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Eyes on Puna in undecided race

August 11, 2014 - 8:18am

The rural Puna district may have hardly been on the radar leading up to the state’s contentious Senate Democratic primary.

Now, it’s all that matters.

With the race between Sen. Brian Schatz and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa undecided following Saturday’s election, each candidate will place their fate in the hands of a few thousand storm-battered voters.

The state Office of Elections closed polling places at Hawaiian Paradise Park Community Center and Keonepoko Elementary School, near the Hawaiian Beaches and Hawaiian Shores neighborhoods, after damage from Tropical Storm Iselle left many roads in Puna impassable.

Voters, many still without power and running water since the arrival of the storm late Thursday, are expected to receive a mail ballot, though it wasn’t immediately clear when that will occur or how many had voted absentee prior to the primary.

But with Schatz ahead by 1,635 votes, and about 8,200 registered voters in the two affected precincts, the historic race to replace the late Sen. Daniel Inouye remained anyone’s game.

David Tarnas, Hawaii County Democratic Party chairman, said the situation is unique, not just for the candidates, but for Puna residents who typically feel neglected by decision makers in Honolulu and Washington, D.C.

“I hope that it draws attention to the priorities in Puna,” said Tarnas, who noted the need for an emergency evacuation route.

“Puna has historically been very low in the list of priorities.”

He said he expects both campaigns to be active in the area this week.

Hanabusa, who has to win solidly in the precincts to overcome Schatz, wasn’t appearing to waste any time.

Peter Boylan, Hanabusa’s campaign manager, said in an email that the congresswoman was flying to the Big Island from Honolulu on Sunday.

He did not immediately respond to questions regarding her plans on the island or in the two precincts that remain up for grabs.

“This is a complicated and fluid situation but we must not lose sight of the fact that we are dealing with a storm-ravaged community struggling to pull together basic life necessities,” Boylan said in the email.

“… We will work with the state Office of Elections to address the outstanding ballots in this too close to call race but our primary concern is for the health and welfare of those families in Puna affected by (Tropical Storm) Iselle.”

The Schatz campaign couldn’t be reached for comment, but the senator told the Associated Press he planned to arrive to campaign when appropriate.

“My thoughts are with the people of the Big Island, who don’t have the luxury of being able to worry about election results,” he said. “We want to make sure we focus on their needs on a human level, on a community level, first.”

A day after the primary, conversations at Da Store on Kahakai Boulevard revolved around basic supplies rather than the election the customers could end up deciding.

Store owners Derrick and Eileen Mende said the election remained a secondary priority for many.

“They are looking for immediate help right now,” said Derrick Mende.

With the help of a generator, the store was able to open for the first time Sunday, and a steady flow of customers arrived looking for whatever basic necessities they could carry.

Ice and water were the most popular items. A cold can of soda would also do.

Customer James Burt said he still looked forward to voting, but recommended the candidates focus on helping residents recover.

“It better be good,” he said, when asked what he would like to hear from them.

“We’re in trouble. I hope they can come up with a solution.”

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-