Not ready for prime time

‘Ohana candidates unlikely to gain council majority, pundits say

For ‘Ohana Coalition-backed candidates to upset the current 5-4 majority of “establishment” members of the Maui County Council on Nov. 6, they’ll each need to get at least 23,000 votes, based on 2014 and 2016 general election ballot totals for winning council candidates.

The current makeup of the council has Chairman Mike White, Riki Hokama, Stacy Crivello, Bob Carroll and Yuki Lei Sugimura in the majority and ‘Ohana candidates Kelly King, Alika Atay, Don Guzman and Elle Cochran in the minority.

But there are four open seats with White and Carroll choosing not to seek re-election and Guzman and Cochran making a bid for mayor. So the opening is there for the ‘Ohana candidates.

Is an ‘Ohana majority possible? Yes, but unlikely, say longtime political observers, given voting trends that favor candidates with experience in office, higher name recognition and deeper pockets for campaign spending.

“It’s not going to be a cakewalk for those candidates,” said Mark Sheehan, chairman of S.A.F.E. Sustainable Action Fund for the Environment, a super PAC backing ‘Ohana candidates.

But Sheehan said he believes the underdog ‘Ohana candidates can win by having a “very clear message” and “staying the course” to upend incumbents, who he says have failed to meet residents’ demand for affordable housing. “What they’ve been doing is kicking the can down the road while we’re running out of road,” he said.

Two-time Speaker of the House Joe Souki assessed the council races and said he believes the business-oriented majority will remain in control of the County Council, perhaps gaining a couple of seats in tight races.

Kula resident, former UH-Maui College/Maui Community College professor and longtime political observer Dick Mayer said he sees ‘Ohana candidates possibly winning the council majority, although he didn’t know which five would do so, opting to “push all nine and hope for the best.”

And another longtime political observer, who asked for anonymity because of a sensitive position in county government, agreed with Souki that the council would retain its current “establishment” majority.

Here’s how political pundits interviewed by The Maui News expect the nine council races to shake out:

South Maui

Council Member Kelly King is expected to retain the residency seat she won by beating Council Member Don Couch by 1,049 votes in 2016. In the general election, she faces Zandra Amaral Crouse, who has run for elected office before but never won.

Sheehan said he believes the South Maui seat is “sewed up” for the ‘Ohana Coalition. None of the political veterans interviewed by The Maui News disagreed, although Souki said Amaral Crouse is “sincere,” wants to make a difference and is “very business-oriented.”

West Maui

Maui County ocean safety officer and former mayoral candidate Tamara Paltin turned in a strong showing in the recent primary election, taking 15,227 votes, or 44.7 percent, to second-place finisher Rick Nava’s 5,793 votes, or 17 percent. He advances to the general election after edging out Kanamu Balinbin, who took 5,618 ballots, or 16.5 percent.

There’s a consensus among the political observers that Paltin should have little trouble winning on Nov. 6 and taking a place with the ‘Ohana candidates. In the West Maui residency seat, she would take the place of ‘Ohana-backed Council Member Elle Cochran, who is running for mayor.

Upcountry

There also was agreement that Council Member Yuki Lei Sugimura, a member of the council majority, can be expected to win a second term over relatively unknown ‘Ohana candidate Hannibal Starbuck. Sugimura survived a tough race in 2016 against ‘Ohana-backed candidate Napua Greig-Nakasone, winning by 1,051 votes, or 43.9 to 42 percent.

Souki described her as being a “well-liked” and “very strong” candidate with a “good future.” Sheehan said he didn’t think Starbuck would be able to beat Sugimura.

Makawao-Haiku-Paia

Mike Molina, executive assistant to Mayor Alan Arakawa, showed some of his strength at the polls as a five-term council member from 2001 to 2010 by taking first place in the recent primary election with 16,368 votes, or 48.1 percent, compared with ‘Ohana-supported candidate Trinette Furtado, who garnered 11,632 votes, or 34.2 percent. Third place went to Adam Borowiec, who took 1,011 votes, or 3 percent.

Souki said Molina is likeable and a “good campaigner” with a well-known family name in music and politics. The pundits give him a strong advantage in the general election, and Sheehan said Furtado would need to “run pretty hard” to overcome Molina’s “well-established name” and union backing.

Lanai

Longtime Council Member Riki Hokama faces a rematch with ‘Ohana-backed candidate Gabe Johnson, whom he defeated 23,272 to 19,092, or 44 to 36.1 percent, in 2016.

The pundits don’t expect a different outcome in November, although Sheehan said Johnson has been doing a “good job” in traveling to Maui to attend campaign events. As a member of the current council majority, Hokama chairs the Budget and Finance Committee. He’s the son of the late longtime Lanai Council Member Goro Hokama, who served on the council for more than 40 years.

Molokai

Council Member Stacy Crivello, another majority council member, came out on top of a three-way race for her seat during the primary election. She took 14,599 votes, or 42.9 percent, compared with second-place finisher and ‘Ohana-backed candidate Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, who garnered 11,058 ballots, or 32.5 percent. Third place went to Cora Caparida-Schnackenberg, who had 1,307 votes, or 3.8 percent.

