By NANCY COOK LAUER
Stephens Media Hawaii
Russell Kokubun is stepping down from his post as chairman of the state Department of Agriculture to return to his Volcano farm and, to some extent, help friend and former Hawaii Senate colleague Colleen Hanabusa campaign for the U.S. Senate.
Kokubun, 65, will retire from the state at the end of December, three years after Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed him to the post. Kokubun served in the state Senate for 10 years, including a tenure as vice president under fellow Democrat Hanabusa, leading to speculation among the Oahu media that he was leaving to set up a Big Island campaign headquarters for her.
But Kokubun told Stephens Media Hawaii late Tuesday that his primary reason for retiring is to get back to his farm, after many years of political life.
“I am not opening a campaign headquarters. I’m not coming on in a paid position,” Kokubun said. “I’d really just like to farm.”
That doesn’t mean he won’t pitch in on a volunteer basis, however.
“I am supportive. She is a very good friend of me and my family,” Kokubun said. “I’ve always supported my friends.”
Among them, he said is Mayor Billy Kenoi, who is currently one year into his final four-year term.
Is there possibly a second mayoral bid in Kokubun’s future?
“I took the tattoo of stupid off my forehead a long time ago,” Kokubun said. “I’ve had enough.”
Kokubun was elected to the Hawaii County Council in 1984 and served until 1992, including the last four years as chairman. He resigned to run for mayor but lost to Stephen Yamashiro in the primary election. Gov. Ben Cayetano appointed him in 1998 to the Board of Land and Natural Resources. Two years later, when state Sen. Andy Levin resigned the South Hawaii seat to serve in the Harry Kim administration, Cayetano tapped Kokubun for the seat.
“As a former legislator and farmer, Russell brought a unique perspective to the position and has helped to move Hawaii’s agriculture and sustainability initiatives forward,” Gov. Neil Abercrombie said Tuesday in a statement. “This has included support for farmers and new farm innovation, promoting locally grown food, and investing in a solid agricultural infrastructure.”
“I wish Russell the very best as he follows his heart home to the Big Island to work the land and provide for his family and community,” Abercrombie added.
In a letter to staff Tuesday, Kokubun praised them for their hard work during trying budget times and said he looked forward to suing some of the lessons he learned during his stint as chairman.
“While still able to bend over and pull weeds, I will have the opportunity to put into practice the policies about agriculture and sustainability that I have advocated for as a legislator and administrator for the past 29 years,” Kokubun said in the letter. “This will allow me to complete my career cycle by returning to the farm and feeding family and community. This has always been my dream.”
Hanabusa, who currently represents Hawaii’s urban Oahu 1st Congressional District, is challenging fellow Democrat U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz in the Aug. 9 primary for the seat Aberecrombie appointed him to last December. The seat became vacant when longtime U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye died in office before finishing his final 6-year term.
Hanabusa, initially seen as Inouye’s heir apparent, is likely to face a battle against Schatz, the Abercrombie appointee who has waged an aggressive campaign for election almost since the day he took office. Schatz’s many rounds of island visits have made the former relative unknown more of a household name, and the most recent polls have shown the two neck and neck.
Hanabusa is likely to promote her ties with Inouye — she has been endorsed by Inouye’s widow, Irene Hirano Inouye — and rely on friends to get her name out more on the Neighbor Islands. Her campaign did not return a telephone call or email by press time Tuesday.
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at email@example.com.