Growing field interested in English’s Senate seat

Democratic Party puts out call for applicants, with deadline May 13


Current and former state and county lawmakers and well-known community leaders are among a growing field of candidates likely to submit their names for consideration to fill the seat of recently retired state Sen. J. Kalani English.

The Democratic Party of Hawaii officially put out the call on Wednesday for “expressions of interest” from qualified candidates for the Senate District 7 seat that represents East Maui, Upcountry, Molokai and Lanai. The deadline to apply is 11:59 p.m. on May 13.

English, a lawmaker for nearly 25 years and Senate majority leader since 2014, retired on Saturday as he deals with the long-term effects of COVID-19.

Potential candidates who have confirmed to The Maui News that they will submit their names include current state House Rep. Lynn DeCoite, who represents East Maui, Molokai and Lanai; former Maui Democratic Party chairman and business owner Timothy Lara; community and environmental activist Walter Ritte; and current Maui County Council Member Yuki Lei Sugimura, who holds the Upcountry residency seat.

Former longtime County Council Member Riki Hokama of Lanai also said he is “seriously considering” submitting his name.


By law, Gov. David Ige has until June 30 to pick a replacement to fill the remainder of English’s term, with the next election for the seat in 2022.

Any member of the Democratic Party of Hawaii who has been enrolled for at least six months, is in good standing and lives in Senate District 7 at the time of appointment may apply.

A selection body comprised of the district and precinct officers within Senate District 7 will meet on May 15 via Zoom to vet candidates, who will be allowed to speak for up to three minutes. Each member of the selection body will be entitled to cast votes for up to three separate candidates.

The top three names will be transmitted to the state party chair, who will then transmit the names to the governor.

“I encourage all qualified and interested Democrats to apply for this position,” Jonathan Starr, selection body co-chairman, said in a news release. “With an open and grassroots selection process, and a long standard of service to our community, environment and culture, I know the members of the SD 7 selection body will select three worthy and hard-working individuals who represent the strong democratic values that will help to move our community forward.”


Starr said via phone Wednesday that the selection body has around 70 members total in both House Districts 12 and 13, which cover the same area as Senate District 7. Sugimura is the chair of District 12, but since she has expressed interest in the position, she will not take part in the selection process. Instead, District 12 Vice Chairman Stephen West will serve as co-chairman of the selection body.

Starr said officials are working out the details on the meeting and how to include the public. Committee members will each have three votes but cannot stack all three for one candidate.

The first to publicly announce interest in the seat was DeCoite, a Molokai farmer who has been at the Legislature since 2015 after she was appointed to fill the seat of the late Rep. Mele Carroll.

DeCoite has pointed to her experience working with English to secure more than $600 million in grants and projects for the district and the advantage that she would bring from her time representing the same general district.

Both English and fellow Maui Sen. Roz Baker have endorsed DeCoite for the seat.


DeCoite will face a familiar competitor in Ritte, who challenged her in the 2020 Democratic primary and lost by 93 votes. If selected, Ritte wasn’t sure if he would run for the Senate seat in 2022, saying the appointment to English’s seat “shouldn’t be a stepping stone” from one position to another.

“The process is the people’s vote,” he said.

Ritte believes he can be a “voice coming from Molokai” and also lend a “Hawaiian voice” to the Legislature. A longtime advocate for Native Hawaiian rights, Ritte has been involved with protests over the bombing of Kahoolawe and more recently the movement to stop the Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea.

“We are trying to tell everyone the truth about the Hawaiian islands . . . about the overthrow,” he said.

Ritte said he’s interested in supporting farming as well as being stewards of the ocean and land and being self sufficient. He wants the islands to be less dependent on barges and airplanes to deliver foods and goods.


“Hawaiians knew how to do that. We don’t have to be dependent on the outside to feed ourselves,” he said.

Lara said on Tuesday that if he is chosen he will not seek reelection, noting that if someone is appointed to the seat and then seeks the position via election, there is a “huge advantage” for that candidate.

If the seat is vacated after English’s term, “this would then create space for an open election in 2022, so that the people of Maui, Molokai and Lanai can choose their next senator,” Lara, who lives on Lanai, said in a news release.

Lara owns Hawaiian Paddle Sports, which has a “Malama Maui” giveback program each month that benefits more than 25 local nonprofit and community groups. He is also a Maui County representative to the State Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Hawaii.

With his history of volunteer work and role as chairman of the Surfrider Foundation Maui Chapter, Lara said that if selected, he would use his short time in the Legislature to assist environmental and conservation causes as well as sustainable tourism.

Sugimura said if she is selected she will run in 2022 for the seat. She’s served five years on the council and has been a field representative for former U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka and U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono as well as Maui County coordinator to former U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye’s 3R’s Project.

If selected, Sugimura said she will push to help solve problems that the county may not have the funding or the manpower to address, including assisting farmers with the axis deer problem and water issues, as well as working on the problem of homes converting from cesspool to septic systems, an issue for many residents Upcountry.

She also would like to assist with broadband issues to help with connectivity problems so rural areas have better access to educational opportunities online.

Her former colleague Hokama, meanwhile, said he’s been “getting lots of calls” from residents urging him to consider applying for English’s seat. The longtime Lanai council member, who stepped down due to term limits, is now a special assistant to Maui Mayor Michael Victorino.

Hokama said if appointed, he would lean on his years of political experience, dating to the 1978 Hawaii Constitutional Convention, as well as his 10 years as a clerk for legislative committees. The council’s budget chairman for years, Hokama said he could also lend his financial insight to the state, as leaders will still be looking at how to deal with the effects of COVID-19.

“Everything is going through a dynamic change with COVID. I don’t see it ending in a year or two,” Hokama said.

He considers DeCoite the “front runner” to be appointed, as she has worked with English for years, knows the current state budget and has worked on key bills with English.

Interested applicants must fill out a “statement of candidacy” form, which can be accessed at bit.ly/sd7vacancy or requested via email at vacancy@hawaiidemocrats.org.

Only applicants may submit their own candidacy form; no one may submit a nomination on behalf of another.

Applications must be submitted electronically via Google Forms or via email at vacancy@hawaiidemocrats.org. All applications will be date- and time-stamped upon receipt and a confirmation will be sent to the applicant.

For questions or more information contact Starr or West at vacancy@hawaiidemocrats.org.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.


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