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‘Old boy network’ in the crosshairs

Is a Maui political movement ready to upset the status quo, or fizzle? Only voters and time will tell

King

A political movement born in the 2014 genetically modified organism moratorium vote has been gathering strength of late, inspiring a new group of candidates to run for elected office and perhaps upset the status quo in Maui County politics.

Political forecasting is tricky business, and while some say it’s too early to tell, others see this as a pivotal election that could usher in a new group of officeholders seeking to upend what they see as the old boy network.

“I think people are waking up and saying enough already,” said Mark Sheehan, a Maui Realtor and chairman of the Sustainable Action Fund for the Environment, a nonprofit super PAC. “We have two parties. We have the voter party and the donor party, and the donor party wins every election.”

Harbingers of political change came in 2016, when two first-time candidates for the Maui County Council upset longtime politicians in close races — Kelly King edged out incumbent Council Member Don

Couch for the South Maui residency seat, and Alika Atay beat former four-term Council Member Dain Kane for the Wailuku-Waihee-Waikapu seat.

Atay

King and Atay had a number of things in common — including an endorsement as “Maui ‘Ohana Candidates,” a slate of state and county candidates backed by Sheehan’s SAFE super PAC. Four ‘Ohana candidates earned seats on the council that election. This year, with the mayor’s race and four council seats wide open, supporters of the ‘Ohana candidates see opportunity on the horizon.

“I feel it. I sense it. I am rooting for it,” said Paul Deslauriers, executive director of the newly formed Maui Pono Network, the latest group to spring out of the aftermath of the GMO ballot initiative and the efforts of organizations like the SHAKA (Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for Keiki and the Aina) Movement.

“This is a very important election cycle, and we’ve got to get the right people in,” Deslauriers said.

With the candidate filing deadline approaching on Tuesday, SAFE and the Maui Pono Network, among others, have already made their endorsements, including Council Member Elle Cochran for mayor. Whether the ‘Ohana candidates — billed as representatives of everyday people and not corporate special interests — can muster the momentum they gained in 2016 will be answered in the coming months.

GMOs and beyond

Cochran

To understand the brewing discontent that’s fueled the movement, it’s instructive to go back to November 2014, when Maui County residents voted 50.2 percent in favor of placing a temporary ban on producing GMOs until a study on their impacts could be done.

The controversial measure was also historic as the first voter initiative to successfully make it to the ballot in Maui County. But eight months later, a federal judge ruled the moratorium as “invalid and unenforceable,” quelling the elation of groups like the SHAKA Movement that were behind the initiative.

While some pointed out that it was the court’s decision that blocked the moratorium, others saw it as another example of the county ignoring the public voice — a debate that continues to influence Maui County politics.

“I think it’s energized a group of younger, progressive voters,” said Colin Moore, associate professor of political science and director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii. “It’s often the case that a single issue (like GMOs on Maui) brings new people into politics.”

The following election cycle, in 2016, SAFE funded fliers and launched a campaign to put ‘Ohana candidates in office, including Council Members Cochran for re-election to her West Maui residency seat and Don Guzman for re-election to his Kahului seat, and political newcomers like Atay and King — all of whom would go on to win seats on the council.

Although other ‘Ohana candidates were defeated by incumbents, the challengers did better than their counterparts in previous elections, possibly showing some erosion of support for incumbent officeholders.

For example, in 2016 the average number of ballots taken by challengers was 19,275, a 63.8 percent increase over the 11,770 average in 2012. (There was no mayoral race in both election years.) Challengers also averaged 36.4 percent of ballots in 2016, up from 24.1 percent in 2012. And, unlike 2012 when four council members ran unopposed, every seat was challenged in 2016.

“I think the mold has been broken, and I think the door has been opened for others like Alika and Kelly to come in and now hopefully become the majority,” said Cochran, who also credited the GMO initiative and the involvement of younger voters, whom she called “the most environmentally aware generation.”

A dispute over leadership on the first day of the current council’s term would become another point of contention. The 13¢-hour meeting on Jan. 2, 2017, drew 75 testifiers, many of whom were critical of Council Member Mike White for announcing he would again serve as chairman before inauguration day.

By the end of the meeting, residents perceived lines between a majority of five (White, Council Vice Chairman Bob Carroll, Stacy Crivello, Riki Hokama and Yuki Lei Sugimura) and minority of four (Atay, Cochran, Guzman and King), based on the way council members had voted all night.

The incident triggered another political push — this time aimed at gaining more seats on the council.

“One of the things we will be promoting is explaining to people that they not only can but should be voting for all nine council seats,” Sheehan said. “If a third of those people who voted just for the council person from their district had voted (for all nine), we would have had majority on the council and a whole different experience these last two years.”

Bolstering the push for the ‘Ohana candidates was the creation of the Maui Pono Network, which Deslauriers launched in March after moving back to Maui from Massachusetts in August. As of Thursday, both SAFE and the Maui Pono Network had endorsed nearly all the same candidates.

As of Thursday, these candidates are: Cochran for mayor; Atay and King for re-election to their council seats; and Trinette Furtado (Makawao-Haiku-Paia council), Gabe Johnson (Lanai council), Natalie “Tasha” Kama (Kahului council), Tamara Paltin (West Maui council), Keani Rawlins-Fernandez (Molokai council) and Shane Sinenci (East Maui council). Hannibal Starbuck (Upcountry council) was endorsed by SAFE only, with Maui Pono Network yet to choose an Upcountry candidate.

