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Election profile: State Senate District 4

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of articles examining contested Big Island primary election races. This story appeared in the July 28 edition.


Tribune-Herald staff writer

The largest state Senate district in the state covers a vast area from Paukaa in the east to Keahole Point in the west, Upolu Point in the north and the boundary of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in the south.

Its residents are farmers, ranchers, and hotel industry workers. Coincidentally, the candidates running for the new 4th District Senate seat include a farmer, a rancher and a former hotel industry worker.

Democratic state Sen. Malama Solomon, appointed to her seat by Gov. Neil Abercrombie, is fighting to hold on to her seat against a challenge by former mayor and former state Sen. Lorraine Inouye. Whichever Democrat prevails is favored in the general election against former Councilman Kelly Greenwell, who’s running as a Green Party candidate. Because the Senate terms are staggered, the seat will be up for election again in 2014.

Solomon, 61, was born in Honolulu as part of the Beamer clan, one of Hawaii’s most talented musical and hula families. Raised in Hilo, she graduated in 1969 from Kamehameha Schools. She earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, both in education, from the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1972 and 1974, earned a second BA from UH-Hilo in cultural anthropology and a Ph.D. in education from Oregon State University in 1980.

That summer, when Solomon was 28, her mother called and asked her to run to be a trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

“I thought she was kidding,” Solomon said recently. But she came home to North Kohala and won. Serving on the Education Committee for a two-year term, she successfully pushed for incorporating Hawaiian curricula into schools. In 1982 state Rep. Yoshito Takamine asked her to run for Hawaii’s 1st Senate District, which covered half of the Big Island and half of Maui. She won and served 16 years in the Senate during the closure of the sugar plantations and the transition to a visitor industry. She established public-private partnerships that led to the establishment of Waimea Elementary School and the North Hawaii Community Hospital.

Solomon, who now lives in Waimea, is the owner and manager of Kohala Farms, now known as Waiaka Farms and Ranch, which has nearly 2,000 acres of land. The family has also developed rental units. After losing her Senate seat to Inouye in 1998, Solomon focused more on the family halau. She’s the kaka‘olelo, or historian, of Beamer-Solomon Halau O Po‘ohala. She ran for lieutenant governor as the running mate of Randy Iwase in 2006. When Abercrombie appointed Sen. Dwight Takamine to be his labor director, the governor chose Solomon to fill out his term.

“The state was on the verge of bankruptcy,” Solomon said. “The departments were kind of in shambles.”

Solomon co-sponsored a bill creating the Public Lands Development Corp., which would bring in revenue to the state by initiating capital improvement and other projects on state lands. She also co-sponsored the Native Hawaiian Recognition Bill and supported a settlement to resolve ceded land claims with OHA.

Asked about Inouye, Solomon said that “we just have very different leadership styles. That’s quite obvious.” Solomon said she’s not a “status quo” person, and her background in Hawaiian culture sets her apart from Inouye.

Inouye, 72, was born and raised in Hilo. A 1958 graduate of Hilo High, she worked around town and in 1967 was hired at the Orchid Isle Hotel, working her way up to general manager.

Mayor Shunichi Kimura appointed her to the Planning Commission, where she cast votes to approve the rezoning for the controversial Prince Kuhio Plaza and to open up land on the Waikoloa coast for resort development.

In 1975 she was hired as the first assistant manager of the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel, and then sales director of the Hilo Hawaiian, the Hilo Lagoon and the Kona Lagoon hotels.

Inouye was elected to the County Council in 1984 and served until 1990, when she won a special election to complete the final two years of Mayor Bernard Akana, who died in office. In 1992, she lost a narrow bid for re-election against Council Chairman Stephen Yamashiro, but she emerged in 1998 to defeat Solomon in the state Senate.

Inouye served in the Senate for 10 years. She gave up her seat when she ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2008. Inouye and her husband Vernon own Aloha Bloom, a 10-acre anthurium and tulip farm. They live in Paukaa.

Inouye says she’s an effective legislator.

“When I was there in the Senate, we had a close-knit Big Island delegation,” she said. “I’m a people person. I’m able to bring people together.”

She supported the creation of Hawaii’s renewable energy portfolio and, because of her business experience, was the Senate’s chief negotiator for the HI-5 can and bottle redemption bill. Inouye also steered funds toward the University of Hawaii at Hilo for the construction of several buildings on the campus.

Inouye said her differences included “character and the ability to work with all people.” She criticized the Public Lands Development Corp. as one of the “anti-environmental bills” that have the ability to bypass county permitting requirements and zoning regulations.

Greenwell, 71, was born in Kona and graduated from Punahou School. He studied agriculture at the University of Arizona and the University of Hawaii, but didn’t graduate because he realized he knew more than some of the instructors. He’s the owner of Hawaiian Gardens, a plant and tree nursery in West Hawaii.

Greenwell is part of a well-known ranching family in Kona, and that may have been a factor in his 2008 election to the County Council. Two years later, after a turbulent term that included him introducing several imaginative resolutions and a routine traffic stop that ended up with Greenwell being charged with resisting arrest, he was bounced from public office.

This time, he’s running as a Green Party candidate for two reasons: Because voters need a choice, now that the Republican Party has no more legitimacy as a political power, and because he wants to stop rail on Honolulu.

As Greenwell explained, the Honolulu rail system will take 20 or more years to build, by which time Hawaii drivers will be navigating via “3-dimensional traffic” ­— flying cars — and create an obsolete eyesore as the dominant feature of Honolulu. The enormous cost of rail in Honolulu will suck up federal transportation dollars, leaving none for the other islands. By running as a Green Party candidate, he’s free to say what he thinks, and doesn’t have to be constrained by Democratic Party rules.

In this election cycle, Solomon has raised $50,940 and spent $24,864.83. Inouye has raised $37,985 and spent $14,996.63. Greenwell has spent $25 on the candidate filing fee and won’t do any active campaigning.

“I don’t like anybody buying votes,” he said. “I did win a council seat without spending money.”

He still supports the decriminalization of marijuana and says his time on the County Council would have been better spent looking for federal funds instead of fighting over what’s available in the budget. He likes both Inouye and Solomon.

“I consider them friends,” he said.

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