Too Many Non-races This Year

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - July 30, 2008

As I write, two mornings after the July 22 filing deadline for this fall’s elections, reasons for political despair are piled high on my desk.

Let’s start with the filing system itself. It has become Hawaii’s political equivalent of the first day a new big-box retailer opens in the Islands: Candidates smell electoral bargains and, elbows flailing, supporters pushing, they rush to seize their chance at the prize.

Witness Ann Kobayashi announcing at noon that she’d give up her seat on the City Council in order to challenge Mayor Mufi Hannemann for mayor. At noon? On deadline day? I’ve known Ann a long time - as a councilwoman, a state legislator and a former candidate for mayor. She’s always impressed me as level-headed and straightforward. But you can’t make up your mind to make a race this big until four-and-a-half hours before your papers are due.

Kobayashi’s hesitancy, of course, left Council District 8 - on deadline day - open.

Thus the scramble. Duke Bainum - former councilman, state representative and 2004 candidate for mayor - immediately filed his papers for Kobayashi’s empty City Council seat. So, too, did Manoa state Rep. Kirk Caldwell. Caldwell got his papers in by holding his foot in the door and extending his pen to any Manoa resident in sight.

That, of course, left Caldwell’s Manoa state House district without a Democratic candidate for the post. So Hannemann’s people rush about, trying to get papers filed for one of his aides. Republicans threaten legal action - they have a candidate and they’d like to win by default. Why not?

There has to be a saner way of doing this. Taking out papers should also require - at some point closer to the filing deadline - a statement of intent by the candidates, or a post-deadline period in which others are allowed to enter the lists. Something.

Why? Because, as the too-blank lists of those who did file last week attests, the only districts - state, city or federal - in which potential office-holders show any interest are those that are without an incumbent. Another reason for political despair.

Cases in point: Oahu’s 35th District of Waipahu and Crestview. Incumbent Alex Sonson has decided to challenge incumbent Clarence Nishihara for the 16th District Senate seat, leaving a vacant House seat. Five Democrats filed for it, as did one Republican. Kailua-Kona’s 6th District House seat was vacated by Josh Green, who’s running for a, yes, vacant Senate seat; three Democrats and one Republican filed.

Or the Big Island’s empty non-partisan mayor’s race: Eight candidates filed. Or the 51st state House seat. Exit incumbent Tommy Waters and three Dems and a Republican jump into the candidate pool.

But where there’s an incumbent running, it is a filing waste-land. At the top of the federal list, both Neil Abercrombie and Mazie Hirono face only token opposition. Token, at best. Yet political wisdom says, in Hirono’s case anyway, that the time to go after an incumbent member of Congress is soon. After that first post-frosh election, the job becomes a lifetime sinecure.

That’s what the numbers show. But no one of stature, either Democrat or Republican, is going after Mazie.

Where are the two attractive Republicans who ran two years ago for the open seat Hirono won? Colleague Bob Hogue will continue to write about sports for MidWeek and serve as commissioner of the Pacific West college athletic conference, thank you. And Quentin Kawananakoa? He’s going after that open 51st state representative seat.

Another, ever-present reason for democratic despair is the role of money in our politics. Duke Bainum and Quentin Kawananakoa are both decent, principled men - and ridiculously rich. They can roam the political lists, looking for a place to run. But note that, even with all the money in the world, they stop at open seats, for both know the political seating arrangements and the odds against challengers.

So, too, does everyone else seeking to serve. At the conclusion of filing deadline day, 22 state House incumbents run unopposed. So do two senators.

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