Hawaii’s Resign-to-Run Law: Why Some Candidates Must Resign, But Others Don’t

Photo: Odeelo Dayondon

Of the six elected officials entering the crowded race to represent Hawaii’s first Congressional District, only one candidate has to worry that he won’t have a political office to return to if he loses.

While we frequently hear of Hawaii’s “resign to run” law, it has little impact in the elections for the U.S. House and Senate. “Any time you’re seeking a federal office, you’re not required to do anything like (resign your current seat to campaign for another),” explains Office of Elections spokesman Rex Quidilla.

The exception is state Rep. K. Mark Takai, who chose to run for Congress instead of aiming for re-election to the state House, where he’s represented the Pearl City area since 1994. But for Takai, it’s not an issue of resigning. His two-year House term is up this election cycle and he just can’t run for two offices at once.

It’s a different story for Senators Donna Mercado Kim and Will Espero, as well as for Honolulu City Council members Ikaika Anderson, Stanley Chang and Joey Manahan. Those five are all midway through four-year terms and can keep their current offices while seeking a higher post in Washington, D.C. ­— provided they keep their government work separate from their campaigning.

So why do some candidates have to resign to run? Take former Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who had to vacate his Honolulu Hale office for his unsuccessful bid for a fifth-floor desk at the State Capitol in 2010.

For that, you can thank Frank Fasi, Honolulu’s longtime mayor who always wanted to be governor but could never get the backing of enough of the state’s voters.

Let’s face it, Fasi couldn’t get the backing of the authors of our state Constitution. Or he ticked off enough Democrats that they found a legal way to stop him. After trying to oust then-Gov. George Ariyoshi in the 1974 and 1978 Democratic primaries — when Fasi could run safely from the halfway point in his four-year term–the 1978 Constitutional Convention delegates decided to put a stop to the mayor’s risk-free bids for the state’s top office. (Fasi would run for governor twice more–in 1982 while he was already out of office, as well as in 1994 when he did resign the mayorship to run as the third-party “Best” candidate.)

The Con-Con delegates constrained Fasi with this constitutional clause: “Any elected public officer shall resign from that office before being eligible as a candidate for another public office, if the term of the office sought begins before the end of the term of the office held.”

That wording might suggest that all of the current elected officials should have to resign before running for Congress. But in 2002 the state Attorney General’s office issued an opinion that Hawaii’s elected officials only have to resign to run if they’re seeking another county- or state-level seat. There’s no such restriction on federal seats, which is why an election for an open seat like the one Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa is vacating to run for U.S. Senate can often seem like a free-for-all.

So far, 11 candidates have pulled nomination papers for Hanabusa’s current post, and state Sen. Will Espero assured HONOLULU Magazine that he’ll file, too, bringing the number of known candidates to a dozen. With a filing deadline of June 3, there might even be more to come.

So HONOLULU readers, what do you think of the resign-to-run law? Is it outdated? Should it apply to every elected official running for every seat? Does it give incumbents an advantage, or does would it be more likely to deter credible candidates from risking safe seats? Send your comments to politics@honolulumagazine.com.