Isle GOP sees spirited race for top spot


POSTED: Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A year after it suffered one of its worst election setbacks, the Hawaii Republican Party is enjoying renewed interest with five candidates registered to run for party chairman. The present party chairman, Willes Lee, says he has not decided whether he will run again for office. The chairman will be selected at the party's state convention May 15-17 in Kona.

The candidate who appears to have the most support is Jonah Kaauwai, administrator for the Correctional Industries Division of the state Public Safety department.

Kaauwai had also been deputy chief of staff for Lt. Gov. James “;Duke”; Aiona, who is running for governor.

The two GOP legislative leaders, state Rep. Lynn Finnegan and state Sen. Fred Hemmings, have endorsed Kaauwai. Kaauwai said he has also won the support of Aiona and three former party chairmen: Micah Kane, Brennon Morioka and Sam Aiona.

Kaauwai also has the support of Malia Gray, the newly elected chairwoman of the GOP's Honolulu district.

“;Jonah is a family man who is active in the community and the church. We are calling it our party, our ohana,”; said Gray, office manager for Finnegan.

Gov. Linda Lingle has remained neutral in the race, although she supported Gray in the race for Honolulu chairwoman.

Others in the race are Mike Palcic, a small businessman, who is making an issue of the support that the Aiona gubernatorial campaign has received from influential members of the local GOP, including Miriam Hellreich, Hawaii national committeewoman.

“;The Hawaii Republicans need to be a big party that first builds up its grass-roots structure,”; Palcic said.

Kaauwai says he is already doing that and, with a coalition of young Republicans, has recruited 21 candidates for next year's elections.

“;We want to increase membership 100 percent, from 20,000 to 40,000; we want a candidate for every elected office; and we want to register 30,000 new voters,”; Kaauwai said.

Kaauwai said he also supports Aiona for governor and City Councilman Charles Djou for Congress, but if he is elected chairman and the race includes additional candidates, he will remain neutral.

Others in the race for party chairman so far include Paul Smith, a businessman and husband of Linda Smith, Lingle's senior policy adviser. He ran unsuccessfully against Democratic state Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland in 2006.

Another candidate for GOP chairman is Bob Kessler, who along with Smith ran the Let Honolulu Vote campaign last year to put a mass-transit question on the ballot last year.

Also running is Jimmy Kuroiwa, a longtime GOP member and party activist.

The current GOP chairman, Lee, said none of the candidates is strongly aligned with Lingle, who has been the party's biggest vote-getter in almost 50 years.

The Hawaii GOP suffered one of its most serious defeats last year. Presidential standard-bearer John McCain won just 26 percent of the Hawaii vote, and the Republicans in the Legislature were reduced to just eight from 11 out of 76 members.