KAILUA-KONA — The Democratic primary election for Hawaii Island’s House District 7, which featured two candidates with experience in the Legislature, was one of the tightest races across the entire state in 2016.
Now, both candidates are back for round two and campaigning for voter support throughout North Kona, South Kohala and North Kohala in what’s likely to be another close contest.
“I haven’t stopped running,” said challenger David Tarnas, who with 48 percent of the vote lost to incumbent Cindy Evans by fewer than 200 ballots. “As I said the night of the primary two years ago, I was planning to run in 2018 and I’ve been campaigning ever since.”
Tarnas, who before redistricting served in the House as a representative of North Kona and South Kohala between 1994-98, added that the narrow loss was “heartbreaking but also heartwarming,” as he took strong community support as a sign that voters in the district were, and still are, ready for a change.
Evans, an eight-time incumbent who’s held office since 2002 and chair of the House Committee on Economic Development and Business, views the last election through a different lens.
“I personally believe last time was a solid win considering only 35 percent of the voters turned out,” said Evans, adding the political landscape has changed over the last two years, even if the candidates haven’t. “Each race that I’ve had is its own race with the current issues of the day. … So to me, it’s a fresh, new race.”
She added she’s running for the ninth time because she believes she can do more for the district than her opponent. She cited a relevant chairmanship, her part in several ongoing legislative projects and an ability to keep momentum behind those initiatives as why voters should check her box come Aug. 11.
Tarnas, who’s looking to jump back into politics after 20 years as the owner of an environmental planning company during which time he raised a family on Hawaii Island, said he’s the better choice because voters want a candidate who shares common experiences with them. As he put it, a candidate who “understands what they’re going through.”
Thomas Belekanich is also running for the House District 7 seat. He will run unopposed in the primary on the Republican ticket.
Growth and prosperity
Both candidates noted bolstering the economy as a top concern on their list of respective priorities.
“The Legislature doesn’t create jobs, but it can create a regulatory environment that can support a successful economy with a diversity of economic activities on the island from astronomy to agriculture to tourism and more,” Tarnas said.
He added he wants to push diversification through more ocean science and technology development, particularly in the field of ocean-based renewable energy production. Tarnas also touted the prospects of a forestry industry to produce a variety of products for local use and export.
Tarnas mentioned the role the state can play in projects that achieve multiple goals at once, such as a “rail to trail” initiative that already has community support and involves converting an old railway running from Mahukona through Hawi and Kapaau into a trail for walking and possibly biking or horseback riding.
The move, he believes, would stoke tourism in the district and create economic opportunity for artisan shops and food vendors while promoting active, healthy lifestyles.
Evans said her focus to stimulate and grow the economy will remain with small business development in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors as well as the creative industry.
She mentioned support for accelerator programs to provide investment and mentorship in areas like Hawaii Island’s burgeoning film industry, along with business incubators to aid young companies and startups around the island.
“How do we give them a support system of mentors, networks and coalitions of people with knowledge who are retired and who’d be willing to brainstorm?” Evans posed. “It’s not like Cindy Evans has all the answers, but (she) can use her position to bring people together to create the ideas and the solutions and the answers.”
A specific example Evans offered involves an initiative that would connect budding farmers with low-interest loan programs. Another crucial piece of the puzzle is expanded educational opportunities on the island at all levels, she said, including investment in Hawaii Community College-Palamanui to expand its student offerings.
A taxing issue
In 2017, the Legislature held a special session during which it voted to raise the transient accommodations tax (TAT) by 1 percent statewide to bail out the floundering Honolulu rail project to the tune of almost $2.4 billion.
Tarnas put much of the onus for the measure’s success on Evans’ shoulders, who he said bears significant responsibility because she served as House Majority Leader at that time. He asserted that Evans built up support for the measure before reversing her position at the behest of her constituency.
Evans ultimately resigned her leadership position after voting against the measure, which had garnered the support of the Democratic caucus.
“We here in the district actually lost twice,” Tarnas said. “We got a bad bill that increases our taxes and pays for Honolulu rail, and our representative lost her leadership position.”
Tarnas said, if elected, he will push for a more equitable share of TAT revenues between the state and its counties — an issue he mentioned as central to his platform.
Evans, who served as House Majority Leader from 2015-17, disputes any characterization of her resignation as other members of House leadership forcing her out.
She added that Tarnas is incorrect in his representation of her position on the TAT increase. She said she made her position clear to leadership that a TAT bill wasn’t the answer and that she’d be forced to vote no if the TAT bump didn’t include an equitable increase to the county’s share of the tax.
“I said I have to vote no on this because it’s not fair and balanced,” she said of the measure. “I (told them) I will offer you my resignation letter out of respect and support of this leadership. … I did this because it was important to stand up for my constituency, and I think (Tarnas’) assessment is inaccurate.”
Beyond TAT reform, Evans also noted ongoing efforts to combat domestic violence and sexual assault as a top priority if re-elected.