HILO — Challengers in some Hawaii Island political races say the public is missing out on the back-and-forth of debates and candidate forums because the incumbents are no-shows.
The problem — in addition to reluctant incumbents — appears to be a matter of timing, as well as attention being focused closer to the top of the ticket, where two well-known Democrats are vying for the governorship.
Those in local races, such as for the County Council and state House and Senate, are finding scant opportunities for the political bantering that helps define the candidates’ positions.
“There are a number of incumbents on this island that have decided not to participate,” said Raina Whiting, who’s challenging incumbent Rep. Richard Onishi for the District 3 state House seat, representing a wide swath of mauka Puna and Ka‘u from Hilo to Pahala.
“We’re seeing across the nation a number of young people with new ideas that we’re running against long-standing incumbents,” Whiting said. “My opponent is doing very little public outreach. He’s been to no community forums, no community events. … That’s sort of the old approach in participating in politics and a number of young people are questioning that approach.”
Whiting ended up in a hodgepodge Na Leo public access television forum with three other solo candidates, all in different races, when their opponents didn’t show up.
Onishi said he was on the mainland, and he had asked for the forum to be rescheduled. It’s “disappointing” his challenger would make those comments, he said.
“There is no reason for me to duck her,” Onishi said. “I have a record of public service; why would I duck her?”
Jeanne Kapela was another of those solo Na Leo candidates, after House District 5 Rep. Richard Creagan didn’t show up for a face-to-face. Kapela said last week this was the second Creagan no-show.
“I feel like my candidate just doesn’t want to debate,” Kapela said. “I think a debate is about democracy and it brings in transparency. And the reality is, people in our community deserve that.”
Gene “Bucky” Leslie, another challenger in the race, agrees.
“He doesn’t want to participate at all,” Leslie said. “He doesn’t want to be bothered with the forums and the debates.”
Creagan said he recently had surgery and is recovering more slowly than he expected from post-operative complications. He needs to pace himself for a while, he said.
House District 5 is another sprawling district, running from Kailua-Kona to Naalehu along the southwest coast of the island.
The incumbent in one race near the top of the ballot has issued a clearer message of non-participation.
That’s been especially grating to a Democratic challenger to U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, which covers rural Oahu and all the neighbor islands.
With just over a month until the Aug. 11 primary, and less than that before early voting locations open July 30, Gabbard has declined to participate in any candidate events. She’d maintained the same stance in 2016, yet won with a commanding 77.6 percent in the Democratic primary.
“She is spending the limited precious time she’s able to be home with her constituents, discussing issues of importance with them, including difficulties they are having due to the recent natural disasters on Kauai, Oahu, and Hawaii Island, especially the victims of the Puna lava flow, as well as fulfilling her National Guard service requirements,” said Erika Tsuji, Gabbard’s political director.
Tsuji pointed to Gabbard’s website and social media as sources of information about her platform.
That irks Sherry Alu Campagna, one of two Democrats challenging Gabbard in the primary. Campagna said she’s not disappointed for herself as much as for the voters.
“Voters deserve the opportunity to hear from the candidates in an honest, open and unscripted manner,” Campagna said. “I think ignoring these opportunities is gaming the system that’s in place.”
In some cases, when the incumbent doesn’t participate, no one gets heard.
“When we first decided to hold candidate forums for this election year, we were going to hold two forums,” said Rosemarie Muller, president of the League of Women Voters of Hawaii County. “The June 25 one was going to be for Congressional District 2 and State Senate District 4. The July 31 was going to be for lieutenant governor. Needless to say, we only got a response from one of the candidates to participate in the congressional race. I made many attempts but never got any responses.”
Ultimately, the league settled on one forum on June 25 for the lieutenant governor and state Senate candidates, with all candidates but one participating.
Two other organizations hold their candidate events whether or not incumbents agree to show up.
The Waimea Community Association holds its forums in a “speed dating” format, where candidates travel table to table, meeting with small groups of voters to discuss issues and answer questions. The next one will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday, with doors opening at 4:30 p.m., at Hawaii Preparatory Academy’s Taylor Commons.
The event includes candidates in five races important to North Hawaii, including the congressional race where Campagna will probably participate without the incumbent, said Waimea Community Association President Patti Cook.
Na Leo TV has a similar philosophy about candidates. Major candidates are invited and they get a date and time, said Stacy Higa, president and CEO.
“It’s like herding cats,” Higa said. “If can, can. If cannot, cannot.”
The Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce, in conjunction with other local groups, plans a gubernatorial forum July 20 at the ARC of Hilo. It took a little longer than usual to get the forum organized, but that was as much due to the search for a location as it was getting candidates on board, said Executive Officer Miles Yoshioka.
“We haven’t had any candidates refusing to participate,” Yoshioka said. “It’s been more challenging to figure out a schedule for candidates as well as the venue.”
Wendy Laros, executive director of the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce, said her organization had no problem getting incumbents to participate in the forums for governor and lieutenant governor the chamber held June 15.
Two of the notable Kona-area races — state Senate District 3 and County Council District 7 — have no incumbents. The nonprofit Community Forums, in conjunction with the Hawaii County League of Women Voters, is featuring those races.
The Senate forum was held July 3; the council forum will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday at County Council chambers in the West Hawaii Civic Center.
Some challengers haven’t seen any problem with incumbent participation. In state Senate District 4, incumbent Sen. Lorraine Inouye and Democratic challenger Heather Kimball have had plenty of one-on-one time at forums.
Koohan Paik-Mander, a Democrat challenging North Hawaii state Rep. Mark Nakashima for the District 1 House seat, said he’s been participating.
Participation is what it’s all about, said Sherry Bracken, who moderates most of the forums on the island.
“I think it’s extremely important for the community that candidates engage in forums and talk stories,” Bracken said, “so the public has a chance to learn who their elected officials are and who their elected officials should be.”