×

Three compete in closely watched Democratic primary for Senate District 7

LEO CAIRES

In what is arguably one of the most closely watched races this election cycle, incumbent Sen. Lynn DeCoite will defend her seat against two Democratic primary challengers, Walter Ritte and Leo Caires. All three candidates hope to represent Senate District 7, which covers East Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Kahoolawe.

It won’t be the first time DeCoite’s and Ritte’s names will appear on the same ballot. In 2020, Ritte ran against then-state Rep. DeCoite in an unsuccessful bid for her House District 13 seat — a tight contest that was decided by fewer than 100 votes. In 2021, after former Sen. J. Kalani English left the Senate, DeCoite, Ritte and Caires were among six candidates who applied to fill English’s seat. DeCoite and Caires were two of the three finalists before DeCoite was ultimately appointed by Gov. David Ige to the seat.

The candidate who receives the most votes in the primary election on Aug. 13 will face off against Republican candidate Tamara McKay in the general election on Nov. 8.

LEO CAIRES

Leo Caires may be a political newcomer, but the Kula business owner, commercial finance officer and father of four says he is not new to the issues.

LYNN DECOITE

“I know what matters to people in my district,” he said.

Caires said several things inspired him to declare his candidacy.

“I’m running for our keiki, kupuna, aina, aloha and moolelo,” he said. And, he added, “I’m giving people another choice.”

After graduating from Maui High School in 1996, Caires attended the University of Wyoming, where he studied animal science and pre-veterinary medicine. He also captained the school’s football team and later played professional football in Vancouver, Canada and Barcelona, Spain. Caires says his athletic experience, both as a football player and rodeo cowboy, gave him an opportunity to hone his leadership and teamwork skills — skills he said he would bring to the state Legislature if he’s elected in November.

“I know how to be a team player,” he said.

WALTER RITTE

Caires went on to earn a master’s degree in business administration from Chadron State College, and later, a doctorate in education, leadership and innovation from St. Thomas University in Miami, Fla. His professional resume includes co-founding Gen-X Energy Development, a renewable energy development firm, and working for First Hawaiian Bank, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Disaster Assistance. He also operates Kaupakalua Wine & Liquor Co. with his family.

In 2015, Caires was selected for the First Nations’ Futures Institute fellowship, a Stanford University-based leadership program that focuses on building capacity in Indigenous communities. He has since served on the Hawaii USA Federal Credit Union board of directors, chaired the state Board of Registration and served as vice-chair of Maui County’s Cost of Government Commission. He is also an active supporter of 4-H youth programs and has helped restore Hawaiian fishponds throughout the state.

Caires says his love for the community and his expertise in the fields of energy, finance and agriculture would make him an effective legislator. Of the many issues he plans to address if elected, Caires said investing in education, tackling inflation and improving the standard of leadership for Hawaii’s elected officials are his top three priorities. On the latter issue, he said, “I will work to strengthen the expectations of Hawaii’s leaders … a leader is someone who will gently raise you up so you can see forever.”

When asked about specific policy plans, Caires said his plans are forthcoming.

He said he would be laser-focused on inflation. “The forces of inflation are impacting our quality of life,” he said. As a senator, he said, “I would incentivize and invest in the evolution of economic structures in Hawaii for our people.” As for the issue of education, he said, “I have really big plans for our children. Investing in our keiki’s future is like building a Hawaiian fishpond — we can’t cut corners.”

If he is elected this fall, Caires said he will bring new ideas and a fresh perspective to the state Senate. He said he will also work to ensure a better tomorrow for Hawaii’s future generations. At the end of the day, he said, “It’s all about the children.”

LYNN DECOITE

On Jan. 1, 2015, Lynn DeCoite was celebrating New Year’s Day with her family on Molokai when her phone rang. The caller was the late Rep. Mele Carroll, whom DeCoite had known for more than 20 years. Carroll said she was ill and asked if DeCoite would consider running for her House District 13 seat. A few weeks later, DeCoite was sworn in and served out the remainder of Carroll’s two-year term.

“Mele truly believed that through service, you could effectuate change and really help people,” DeCoite said. “She was inspired by the state Capitol and I am honored that she felt I could do some good. She also said: ‘If you don’t like it, then you just don’t run again.’ Now in my fourth election since that conversation, I do like it and I do want to continue to serve and do some good.”

