Sorting Out Legislative Candidates

The June 5 candidate filing deadline has come and gone, and after two redistricting plans and two legal challenges, we finally know who is running for what in Hawaii’s 2012 elections.

This year’s roster of candidates demonstrates yet again that Hawaii’s two-party system remains among the weakest in the nation. In many legislative districts, only Democrats felt they need apply – in 24 of the 76 House and Senate contests this year, the Republican Party failed to field a candidate. Meanwhile, only two Republicans will run unopposed, stalwarts Gene Ward in East Honolulu House District 17, and Cynthia Thielen in Windward Oahu’s House District 50.

Thus the Republicans’ chances of improving their numbers appear slim. Maybe a Senate seat, most likely in the Kailua-Hawaii Kai 25th, where a three-way Democratic primary may help former Sen. Fred Hemmings recapture the seat he gave up just two years ago, less likely but possible in Windward Oahu’s 23rd District, where former Republican state Rep. Colleen Meyer is challenging Democratic incumbent Clayton Hee.

In House races it’s harder to foresee Republicans doing much better than the eight seats out of 51 they currently hold. Districts in which they were once competitive on the Kona Coast of the Big Island now appear securely in Democratic hands. And Kymberly Pine’s decision to run for the Honolulu City Council imperils her Ewa district’s remaining in the Republican column.

Redistricting did, however, shake Hawaii’s political tree, if minimally. It drove two veteran state representatives from office: redistricted Hawaii County Democratic Jerry Chang and East Honolulu Republican Barbara Marumoto. Between them, Chang and Marumoto had logged 58 years in the state House.

It also forced incumbents into the uncomfortable position of running against each other: veteran Democratic Sens. Carol Fukunaga and Brian Taniguchi in the Makiki to Tantalus 11th District, Democratic state Reps. Heather Giugni and Mark Takai in Aiea’s 33rd District, and Democratic Reps. Pono Chong and Jessica Wooley in Windward Oahu’s 48th District.

Blood-letting in the Giugni-Takai contest could conceivably provide Republican opportunity. Political defeat for either Chong, a chief lieutenant of House Speaker Calvin Say, or for Wooley, a member of the House’s dissident faction, could have consequences for the House Democrats’ seemingly endless organizational battles.

Familiar names from “back in the day” also filled the candidates’ lists: former Big Island Mayor Harry Kim trying for a third term, which will require him to defeat former protégé and current Mayor Billy Kenoi and Council Chairman Dominic Yagong; former Democratic legislators Bert Kobayashi and Brian Yamane vying for a House seat from the Diamond Head-Kapahulu 19th District, and former state Rep. Eloise Tungpalen seeking to return to the House from a redrawn Pearl City-Pacific Palisades 34th District.

But if last week’s candidate filings meant continued legislative dominance by Hawaii’s Democrats, the far bigger political news of the week was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s victory in his recall election.

It was not, however, a victory at the polls. It was a purchase. Sixty-three million dollars were spent on Walker’s campaign, $50 million of which came from out of state. He outspent his Democratic opponent 7 to 1.

“Walker’s purchase” is yet another chapter in the sad, sad story of election year 2012: the complete victory of money over democracy in American politics. The power of almost unlimited money has been evident throughout the Republican presidential primaries wherein unlimited funds from the wealthy enabled Mitt Romney, and in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich, to bludgeon their opponents with negative advertising.

A chapter will be written in Hawaii as well. Count on it.