over the labor group's endorsement of Hannemann.
Former ILWU leader Eusebio "Bobo" Lapenia quit two union-affiliated boards in protest after current president Isaac Fiesta Jr., a fellow Big Island native, announced that Hannemann would receive the endorsement.
Lapenia said he will work to elect Abercrombie, noting the candidate's longtime support for ILWU causes.
Despite Lingle's wins in 2002 and 2006, Hawai'i Republican Party chairman Jonah Kaauwai, a Kaua'i native, said it's still not easy for a Republican to take the Neighbor Islands.
"The culture of the plantations is still more prevalent on the Neighbor Islands. You have long-term, union-based communities. That doesn't make it easier for Republicans, although people seem to be a heck of a lot more informed than they used to," he said.
Kaauwai said the gover- nor's race may hinge on the Big Island, where the last time voters there backed a losing candidate was in 1998, when Lingle beat incumbent Ben Cayetano in county balloting by 4,500 votes but lost the general election by 5,254 votes statewide.
"That election said to us that the next time around, we could win," Kaauwai said.
In 2002, Lingle beat Mazie Hirono on the Big Island by 1,928 votes on her way to becoming the state's first Republican governor in four decades.
Former Advertiser political reporter and editor Jerry Burris said former GOP state Sen. D.G. "Andy" Anderson, himself a former gubernatorial candidate, many years ago predicted a major demographic shift on the Neighbor Islands away from their strongly Democratic roots.
Kona, Kīhei and other Neighbor Island communities have become home to large segments of newcomers, Burris said, creating new demographics that candidates need to figure out.
Census Bureau data indicate that "whites" make up nearly 40 percent of the population in each of the Neighbor Island counties, compared with 23 percent on O'ahu.
But Burris added that those of them who are malihini are a fickle lot.
"Those folks don't vote in the proportions of the old-timers, so their impact is muted," he said.
"Yes, Lingle did well on the Neighbor Islands, but that was a bit of an aberration since Democrats across the state voted for her out of exasperation with Cayetano and the 40-year Democratic reign."
Tanji, the veteran Maui journalist, said he's not sure the Neighbor Islands are turning more Republican. Lingle succeeded largely because she was able to identify different segments of Neighbor Island communities and appeal to them.
"Lingle was better at compartmentalizing and approaching the sectors on their own as opposed to one big rally," he said.
Dante Carpenter, Democratic Party of Hawai'i chairman and a former Big Island mayor and legislator, said a major issue for all the Neighbor Islands is transportation, namely airports, harbors and highways. Politicians need to be aware of the explosive growth that's occurred on Maui, Kaua'i and Hawai'i island, and the need for government-sponsored infrastructure projects to keep up.
"This is the way commerce is moved back and forth," Carpenter said. "You gotta be able to address the ramifications of every one of those as they relate to interisland travel, the receipt and discharge of interisland commerce. All of these things are very important to the Neighbor Islands."
Castberg said that despite the changing composition of the Neighbor Islands, what remains is a need to secure the support of key community members in every region, "strong supporters who are well-known on (each) island; people who are respected by the people who live there. That makes a big difference."
And showing up in person on the Neighbor Islands in and of itself is a big step for candidates, he said.
"Whoever's running for governor really has to be on the Neighbor Islands from time to time just to get their message across," Castberg said. "It's time-consuming and it's expensive but it's expected. And it may be that if you don't pay enough attention to the Neighbor Islands, people are going to vote for the other candidate just out of spite."
Tanji said it's not so much that Neighbor Islanders' views on issues are that much different from those of O'ahu voters.
"There's still a 'we-don't-want-to-be-like-O'ahu' attitude," he said. "What issues are going to appeal to the Neighbor Island voter aren't necessarily different than the ones that are going to affect O'ahu voters. It's just that the Neighbor Island voter wants to know that you, the candidate, understand what they're thinking about."