Election 2018: Challengers seek incumbent face-time

  • Lieutenant governor candidates participate in a League of Women Voters candidate forum June 25 in Hilo. (Nancy Cook Lauer/West Hawaii Today)

  • Community members listen to speakers at the Gubernatorial Candidate Forum June 15 at Kealakehe High School. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

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.”

  1. blackflag_ July 8, 2018 10:20 am

    It’s Campagna’s responsibility and hers alone to get her message out to voters. Tulsi gets her message out by rolling up her sleeves and getting to work alongside the community. If Campagna spent more time campaigning than complaining (and by campaigning lets be clear, the issues are what’s important to the district and not establishment Dems) perhaps voters would have an interest in what Campagna says. Incessant attempts at provoking a dialogue through subterfuge is not uncommonn with candidates who don’t really have a message to begin with, which is becoming more and more apprent with each defamatory claim by the Campagna Complainers camp.

    1. Buds4All July 9, 2018 4:01 am

      Drink too much of the Kool-Aid and look what happens, example Jonestown!

  2. sara July 8, 2018 10:26 am

    Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard wisely serves the people with her time spent in Hawaii. Being a recent volcano disaster victim, with friends and family on Kauai, we all see Tulsi helping us get federal and charity funding, as well as helping hands on. Her challenger is not seen by us, but makes alot of negative noise. This is another opportunity for Campagna’s negative smear campaign to be heard. We have not heard any experience or platform from this challenger, but only non-aloha which is shame on her. My ohana and friends really like Tulsi’s positive aloha spirit and campaign. We would much rather see her working for us and making an impact in our lives. We know what her platforms are since she is in the news, all over social media, and has been our representative for 3 terms already.

    1. Buds4All July 9, 2018 3:59 am

      This is nonsense! She spits out enough “negative noise” herself you have just been indoctrinated into the left’s system. She is not bigger than the election process and needs to participate otherwise she looks like she is hiding something! As well as all the others Rep or Dem! I am sure if Trump decided not to show up for debates everyone would become unhinged.

    2. Rusty Da Clown July 10, 2018 4:05 pm

      I’ve seen her on this island at more stuff than lots of politicians who don’t have a 5,000 mile commute to work.

  3. Ernest T Bass July 8, 2018 2:54 pm

    If incumbents Refuse to debate it is a clear ploy.
    I will simply vote for the opposition and take my chances.
    Better a Fair Chance at discussion rather than accepting silence on issues.
    These people are MY Employees and Representatives….act like it.
    If an incumbent can not debate they have little to offer going forward.
    Speak about the important issues or clean out your desks as far as I am concerned.

    1. Buds4All July 9, 2018 3:55 am

      Throw a brick thru their winder ETB!

  4. diverdave July 8, 2018 3:19 pm

    “Gabbard has declined to participate in any candidate events”
    someone told Tulsi “talks too much” Gabbard that she is ahead in the
    polls so why get caught saying something she would wish she didn’t.
    once “talks too much” will remain silent. Her goal is to be elected so
    Hanabusa can select her to fill Hirono’s Senate seat after all three
    get elected and Hirono must resign due to health concerns.

    1. KonaRich July 8, 2018 3:45 pm

      Why debate when you have name recognition and give you opponent a platform. Tulsi has her sites set on senator then higher, and shes doing a good job promoting herself.

  5. Kaipo Wall July 9, 2018 1:58 am

    Vote for Tulsi because she’s so cute . I like the blonde streak she has dyed into her hair . Cute cute cute . And she knows very well that most people will vote for her because she is so cute . Ah that winning smile .

    1. Kaipo Wall July 9, 2018 2:05 am

      I also liked how she was not afraid to call out Obama for what a spineless conniving snake that he was . She was fearless to appear repeatedly on Fox News and state her case openly ,criticizing Obama for being the useless foreign policy goof that he was . While everyone else was busy kissing Obama’s okole . Then she managed to tick off the entire mainstream national Democrat party by supporting the wizened old NYC commie socialist , Bernie Sanders , over the flagrant fraud and con-woman , Hillary Clinton. All of which truly endeared her with the rank and file Dems her in go-figure Hawaii nei .

  6. Buds4All July 9, 2018 4:02 am

    #TimeforChange #VoteGabbardOut!

  7. CongressWorksForUs July 9, 2018 6:41 am

    For those whining about Tulsi Gabbard, remember the old saying that actions speak louder than words. I see her challenger talking a lot and doing nothing; maybe they should take a leaf out of Gabbard’s book and do something useful instead of sitting on the sidelines…

  8. LiliN July 9, 2018 10:22 am

    Who else on this island can be a moderator??? So tired of SHERRY BRACKEN who thinks it’s all about her and telling us what her opinion is!

    1. Rusty Da Clown July 10, 2018 4:03 pm

      Sherry Bracken is fair and holds people’s feet to the fire, cutting them off if they have to and calls them out if they didn’t answer the question. If there were more journalists who were as resistant to BS as Sherry is, then we would have more folks to moderate these things.

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