Hawaii Political Races to Watch: Can State Sen. Clayton Hee Become the Next Lt. Governor?

PHoto: Diane Lee

With state Sen. Clayton Hee's big weekend announcement, the HONOLULU Magazine political team can now project the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor will go — from snooze fest to a race to watch. 

"This changes everything in that race," says Colin Moore, a political science professor at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. "Hee is such a well-known senator that it makes for a real race."

Until now, Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui, who was appointed to the office a year-and-a-half ago by Gov. Neil Abercrombie, looked poised to run unopposed for the job, while mostly commuting from his Maui office (though two lesser-known candidates have pulled papers, indicating they may run). Tsutsui replaced former Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz, who was selected by Abercrombie to succeed Sen. Daniel K. Inouye in the U.S. Senate. 

Hee has several key advantages that immediately make him the front-runner over Tsutsui, Moore says. "Even an incumbent can lose if there is a challenge from a candidate who has been around forever and has a huge campaign war chest."

Tsutsui is largely unknown to the electorate, with recent polls showing that an overwhelming majority of people has never heard of him. On the flip side, who hasn't heard of Clayton Hee? He's been in public life for as long as I've been alive, holding his first state office in 1982 and then serving as a trustee with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs for more than a decade. He ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2002 and has been in the state senate representing Windward Oahu since 2004.

The lieutenant governor's race doesn't get much attention from voters, either, says Moore. "Often these races, because they are decided in the primary, are all about who voters know," Moore says. "This could be pretty concerning for Tsutsui."

In the battle for endorsements from former governors, Hee has snagged long-time pal Ben Cayetano, while Tsutsui enjoys the support of John Waihee.