KAILUA-KONA — For the first time in a decade, a new legislator will take up the state Senate seat for Hawaii Island’s 3rd District.
Come primary day on August 11, registered West Hawaii Democrats have a choice to make between two politicians looking to make the leap from careers defined by county government experience to legislating at the state level.
The options are county councilman Dru Kanuha, currently nearing the end of his third term representing portions of South Kona and North Kona in the county’s 7th District, and Brenda Ford, a former county councilwoman who served eight years before exiting due to term limits.
Also in the race is Michael Last, a retired electrical engineer living in Ocean View and running unopposed in the primary on the Libertarian ticket.
The three candidates for the Senate seat held for the last 10 years by Sen. Josh Green, who this year is running for lieutenant governor, convened at the West Hawaii Civic Center Council Chambers Tuesday evening to discuss their candidacies as part of a forum organized by West Hawaii Forums and the League of Women Voters.
Kanuha, a native of Kona with island ties stretching back generations, explained why he planned to forego a shot at a final two-year term on the council in favor of a run for the Senate.
“I thought it was a good opportunity to represent more of the community here in West Hawaii,” Kanuha said.
He touted accomplishments in his more than five years on the council, including road projects like the Mamalahoa Bypass Road, creating new community spaces like Alii Kai, raising the tobacco purchasing age to 21 and pushing for homeless programs like the micro-housing project at Hale Kikaha.
As a state Senator, Kanuha said his primary focus would be combating homelessness and generating affordable housing across Hawaii County, particularly in West Hawaii where homes tend to be least affordable.
“We have a huge issue with affordable housing on Hawaii Island, it’s never affordable,” he said. “Who can afford ‘affordable housing’ at $350,000-$375,000 for a home? It’s absolutely crazy.”
The government, Kanuha said, needs to do more to build affordable housing or make land available for public/private partnerships to pave the way for the housing needed. He added central to this issue is getting homeless off the street and out from in front of businesses, under their own roofs and allowing them the chance to become contributing community members.
Ford agreed with Kanuha’s position on affordable housing, but added it needs to be more focused on rentals controlled and owned by the county, as many Hawaii Islanders are outpaced by the price of home ownership. She also mentioned the need for construction of a new hospital in West Hawaii, which could help generate revenue without raising taxes.
“I’d like to see us be the health state,” Ford said. “We need a new hospital. We need the physician assistants program, which we’re bringing in from University of Washington here in Kona.”
Ford noted her contributions during her time on the council as filing a lawsuit that earned Hawaii County a fourth Senate seat, introducing anti-gerrymandering legislation and bills to fight drunk drivers, the establishment of a keiki dental clinic and being instrumental in road projects like the La’aloa Avenue extension.
One question moderator Sherry Bracken posed involved Ford’s transition in this election cycle, when she initially announced her candidacy for Hawaii Island’s 5th District state House of Representatives seat but after a discussion with Rep. Richard Creagan, the current occupant of that position, decided to run for the Senate instead.
Creagan had initially planned to seek the Senate seat Ford is now chasing, but will instead run as the incumbent for District 5.
“There was no backroom dealing, we publicized this on the front page of the newspaper,” said Ford, adding Creagan was disillusioned with fellow members of the House who were stepping on legislation he and Ford both believed necessary for the good of the county and the state.
“He finally got concessions out of the House and called me up and let me know that he was thinking about going for his own seat,” she continued. “I said ‘Fine.’ And we swapped, and we publicized it. There was no suspicious activity going on, and definitely no deals.”
As for Last, he’s running out of a sense of defiance and disillusionment that had he not decided to enter the race, the Democratic primary would have been the defacto election for the actual Senate seat absent a general election challenger.
“After the primary, the person who wins the primary can claim everyone who voted, voted for him or her,” Last said. “I think that is totally wrong, and I am giving you, the citizens of Hawaii County, the chance for a second opinion. I don’t care if I win.”
At the center of Last’s campaign are the notions of less government, more individual freedom and a diversity of voices in the state Senate, which is comprised of 25 members, all of whom are Democrats.
His contributions to the island as a non-political entity, Last explained, are several years serving as part of the Ocean View Community Association and time spent as a regular volunteer with the Hawaii State Blood Bank.
Last said if elected, he’d push to remove government from private industry. Last would also prioritize legal gambling as an alternative to higher taxes, although he added he despises games of chance.
Finally, he mentioned abolishing the Jones Act, which Bracken noted several studies have shown increases the cost of consumer goods throughout Hawaii.
The Jones Act includes several mandates that make international shipping less efficient and more expensive than it would be if the nearly 100-year-old federal law was revised or rescinded.
Ford said she would support the state pushing for an exemption from the Jones Act, while Kanuha said he wouldn’t at this time because it contains provisions to protect working sailors on those ships and that there’s more pressing county and state issues to which legislators ought to devote their time.
Another topic raised was building rights in lava zones 1 and 2, brought up in light of the hundreds of homes destroyed by the newest Kilauea volcano eruption in Puna.
Both Kanuha and Ford stated they are behind Gov. David Ige’s push to disallow building in those zones, even though zoning falls under the county’s purview.
Last, however, felt differently.
“I have a problem with the government legislating morality or legislating common sense,” said Last, who lives in a lava zone 2 area himself. “People will do whatever the heck they want to.”
He added he doesn’t see a government obligation to assist those impacted by the lava flows, while Kanuha said he would support state-sponsored programs to provide affordable land to those displaced in zones deemed safe from further volcanic activity.
Ford agreed with Kanuha, adding she’d push for federal grants to allow for more than just relief and home building, but also to build rentals.
Finally, Bracken asked questions as to solutions to deal with climate change beyond a transition to all renewable energy by 2045, state road projects and the monumental task of converting all of Hawaii Island’s 50,000 cesspools by 2050.
Ford said state laws need to change, disallowing shoreline properties incurring significant damage due to flooding events from being rebuilt in the same area.
Kanuha said he would push for the widening of Kuakini Highway from the “pinch point” at Lako Street to at least Kamehameha III Road, which has been taken off the state’s priority list.
Last said it’s “inconceivable” to build a sewer system in Ocean View and, along with his two counterparts for office, added he would push for alternative solutions not currently offered by the Hawaii state Department of Health.