Rob Parsons

All in the 'Ohana

Examining the contributions of a unique Political Action Committee

by Rob Parsons

July 03, 2008

Tamara Paltin & Angie Hoffman address the
‘Ohana Coalition Maui photo: Elle Cochran..

Hope springs eternal every two years on Maui that a majority of visionary, dedicated candidates may be elected to County Council, finally achieving the pendulum swing back from the protracted tenure of a "more is better," and "plantation politics as usual" majority mindset.

Such was the optimism that percolated through a gathering of `Ohana Coalition Maui enthusiasts last Saturday afternoon at a campaign kickoff event held at the Hawaii Nature Center in `Iao Valley.

Nearly a hundred people convened on a sunny afternoon at the outdoor venue, tucked between the former `Iao Valley Lodge and the building that once housed the restaurant Pino's, and later The Velvet Needle. The audience included members of conservation and environmental non-profits, vacation rental supporters, announced candidates, and prospective campaign donors.

Live music set a comfortable groove then gave way to a series of speakers. Inside one of the buildings, a large spread of healthy food included taro, lychee, sunflower sprouts, bananas, haupia, and more.

The event served as an early opening to the 2008 campaign season, which unofficially starts its engines with the Fourth of July Makawao Rodeo Parade. At that event, it is not unusual to see incumbents and challengers unfurl their campaign banners while parading on foot, in convertibles, or even on horseback.

The `Ohana Coalition is clearly a different sort of animal in the world of Political Action Committees (PAC's,) which generally are established as a conduit for campaign contributions to support big business interests of major landowners, developers or unions.

First formed in 2002, the `Ohana Coalition is continuing its efforts as a broad-based citizens group "coming together to level the political playing field," as their website states. Among their stated goals are "Careful management of Maui's water resources, protection and respect for historic cultural sites, and self-sustainability in agriculture and energy." Formation as a PAC enables raising funds, placing ads and directly endorsing candidates that share similar values.

Candidate endorsement takes place after a rigorous interview process, with group members asking detailed questions on critical issues. Steering Committee member Mike McCormick, also one of the event organizers, noted that a significant amount of attendees signed up to help with this year's extensive interview process.

McCormick said the event aimed for "inclusiveness," and the results of their outreach efforts were clearly visible. Audience members included representatives from Maui Unite, Maui Tomorrow, Save Makena, Save Honolua Coalition, Maui Coastal Land Trust, Maui Vacation Rental Association and many other non-profit organizations. Several of them were invited to speak of their key issues and goals.

Sharing concerns about water was `Iao Valley resident John Duey, one of several individuals active with the Na Wai Eha efforts to restore traditional stream flows in four major valleys of the West Maui Mountains.

"They used to call this the Wailuku River," Duey told the crowd. "Then Wailuku Stream, then `Iao Stream. Now I call it `Iao Trickle." He encouraged people to walk a short distance up the trail bordering the stream banks to the water diversion. There, the rushing stream virtually disappears into a metal grate that reaches from one bank to the other.

Noting that Wailuku Water Company (formerly Wailuku Sugar and Wailuku Agribusiness) filed a request in May with the Public Utility Commission to become a water utility, Duey called for public, not private management of the resources.

Young voters were well represented at the event, including Chris Taylor, founder of the Maui Community College Sustainability Club, Tamara Paltin of Save Honolua Coalition and Angie Hoffman of Save Makena. Hoffman has been active as a youth organizer on South Maui issues, including working with high school students who are just approaching voting age. Paltin acknowledged that while one may not have all the answers or solutions, that networking with others and getting directly involved is extremely valuable.

Tom Crowley of the Maui Vacation Rental Association provided a brief overview of pending legislation at the Council Planning Committee, noting that the discussions and deliberations would resume at a July 1st meeting. He listed flaws in the proposed ordinance, including a provision for a 20 unit "mini-hotel" vacation rental in Business-Country Town zoned areas. That would have far greater impacts, he noted, than rentals spread out through a broader area.

Crowley noted that the net effect of the new legislation would be to eliminate most existing visitor homes by disqualifying them for permits, and stressed that these operations are a vital component of Maui's visitor industry. He said he favors a "three strikes, you're out," provision, to help ensure that transient vacation rentals do not adversely affect neighbors.

South Maui resident Daniel Kanahele asked to speak about the importance of cultural preservation and humbly began his comments by saying he felt inadequate to address the topic. Sharing his genealogical roots as hapa-Hawaiian who grew up in Kaneohe, he said he felt at home in `Iao Valley, with the steep, green cliffs rising from the stream bed to the sky reminiscent of the Oahu pali.

Wearing a floppy safari hat, Kanahele described his recent hikes looking for archaeological and cultural sites, as an "Indiana Jones" type of endeavor.

He articulated a great need to retain and rediscover links to Hawaii's cultural past, and said, "What I'm doing is trying to find my roots, like Alex Haley."

Vincent Mina, President of the Maui Aloha `Aina Association, spoke of the connection between healthy soil, healthy food and healthy people. A great advocate of improving soil vitality and adopting time tested organic growing practices, Mina also participates as a Maui County Farm Board member. He said he is about to embark upon a 10 day visit to Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, and plans to bring back new ideas and methods to help support family farms on Maui.

Steering Committee member Nadine Newlight listed a number of key environmental issues, including a proposed plastic bag ban, recycling, invasive species and genetically modified organisms.

John Naylor told me he joined the Steering Committee in the last election cycle in 2006. "I have always voted in every election since I was eighteen," he said. "I realized that there is a lot of apathy out there. I like the educational component of the `Ohana Coalition, not just telling people how to vote, but helping them form opinions on crucial issues."

McCormick noted that their organization also follows up with elected officials once they are in office. The goal, he said, is to keep them accountable for what they stated about issues during the interview process that leads to endorsement.

Several announced candidates mixed with the crowd at the "Empowerment Party" on the Nature Center grounds. Some had bumper stickers and mini-flyers in hand. Others wore campaign t-shirts or pins. Oddly, not a single incumbent showed up.

Those who did attend included Council hopefuls Netra Halpern (Kahului residency seat,) Lucienne de Naie (East Maui,) and Kai Nishiki (Makawao-Haiku-Paia.)

Four individuals vying for state office also were present: Rev. Natalie "Tasha" Kama (State House, District 8, Waikapu to Waihee;) Summer Starr (House District 12, Upcountry;) Ramon Madden (House District 10, West Maui,) and Jan Shields (State Senate, District 5, South and West Maui.)

Another familiar face joined the party on Saturday, former Lanai County Councilor and former state representative Sol Kaho`ohalahala. While he has made no announcement that he is seeking office this year some speculation arose over the upcoming vacancy for the Lanai Council seat, as current Council Chair Riki Hokama is at the end of his ten-year term limit.

In a Maui News Viewpoint article in June, `Ohana Coalition Maui President Ed Lindsey said in addition to the interview process, past voting records and sources of campaign contributions are also considered before endorsing candidates. Lindsey said that's a way to "help Maui's voters choose candidates that represent all of the people, and not just the big business interests."

Endorsed candidates are then publicized via radio and print ads and through voter cards distributed island-wide. One attendee confided that she was so happy there was a group like the `Ohana Coalition that she could trust to do her homework for her.

Another turned to me as we walked towards our cars in the twilight. "Isn't there anything we can do to stop the cane-burning?" she asked.

That sounds like a great question to raise with candidates.