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Civil Beat: Why isn't Hawaii's largest union weighing in on the Kauai Prosecutor's Race?

February 20, 2022

When the seat for Kauai County prosecutor opened up late last year, two starkly different candidates emerged to vie for a position with the power to reshape law enforcement through policy decisions that could determine whether people who commit minor crimes go to prison or how the criminal justice system employs mental health and addiction services.

The special election Saturday gives voters a choice between acting prosecutor Rebecca Like, a political newcomer, and attorney Shaylene Iseri, a former county prosecutor and councilwoman.

As election day nears, the Hawaii Government Employees Association — the state’s largest labor union with nearly 37,000 members, including most of the prosecutor’s office — has chosen to remain silent on which candidate it wants to win, despite weighing in on every contested election for Kauai prosecutor since 1992.

The union’s hands-off approach to a race so consequential has led at least one longtime member to terminate her HGEA affiliation.

For former Kauai Prosecutor Justin Kollar, clinching the HGEA endorsement as a first-time candidate in 2012 gave him credibility and a splash of attention.

“I was pretty much unknown and the race wasn’t on a lot of people’s radar screens,” said Kollar, who beat Iseri in that race and went on to hold the office for almost nine years until he resigned and relocated to California in September. “When they endorsed me — and they endorsed me against the incumbent — it was an indicator to people that something is up with this race that we need to pay attention to.”

HGEA backed Kollar again in 2016 when he faced off against Lisa Arin, a former deputy prosecutor, in a tight race in which he prevailed by fewer than 4 percentage points.

The union even endorsed him in 2020 when he ran unopposed.

Kollar’s 2012 and 2016 HGEA endorsements came with a $1,000 campaign donation. But more importantly, Kollar said, the union took pains to educate its members on why they should vote for him.

“They do phone banking and text banking,” Kollar said. “A lot of unions will send you a check and go on their way, but HGEA puts their collective energy into the candidates they endorse and I was really grateful for that.”

A first-time candidate, Like said she’s disappointed that she never heard back from HGEA after she reached out to union leaders eager to share information about her platform.

“It would make a huge difference to have that endorsement,” Like said.

Iseri said in a text message that it speaks volumes that HGEA didn’t endorse Like, who as acting prosecutor is akin to the incumbent candidate.

HGEA spokesman Alexander Zannes said in a prepared statement that union members steer the endorsement process and the decision to remain neutral in the race was made by the union’s Kauai leadership team following significant discussion.

Zannes declined to make union leaders available for an interview.

These days, it’s difficult to determine the consequences when a union as big as HGEA decides to sit one out, said Colin Moore, director of the University of Hawaii Public Policy Center.

It’s not like it used to be when an endorsement meant that a candidate could count on getting the vast majority of the votes from the union’s membership, he said.

“If they weren’t endorsing a mayoral candidate, then I’d be shocked,” Moore said. “The prosecuting attorney is not a position where the union probably cares all that much. Unions these days are primarily about getting raises for their members and the county prosecuting attorney has no control over that.”

Although uncommon, it’s not unheard of for HGEA to pass up the opportunity to flex its political muscle on a race.

The union took no stance in the 2020 election for Honolulu prosecuting attorney in which retired Judge Steve Alm defeated defense attorney Megan Kau.

Iseri is backed by the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, while Like is endorsed by Kollar, whose resignation prompted the special election. The winner of the general election will finish out Kollar’s remaining term, which ends in 2024.

The December primary election was dominated by Like, who took 69% of the vote. Yet despite her favorable position, Like said she’s concerned that some voters don’t seem to realize that they need to vote again.

Since there have been just two candidates from the start of the campaign season, the primary and general election ballots are practically identical. The redundancy has bred some voter confusion.

“Some folks have taken down their banners, and then I got messages from them like, ‘Oh, I got my ballot in the mail after I took down my banner and I was wondering why I got a second ballot,’” Like said.

Diana Gausepohl-White, who works for Kauai County as the Victim/Witness program director in the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney, resigned from HGEA last Friday over the union’s failure to even interview the prosecutor candidates, the usual first step toward selecting a candidate to back.

Gausepohl-White said she urged the union to consider the candidates’ platforms and throw its support behind one of them.

“It’s important to me that any candidate wishing for an endorsement should be interviewed, period,” she said. “That’s part of the political action process and part of your dues go to the political action process.”

Gausepohl-White worked under Iseri when she was Kauai’s top prosecutor from 2008 to 2012 and subsequently filed a civil lawsuit against her. She received a $108,000 taxpayer-funded settlement as a result of a 2013 discrimination complaint against Iseri.

Iseri was named a defendant in a half-dozen civil lawsuits when she held the office nearly a decade ago. Like, who worked under Iseri at that time, filed one of those lawsuits. In her 2012 complaint, Like alleged that Iseri retaliated against her because she failed to participate in Iseri’s reelection campaign. It was resolved with a $25,000 taxpayer-funded payout.

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