Change Was in the Air Leading Up to the Primary Election. What Happened?

Hawai‘i is sending 16 unopposed incumbents back to the State Legislature.


Sleeping manIn a one-party state like Hawai‘i, the action tends to happen before the election. That certainly was the case in 2014, when Neil Abercrombie flopped—the first time an elected governor of Hawai‘i had lost his party’s nomination since statehood.


With 2016 such an unusual year nationally, there was no shortage of entertaining what-ifs going into the August primary. Would Honolulu reject Mayor Kirk Caldwell because of rail’s budget debacle, possibly even choosing a (gasp) Republican in Charles Djou? Would followers of Bernie Sanders swing any races after taking over the Democratic party in May’s “preference poll”? What would Rep. Tulsi Gabbard say next?


What happened? “Two words: nothing much,” says Neal Milner, pundit and retired UH political science professor. “Turnout was low”—a record 34.7 percent—“because we had few contested races. Then you had a mayoral race that turned out not to be compelling enough,” without a workable plan for rail. 


Political columnist and former Honolulu Advertiser editorial page editor Jerry Burris summed it up: “If you like to bet on elections, the three parties are the Democrats, the Republicans and the incumbents. Always bet on the incumbents.”


“If you like to bet on elections, the three parties are the Democrats, the Republicans and the incumbents. Always bet on the incumbents.”


And Hawai‘i did just that, sending 16 unopposed incumbents back to the State Legislature. An additional 38 candidates statewide won their primary and will sail into office because they were unopposed in the general. 


The only incumbent to lose was Rep. Jo Jordan, whose opponent, Cedric Asuega Gates, polled 52.2 percent of the votes—perhaps because of Jordan’s quixotic stance on the marriage equality bill. An openly gay woman, Jordan voted no.


The night’s feel-good victory was on the Big Island, where 76-year-old Harry Kim reclaimed his old job as mayor by steamrolling 68-year-old Wally Lau, the former managing director for disgraced mayor Billy Kenoi. Victory assured, Kim punctuated his comments to television reporters with a memorable line: “I’m just a grandfather.”


Facing November’s general election, do people we even care? “The theory I like to throw out is: Maybe people are just satisfied,” says Burris. “But I put the blame on the Republican party—for failing to generate a crop of people who can energize the races.” Still, “the way you build a party is through patronage and you can’t do that if you don’t have anybody in office. Look at the staffing of the Legislature. It’s full of former or future Democratic candidates. It’s sort of a farm team.”


A team whose draft picks are all grandfathered.



You won’t see these 16 state lawmakers’ names on the ballot this November because, without opposition, they’re going straight back to the square building; Honolulu City Council member Ikaika Anderson also faced no opposition and was elected outright. Another 38 candidates were elected in the August primary election.


Senate District:

  • 5 Gilbert Keith-Agaran (D)

  • 20 Mike Gabbard (D)

  • 22 Donovan Dela Cruz (D)


House District:

  • 9 Justin Woodson (D)

  • 18 Mark Hashem (D)

  • 21 Scott Nishimoto (D)

  • 25 Sylvia Luke (D)

  • 26 Scott Saiki (D) Majority leader

  • 27 Takashi Ohno (D)

  • 32 Linda Ichiyama (D)

  • 38 Henry Aquino (D)

  • 39 Ty Cullen (D)

  • 42 Sharon Har (D)

  • 45 Lauren K. Cheape Matsumoto (R)

  • 48 Jarrett K. Keohokalole (D)

  • 51  Chris Lee (D)




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Honolulu Magazine April 2019
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