In 2016, Crivello beat Rawlins-Fernandez by more than 8 percentage points. Pundits expect the same result in November, although they generally acknowledge that Rawlins-Fernandez is a smart candidate with promising potential. Sheehan said she’ll need to “do some really major magic” to beat Crivello.

That’s 4 to 2

So, the pundits’ consensus leaves the establishment candidates with at least four council seats, one short of the majority; and ‘Ohana candidates with two likely winners.

After that, things get dicey as far as political prognostication. The ‘Ohana candidates would need to win all three remaining seats to take the council majority while the established candidates need just one.

East Maui

The race to succeed retiring Council Member Bob Carroll features his daughter, Claire Kamalu Carroll, and Shane Sinenci, who lost to the elder Carroll in 2016 by a vote of 25,273 to 19,119, or 47.7 to 36.1 percent.

Claire Carroll has the endorsement of the Hawaii Government Employees Association and support from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s Political Action Committee. Sinenci, a Hana special education teacher, has the backing of the ‘Ohana Coalition.

Sheehan said he gives Sinenci a 50-50 shot at taking the seat and said he has a “good appeal with voters,” although it’s hard to get known countywide for a candidate from the remote East Maui community.

Souki said Sinenci “speaks well and is articulate and well-educated.” He gave Sinenci a “slight edge” in a “real tough” race.

Mayer said he thought Sinenci should “easy win Hana,” although he wasn’t sure if he’d overcome the well-known Carroll name in politics.

Wailuku-Waihee-Waikapu

Freshman Council Member Alika Atay, a member of the ‘Ohana Coalition, will defend his seat against former Council Member Alice Lee, who served from 1989 to 1998, when she made an unsuccessful bid for mayor, barely losing the Democratic primary by 90 votes to eventual winner James “Kimo” Apana.

Atay’s campaign for re-election is under a cloud of controversy over the actions and behavior of his executive assistant Brian Bardellini. A council committee is reviewing a $100,000 county grant awarded to Bardellini for events honoring Queen Ka’ahumanu’s 250th birthday in March.

Mayer called the contest between Atay and Lee a “tough, very competitive race.” He predicted Lee will have much greater financial banking from pro-development and construction industry donors, but Mayer wasn’t sure what impact, if any, the Bardellini controversy would have on the race.

Sheehan said Atay has received “rough treatment” from “extensive coverage” of the Bardellini controversy, and he believes the aide has been more of a distraction than an asset. He said Lee has a weak record on encouraging the development of affordable housing.

Souki predicted the race would “be a squeaker,” although Lee should do well in Central Maui precincts, except for those in Hawaiian homes areas. He said Atay should do well in East Maui from Paia and Haiku through Hana and be a strong candidate on Molokai and Lanai.

Kahului

Alan Arakawa is trying to reclaim his former council seat and has the advantage of much greater name recognition and a campaign war chest surplus of $55,792.96 as of July 27, compared with ‘Ohana-backed candidate Natalie “Tasha” Kama, who reported a deficit of $7,685.88.

Despite his advantages, Arakawa reportedly did not campaign prior to the primary race and ended in second place to Kama on primary election night. She took 12,703 votes, or 37.3 percent, while Arakawa had 11,775 ballots, or 34.6 percent. Deb Kaiwi finished third with 4,515 votes, or 13.3 percent. Mayer said he thinks there’s “a lot of resentment” against the Arakawa administration that surfaced primary election night, and he predicted Kama would get most of Kaiwi’s votes and win the race.

Souki said Kama’s “very articulate,” but he didn’t think she’d win after Arakawa gets over the surprise of his runner-up finish and campaigns in earnest. “I think it must have shocked the hell out of him,” Souki said, adding that there’s some anti-incumbent voter sentiment in the race that Arakawa has been in office “too damn long.”

Sheehan also predicted a victory for Kama, saying that voters are having “Arakawa fatigue . . . enough of him already. Tasha’s wonderful.”

The magic number

As for that 23,000 votes being a key threshold for candidates, reaching it was the difference between winning and losing in much-watched, close contests in general elections in 2014 and 2016.

For example:

• In 2014, the ‘Ohana precursor group, SHAKA, or Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the Aina, was able to garner 23,082 votes to win Maui County’s first initiative vote, briefly gaining a moratorium on genetically engineered organisms. (Judges ultimately threw out the measure.)

• In 2016, two nonincumbent ‘Ohana candidates — King and Atay — polled 23,641 and 23,322 votes, respectively, to upset incumbent Couch and former Council Member Dain Kane in close races to win the South Maui and Wailuku-Waihee-Waikapu County Council residency seats.

• Also in 2016, eight of nine council seats were won with at least 23,000 votes. The only exception was Council Member Crivello, who received 22,763 votes.

The 11,682 blank ballots in the Molokai residency council race was 22.1 percent of the vote total, the highest blank vote percentage in council races that election, followed by the 20 percent blank vote tally in the Lanai residency council race.

Blank votes can be a sign of voter dissatisfaction with incumbents, especially when they’re uncontested. Or, they could indicate that voters don’t know the candidates or they’re not aware that they can vote in all nine at-large council contests for seats with residency requirements.

* Brian Perry can be reached at bperry@mauinews.com.

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