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Democrats host Independence Day picnic in Kona

Updated: 
July 5, 2014 - 7:11am

For the most part, the lineup of Democratic hopefuls kept their comments light and general at the Fourth of July meet-the-candidate picnic and rally at the Sadie Seymour Botanical Gardens in Kailua-Kona. But in interviews, some candidates dug into the meat and potatoes.

Both Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa and U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz told West Hawaii Today that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service steps beyond its bounds in trying to designate 19,000 acres in North Kona as a critical habitat area.

“Fish and Wildlife has done this on Kauai. It’s way over the top,” said Schatz, who will face Hanabusa in the Aug. 9 primary for the Senate seat to which he was appointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

The proposal has hobbled the development of key projects, including the Kona Judiciary Complex and the Lai Opua housing project, the candidates said.

Hanabusa said she has received a commitment from Fish and Wildlife director Dan Ashe to come to Kailua-Kona after the General Election to meet with people here. The agency unveiled a proposal in the fall of 2012 to create critical habitat for three plant species — kookoolau, uhiuhi and wahine noho kula — on land between Palani Road and Waikoloa.

“He has to understand what a burden this is to development,” Hanabusa said. “A lot of landowners have already given some land to conservation.”

“We need to sit back and do the analysis,” she said.

Asked about the congressional delegation’s progress in efforts to bring back U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to Kona to inspect international flights, Schatz said the agency recently began engaging airports in Japan in discussions to set up preclearance facilities at the point of departure, rather than the destination. That way, visitors can clear U.S. customs before they leave Japan, then land in Kona and start spending money, Schatz said.

Federal officials in 2012 decided to no longer allow private companies to reimburse agents for flying from Oahu to staff the gateway here. Initially, those officials were unresponsive to political pressure, Schatz said.

“We’re very hopeful,” he said. “This is a huge shift. Every full flight is approximately $1 million in economic benefit.”

Hanabusa said she is also committed to establishing the international terminal in Kona and that the long-term focus needs to be on upgraded facilities.

“Kona was, and should be again, an international airport,” she said.

Hanabusa pointed out the Big Island’s agriculture, food sustainability and security and renewable energy as key points of importance. She also pledged to push for the completion of the Saddle Road project.

“Geothermal, controversial as it is, should be part of the analysis,” she said. “The College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources should be here.”

In public remarks, Hanabusa pointed to her experience on the political field.

“You are going to be the ones to pick who succeeds Sen. Inouye,” she said to the group, putting emphasis on the word “you.”

Schatz told picnickers that preservation of the middle class is a key priority. In an interview, he said he would work to grow clean energy in Hawaii and bring U.S. Department of Energy resources into the state. Finishing Saddle Road and continued investment in harbors are also key, he said.

Abercrombie, who faces state Sen. David Ige in the governor’s race, said Kona and the Big Island have been a major focal point for more than 40 years.

“I’m not here today because I just discovered Kona and it’s an election and I’m showing up. It’s been a passion of mine,” said Abercrombie, who said he’s been a staunch supporter of higher education on the island for many years.

Abercrombie vowed to “fight until preschool is available across the state.” Addressing the moorings at Keauhou Bay, he said: “If you don’t do an environmental assessment, you get sued. This administration is not moving ahead with new moorings.”

Instead, he said, the public comment part of the EA process will allow discussion of what improvements are needed.

Ige pointed to his 29 years in the Legislature, including four years on the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

“I am committed to establishing the international terminal here because I understand how important it is to growing the economy,” he said.

Ige said he has heard from fishermen who want to be included in the planning process for Honokohau Harbor and hunters who want greater input on hunting and land issues. A supporter of the charter school movement, he lauded “so many educators trying to match the learning styles of the children.”

Close to a dozen state and county candidates made remarks to the group. Most stayed away from stickier issues and specifics. As candidates rubbed elbows with residents, and filled plates with watermelon and cake decorated like American flags, John Buckstead said the picnic has become a must for candidates heading to the primary.

From the beginning, the point of the informal feast and rally was to get candidates to know West Hawaii, said Buckstead, who has been one of the chief facilitators of the Hawaii County Democratic Party picnics for 12 years.

“They have a lot of places they could be. But they are all here, to a person, in the afternoon of the Fourth of July,” Buckstead said. “That’s important to West Hawaii.”