For seats in the state Legislature, both groups have endorsed Tina Wildberger to the 11th District South Maui House seat, Tiare Lawrence to the 12th District Upcountry House seat and Terez Amato to the 6th District West and South Maui Senate seat. Only the Maui Pono Network has endorsed Michael Tengan for the 7th District Senate seat, which includes East Maui, Upcountry, Molokai and Lanai.

“What we’re organizing is around electing the candidates that will support the common good, support the systemic change and get us out of, I guess you could call it a plantation consciousness,” Deslauriers said. “One where there is the good ol’ boy network and their connections with large money interests.”

Sheehan and Deslauriers say they lead two different groups serving different purposes. SAFE, for example, is a super PAC, or political action committee, that cannot directly contribute to candidates. Maui Pono Network, which Deslauriers described as a “grass-roots organization,” is not a nonprofit or political action committee. He said the network is currently focused on promotion and marketing and does not contribute directly to candidates, but he did not rule it out in the future.

Sheehan said SAFE is advocating for issues like hiring a county manager, getting people off the Upcountry water meter waiting list, protecting watersheds, building affordable housing and striking a better balance with tourism. The Maui Pono Network is also supportive of the county manager idea and concerned about affordable housing, water rights, land-use planning and balancing tourism, Deslauriers said.

Change in the air?

Moore said he thinks it’s “too early to tell” whether this election will be a tipping point for Maui County.

“Although groups like SAFE have seen some success at the ballot box, they’ve been primarily operating outside of government as activists,” Moore said. “It can be tough to make the transition from being a vocal opposition group to actually running the county government. If they do manage to gain the Mayor’s Office and a majority on the council, they will have to contend with a range of issues that are unrelated to their core agenda.”

Moore added that if ‘Ohana candidates “do gain control of the council, it may not last for long, unless they can moderate their message and attract a broader group of Democrats. That’s all to say that I don’t think we’ve reached a tipping point where the ‘Maui Ohana Candidates’ will become the new governing coalition.”

However, Moore said that “the rise of these groups does indicate that there’s tremendous frustration with mainstream Democrats, and that there’s potential (especially on the Neighbor Islands) for left-leaning challengers to win.”

(Moore said that while he knows council members run in nonpartisan races and not as Democrats or Republicans, he believes “the ‘nonpartisan’ nature of council elections is just a convenient fiction.”)

Tom Blackburn-Rodriguez, who works with the nonprofit Go Maui but spoke as a private citizen and self-described “affordable housing advocate,” said he believes the true test for the ‘Ohana candidates will come in this election.

“When I look at the groups that have been organizing themselves in order to elect candidates to the council and to the mayor’s race, I think that the test of their strength will be in this election,” he said. “It takes more than one election cycle in order to really set an organization in place and begin to effectively make institutional change. The first bite of the apple is always the easiest. It’s the second time that will determine the strength of the organization.”

Carroll, who is retiring after this year, said that there’s “always that potential” for every election to be a tipping point. But one thing he is concerned about is what he sees as the negative tone the ‘Ohana candidate movement set last election.

“The last election was very contentious,” Carroll said. “I hate to see Maui becoming like that.”

Carroll said he was on good terms with his opponent, Shane Sinenci, in 2016, but other races got much more heated, seeming to focus more on personal grievances than on the issues facing the county. Carroll said he sees nothing wrong with groups organizing and backing a slate of candidates who share their values.

“I have no problem with that,” Carroll said. “It’s when they start going south and just talking about opponents instead of their real agendas.”

As for how the current crop of candidates could change the face of the council, Carroll said it’s “hard to tell how a person’s going to perform until they’re up here.”

“Because that’s the time when rhetoric goes out the window — once you’re sworn in,” he said. “Once you’re sworn in, people expect you to work with the other people they’ve elected. And people expect to see results.”

But Cochran said she thinks based on “the tide of how the last election went, it seems very possible” that a power shift is on the horizon.

“There’s definitely a movement towards a different way of doing business here,” Cochran said.

“It’s not just about stockholders, shareholders, corporations, the biggest money wins it all. It’s about balancing everything out. . . . I think those same old ways of doing things need to change, and little by little it is by the different people that are on the council and into the mayor’s role.”

One of Cochran’s primary opponents, Guzman, was endorsed as an ‘Ohana candidate last election cycle. However, he said he does not have any endorsements thus far. Another opponent, former Council Member Mike Victorino, has been endorsed by several workers’ unions, including the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 142 and the Hawaii Operating Engineers Local 3.

Sheehan, meanwhile, said he thinks frustration with the mayor and council has come to a head and that people are tired of seeing the same people running for office.

“What I’m fed up with . . . is what looks like cronyism and nepotism in the way the county operates, where anybody who’s termed out” takes up other county positions until they can run again, Sheehan said.

With four council seats open, Sheehan said he thinks this election could be a tipping point.

“It’s time to back a slate of candidates who reflect the values and espouse the values of the community that are being ignored by the establishment,” Sheehan said. “I think we still have a holdover with 20th century plantation-era politics. . . . I think that grip is loosening, and more people are speaking up and coming forward to play a leadership role.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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