By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
It was the most crowded race for Hawaii County Council — and the closest.
The contest for District 1 saw five candidates face off in the Aug. 11 primary, with just 93 votes separating the two finalists, Valerie Poindexter and Chelsea Yagong.
With plenty of potentially undecided voters — there were 1,407 votes cast for the other three candidates — the race remains anyone’s game.
The winner will join a council with at least four other new members and help decide the direction for the district that includes the Hamakua Coast, North Hilo, and the northern edge of South Hilo over the next two years.
While neither of the finalists has run for office before, they are not strangers to politics.
Chelsea Yagong is the 26-year-old daughter of Dominic Yagong, the current long-serving District 1 representative.
She recalls growing up with politics always up for discussion at the dinner table, whether involving the county’s capital improvement list or more controversial issues, such as genetically engineered food.
“I didn’t realize it that in the past 16 years I was being prepared for this election,” she said.
Poindexter, 53, of Ookala said her exposure to politics also came at an early age when her father, Clarence Souza, began organizing the Hamakua Housing Association once sugar plantations began to close.
She said she would help her father hang “bags of information” on door knobs of houses when she was almost too young to reach.
Community service, the Ookala Community Association president said, is in her blood. “It’s my fire in the belly.”
It also helps shape her approach to politics.
Poindexter said she sees her role as a council member, if elected, to be more of a facilitator and community advocate.
She places less emphasis than most candidates on legislation, and shifts her focus instead to what she calls “grass-roots organizing.”
“We need to start empowering the community,” Poindexter said. “Giving the power back to the community.”
As a council member, she said she can help that by letting residents set the agenda and directing resources from the various levels of government to meet their needs.
She said she would accomplish that by doing “community assessments” and being involved and accessible throughout the district.
That approach has kept her from taking definitive stances on issues. But, as she points it out, she doesn’t see it being about her.
“It’s not my agenda I want to bring forward,” Poindexter said. “It’s the community’s agenda I want to bring forward.”
Chelsea Yagong, a former Foodland deli manager who now teaches performing arts at Honokaa Elementary School, takes a more legislative approach to county government and has worked up a few to-do items if elected.
They include authorizing the mayor to lease 900 acres of agriculture land in Pa‘auilo, starting the second phase of the Sand Gulch bypass road and a sidewalk project on Lehua Street in Honokaa, and upgrades to parks and gyms in the district.
“It’s no secret we need to move toward sustainability,” she said, referring to the county-owned agriculture land. “We need to get those lands into the hands of the farmers.”
Yagong, of Ahualoa, said she also plans to speak to the County Council on Oct. 3 about the possibility of the state acquiring the lower Hamakua Ditch.
She said she is speaking at the request of the Third Thursday Thrive group, and will urge the council to seek more transparency in the process.
Yagong said her father didn’t ask her to speak, adding his involvement in her campaign has been limited to sign waving and other similar activities.
“I keep it very, very separate,” she said, referring to her campaign and her father’s position on the council.
Dominic Yagong, who lost in the primary in his bid for Hawaii County mayor, will leave the council in December.
When it comes to fundraising, Poindexter has the edge.
She raised $13,060 as of the primary, while Chelsea Yagong raised $4,080.
Poindexter has been helped by endorsements from unions, which have also made some of the largest contributions to her campaign.
Poindexter, who is a human resources manager at Hamakua Health Center, said “unions have a place” but added she is not a “rubber stamp kind of person.”
“You have to be able to look at both sides,” she said.
Poindexter is also on the board of the Brantley Center.
Chelsea Yagong, who had a campaign deficit of $643.90 as of the primary, said she now has about a $1,000 surplus.
She said she is still running a frugal campaign, and is using some of her father’s extra bumper stickers, which don’t have his first name, to make small signs.
Email Tom Callis at firstname.lastname@example.org.