BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – HONOLULU — Puna, a district on the island Big Island of Hawaii, is described by the Lonely Planet travel blog as “a new, eclectic population of mainland retirees, nouveau hippies, off-the-grid minimalists, funky artists, New Age seekers, Hawaiian sovereignty activists, organic farmers and the odd pakalolo (marijuana) grower.”
Two weeks ago, few predicted the race between U.S. Senator Brian Schatz and his challenger, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, would remain in political limbo several days after the primary, and in the hands of the people who live there.
But hurricanes and tropical storms forced the closure Saturday of two polling places. People still haven’t voted, and Schatz leads by just 1,635 votes.
Schatz and Hanabusa and their ground troops descended on the Puna neighborhoods, trying to attract the attention of the 6,800 registered voters yet to cast a ballot.
They say they are focused on the thousands of people still without power and running water. Some political observers said the saga sounds like a Hollywood movie.
“The one thing I learned about this race is that the neighbor islands always feel that we are Honolulu centric. So to get to the position that we’re in where they will make the final call, it must make them feel very good,” Hanabusa said at the Democratic Party Unity Breakfast the day after the primary.
Willes Lee, the Hawaii Republican Assembly national director, said, “It is unfortunate that the residents of Puna were hammered by the hurricane, but to think the most important race in Hawaii is to be decided by Puna is, to say the least, ‘interesting.’ Can you imagine if this Senate race also determined the control of the U.S. Senate?”
The U.S. Senate race — along with a state House race and a Hawaii County Council race — may decided Friday, during a special election.
But Hanabusa is planning to file a lawsuit against the Office of Elections sometime Wednesday to delay the vote. A spokesperson did not return calls to Hawaii Reporter on Tuesday, but Hanabusa told this to Hawaii News Now: “Fundamentally, what we are trying to preserve here is the people’s right to vote and making sure that people know that their vote counts.”
State Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, also wants the election delayed and said the plan to hold it Friday is a “terrible decision,” because many people “have not dug out yet” and cannot get newspapers, mail, electricity, Internet or mail.
“It is not possible that they will know to vote,” Ruderman said. Some are still unable to leave their homes because of fallen trees and power lines, he said. Ruderman said he tried several times to speak with Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago, beginning early election morning, but Nago didn’t return his calls until late Monday, after the office already decided to hold the special election.
“He (Nago) made a decision sitting in his office in Honolulu, based on bad information and bad assumptions, and not understanding or caring what happens on the island. He showed a lack of concern and lack of empathy for the people here,” Ruderman said.
Former U.S. Rep. Pat Saiki, head of the Hawaii Republican Party, also called on the Office of Elections to delay the election.
“Instead of the Office of Elections forcing residents to turn from rebuilding their lives to head to the polls, the state should be focusing all of its efforts on providing these victims with basic necessities like food, water and electricity. To think a family whose home and property has been ruined in the wake of Iselle must put the Democrat primary ahead of their problems is a shame,” Saiki said.
Office of Elections spokesman Rex Quidilla said the goal is to finish the elections, not to disenfranchise voters. Elections staff consulted with the state civil defense, the Hawaii County Clerk and the attorney general. He said voters will be sent brochures, letters and fliers to tell them of the coming elections, and children will be sent home from school with informational fliers for their parents.
Some residents were skeptical of the politicians and their teams descending on the storm ravaged area.
“I can’t speak for others, but I see it as buying votes. My guess is that neither of them have ever been this part of Puna before,” said Damon Tucker, a well-known blogger on Hawaii Island who has been covering the storms, the cleanup and the political controversy.
Others like Ruderman said they agree the politicians appear to be trying to earn favor with the voters, but added they are in fact helping out the community too.