DeCoite is notably the only farmer serving in the state Legislature and she takes great pride in her agricultural heritage. As a third-generation Hawaiian homestead farmer, DeCoite was driving a tractor on her family’s Molokai farm at the age of 8, and at 17, was the youngest female at the time to earn her commercial driver’s license through the county’s workforce development program. After graduating from Molokai High School, DeCoite worked on the family farm. Years later, she and her husband, Russell, started a sweet potato farm, and later, a cattle ranch.

DeCoite said her proudest accomplishments from her time as a House member include being a voice for local agriculture, securing funding for a new school building for Paia School and the signing of House Bill 451 in 2017, which reduced the minimum blood quantum requirement of successors to lessees of Hawaiian home lands from one-quarter to one thirty-second.

Looking back at her first year in the Senate, DeCoite said she is most proud of continuing the emergency proclamations for Maui County’s drought conditions and axis deer issues, securing funding to help manage Molokai’s bovine tuberculosis outbreak and introducing Senate Bill 3338, the Kalaupapa Memorial funding bill.

“The signing of that bill honored those that were treated less than honorably, but still found hope and purpose,” she said. “I am proud that I now have had a part in making sure their memories last.”

If she’s reelected this November, DeCoite says she will keep the momentum going and continue to work hard for her constituents. Among other things, she said she will continue to protect the district’s natural resources, address funding for rural schools by either changing the student weighted formula or exploring ways to better fund school programs, and ensure communities in her district continue to receive services and resources “so they can thrive, not just survive.”

To those who may not know her, DeCoite said, “I am honest, respectful and work very hard. I am very easy to talk to and I don’t beat around the bush. What you see is what you get. My family is the most important thing in my life.”

Looking to the future, DeCoite said, “I don’t plan to be in office ‘forever,’ but I do feel I have more to do to serve my communities and I feel I have found my stride in the Senate and would truly be honored to continue to serve everyone in the 7th Senate District.”

WALTER RITTE

He has spent more than half his life fighting for social and environmental justice, and at 77, Walter Ritte says he still has more work to do.

“I’ve been called a ‘protectionist’ and I’m okay with that label,” he said. “Protecting these islands and their natural resources — that’s been my forte all these years.”

Ritte said youth in his community urged him to run for office again. After losing his bid for the House District 13 seat two years ago, he said, “I thought I’d just keep working outside of the system, but they told me, ‘Uncle, you have to keep going, you have to try again.'”

Ritte, affectionately known as “Uncle Walter,” was born on Maui and moved to Molokai at the age of 8. In 1976, he became a local household name as one of the “Kahoolawe Nine,” a group of Native Hawaiian protesters who sailed from Maui to Kahoolawe in an effort to stop the U.S. military’s bombing of the island. Two years later, Ritte took part in the 1978 Hawaii Constitutional Convention, which led to the creation of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs; he went on to serve as one of the first members of its Board of Trustees. In the years since, Ritte has been a tireless and fierce advocate for Native Hawaiian rights, the protection of Hawaii’s natural resources, food sustainability and many other issues. In 2019, he was one of the 37 kupuna arrested at Mauna Kea after he chained himself to a cattle guard in protest of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

If he is elected in November, Ritte said there’s a long list of community-specific issues he would proactively address in his first term. For Lanai, Ritte said he would coordinate community groups to ensure residents’ voices are heard, a task that comes naturally to him.

“I’ve been able to organize people all my life,” he said.

Other plans for Lanai include building more regenerative agriculture infrastructure and supporting efforts to restore the island’s fishponds and historic sites.

For East Maui, Ritte said expanding local agriculture, working to resolve the community’s water challenges and establishing a visitor carrying capacity for Hana and other sensitive areas are among his top priorities. His plans for Molokai include, and are not limited to, establishing a hunting and deer management plan, working to combat coral reef erosion and implementing the island’s subsistence plan.

As for Kahoolawe, he said, “It’s time to leave Kahoolawe alone and allow nature to take its course. We’ve done as much as we can as people . . . now we need to let nature heal her.”

Ritte’s broader plans for the district include holding more community meetings to encourage civic engagement, improving schools and raising teachers’ salaries, scaling up local food production, investing in climate-resilient infrastructure, and increasing funding for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to protect forests, shorelines and streams. Above all, he says he will do everything in his power to safeguard the district’s rural character and lifestyle and “keep the country country.”

“I have a tremendous obligation to our future generations to make sure all of the precious things on these islands are passed on to them in top shape,” Ritte said. With his sights now set on the state Legislature, he said, “I’m anxious to get in there and get started.”

NEWSLETTER

Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper?
     

COMMENTS

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today