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Storm victims could decide Hawaii senate race

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014 12:12 a.m. CDT

HILO, Hawaii – The storm-beaten seaside communities on Hawaii’s Big Island are fighting to restore electricity and running water – and likely deciding who will hold the state’s U.S. Senate seat.

Two voting precincts in the region hardest hit by Tropical Storm Iselle were closed during Saturday’s primary, and about 8,000 people were asked to vote by mail for either U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz or U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in an emotional Democratic race that is still too close to call.

A Democrat is expected to end up in the seat either way, so the decision won’t likely change the balance of power in the Senate. But some argue it is giving a small number of voters in a remote part of Hawaii an inordinate amount of power. Meanwhile, voters in Puna, a remote, rural community south of Hilo, said they have other priorities – like figuring out how to bathe.

“These two closed polls could determine the outcome of the Senate race, and that’s just amazing,” said Leilani Bronson-Crelly, a resident of the Puna region and small-business owner who was running for the state House of Representatives.

Both Schatz and Hanabusa planned to be in the region, pledging to help with the cleanup effort and potentially picking up a few votes. Schatz said he was working with civil defense to immediately bring federal recovery resources to the Big Island.

The candidates are competing to permanently replace beloved political icon Sen. Daniel Inouye, who died in 2012. Schatz was appointed as his replacement, and Saturday’s vote was the first election to determine who would hold the seat.

There are few policy differences between Schatz and Hanabusa, and the campaign centered largely on the fact that Inouye’s dying wish was that Hanabusa replace him. Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who chose to appoint Schatz instead, lost to another fellow Democrat in Saturday’s primary, and some said his refusal to honor Inouye’s wish was at least in part to blame.

On the remote, rocky shores of the Puna region, surrounded by snow-capped volcanoes and lush, green landscape, residents were not thinking about the Senate race yet. Voters in the impacted districts were more concerned about how they are going to keep their food in the fridge from spoiling, said Eileen O’Hara, president of the Hawaiian Shores Community Association.

With power outages limiting Internet access and the battery lives of smartphones, O’Hara and other voters found out their polling place was closed when they showed up to vote and saw a hand-written sign. Now, O’Hara feels the election can’t be considered valid because the results were released before everyone got the chance to vote.

Even so, “people don’t really care at this point,” she said. “My neighbor lost a roof, many houses did. There are still streets blocked.”

It will be a challenge to campaign in the rugged volcanic region, where many homesteaders are without water and power, said Stephanie Ohigashi, chairwoman of Hawaii’s Democratic Party. That is something Schatz recognizes.

“The people of Puna are not in a position to think about elections,” he said.

Hanabusa, for her part, said the mail-in ballots give an unusual voice to a remote section of Hawaii, especially when most of the state’s power is historically centered in Honolulu.

“The neighbor islands always feel that we are Honolulu-centric, so to get to the point that we’re in where they get to make the final call, it must make them feel very good,” she said.

Bronson-Crelly, the Puna resident running for the state House, had advice for the candidates.

“It’s so insensitive to try to continue a huge campaign, as it were, calling people that do not have water or electricity, or basic needs that haven’t been met,” she said. “Don’t knock on the door unless you’ve got a bucket of water or a bag of ice.”

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