Big Island
‘Class of 1999’
members face off

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of profiles of political candidates for the primary election on Sept. 21.

By Pat Omandam

Following the 1998 general elections, six new faces entered the state Senate, including Big Island senators Lorraine Inouye and David Matsuura.

Election 2002

Today, the son of a former state senator and the former Big Island mayor face off for the Democratic nomination for the newly reapportioned Hilo-Hamakua Senate district, where the economy remains the biggest issue.

This battle will be among the most-watched races in this primary election. The winner faces Republican Charles Clarke in the general election.

"Nobody wanted it, nobody liked it. But that's our system, so we've got to live with it," Matsuura, 39, said of the once-a-decade redistricting of political districts.

Matsuura, son of the late Sen. Richard Matsuura, formed a strong bond with four of the other outspoken freshman senators from the Class of 1999: Colleen Hanabusa (D, Waianae), Jonathan Chun (D, Lihue), Bob Nakata (D, Kaneohe) and Jan Yagi Buen (D, Maui-Molokai-Lanai).

That unity helped them eventually gain committee and leadership positions during the past four years and gave the group influence to push union reform measures, such as the public health fund and civil service reform. The group's re-election also plays a key factor in Senate reorganization after the general elections.

Matsuura was at the center of controversy over his position on the physician-assisted suicide or death with dignity bill this past legislative session. To this day, he said, misconceptions remain about what the bill would do.

Matsuura said the freshman group's efforts over the past four years have made them a target for unions this election. But he believes rank-and-file union members know something must change because state government does not have enough money to continue the status quo.

"The unions are a little bit nervous, I think, with our group, and especially with some of the House members that are very active in trying to figure things out," Matsuura said. "I think for the unions, they've seen a lot of their power eroded."

Inouye, however, as one of the six members of the Class of 1999, has maintained a more independent posture since taking office. For example, she and Matsuura differed on their votes for former attorney general Margery Bronster's confirmation and on physician-assisted suicide (Inouye favored both).

The 61-year-old said the Bronster vote was the final straw that separated her from the others of the Class of 1999. Inouye said she was very upset with their decision because she felt Bronster did a good job. She said such decisions should be left to the mayors or the governor, who have the overall responsibility for their choices.

Overall, Inouye said she's comfortable with the votes she's cast and believes her experience as a former mayor of Hawaii County and a county planning commissioner gives her an advantage in this race.

"I think I understand a little more of the elective process, as well as government," Inouye said. "And so if you look at that group, I think the only one that came in with prior experience is Senator Nakata. The rest were pretty much first (time) in elective office."

Meanwhile, Republican Clarke, 60, a commercial Realtor, sees the economy and the lack of infrastructure support for schools as big issues for the district. He said it's a tossup for who will likely win the Democratic nomination for this Senate seat, which has generated a lot of interest.

"David has half the territory that he's pretty well-known in, and half that he isn't," Clarke said.

"Lorraine has half the territory that she's won in, and half that she has run in before when she ran as mayor. But it's not her territory four years ago."

District 1 at a glance

Here's a snapshot of state Senate District 1 (Hilo-Honokaa), based on Census 2000:

>> Total people: 50,509 (49 percent male, 51 percent female)

>> Major ethnic populations:

People with two or more races: 30 percent
White: 23 percent
Japanese: 19 percent
Native Hawaiian: 11 percent
Filipino: 10 percent

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