By Keiko Bonk, two-term County Councilmember, Island of Hawai’i
Keiko Bonk was elected in 1992 to the Hawai’i County Council, the first (and still only) US Green to be elected in a partisan race. In 1994 she was re-elected with 60% of the vote. In 1995, she became chair of the County Council, the first and only US Green to chair such a council or board.
During her four years on the Council, Bonk championed the environment, local small business, cultural diversity, parks, diversified agriculture, long term planning, citizen involvement, and eco-tourism. Always fighting for the underdog, she became a local folk hero.
In a highly controversial move, she stepped down in 1996 from her Chairship to run and finish second for Mayor of the entire island (Bonk was forced to give up her seat in order to run by a charter rule that has since been changed.)
This is why she did it, in her own words.
My decision to leave the County Council to run for mayor of Hawai’i island was a controversial one, both within the general public and among my closest supporters. Getting re-elected would have been a fairly easy task. But the unique circumstances in ‘95 that allowed me to become Chair, and to have had significant leverage, would no longer exist. In ‘95 the Council was split, four Democrats and four Republicans. This gave me the leverage to become Chair.
This would change in ‘96. Because the party in power often deprives the other Councilmembers of staff and resources, I would have been pushed back where I was during my first term, a spokesperson completely stripped of infrastructure and power.
Even so, some felt I should play it safe and run for my same seat, to insure someone of my views remained on the Council. These kind of people tend to think politics is simply about talking. It isn’t. It’s about solving problems and getting things done. Sometimes that means taking risks.
Ironically, after losing the race, very few now think it was a mistake, even though the Greens are now without representation on the County Council. Being on the inside of county government, I was (and continue to be) gripped by a sense of urgency, a feeling that comes from watching first hand, the extent of destruction and corruption in my home.
I had to run for Mayor. The Green movement may be gaining around the country, but my island is running out of time. I took a chance and did what we needed to take the Hawaii Green Party to a new level. That is what a forward-moving ‘movement’ is all about.
Myself and many of my closest supporters made great sacrifices to accelerate the rate of positive change on Hawai’i island. I knew that if the incumbent got reelected, he would pull out all the stops during his last term to reward all of his ‘associates.’
The worst has come true. The incumbent was reelected and has accelerated the destruction of our island at a terrifying pace. The only thing slowing the deal-making is a flat real-estate market, with a relative lack of outside capital driving land speculation.
But even in this market, we are running out of time in so many areas. We are the endangered species capital of the US and the endangered endemic species capital of the world. Our local culture is being destroyed, sold, or boxed up in museums.
Having said this, I still think my decision to run was the right one. We did not run a symbolic race. We ran a real race for the Mayor of Hawaii Island and almost won. I finished a close second (39%-33%-23%) despite the fact that I entered the race at the very last moment and was massively outspent by the incumbent Mayor. I spent $125,000 while she spent $550,000. This worked out to $5/vote for the Mayor and $1/vote for myself. I won 17/56 precincts and finished second in most of the others.
Because of our race, three other highly qualified women also decided to take the risk and run for council. Two of the three came within a handful of votes of winning. Julie Jacobson lost by only 152 votes in a three way race. Julie Leialoha lost by only 487 votes in a three way race. Donalynn Napua Johns also had a respectable showing.
With a fraction of the money of our opponents and almost no advance time to plan a campaign, we built an island-wide organization and support base. The Greens are now considered major political players on our island. When I decided to take the leap, only 15% of those polled said that they would definitely vote for me, while approximately 35% said they would vote for the incumbent mayor, and 15% for the Republican.
The final result showed that my campaign built the most support in the shortest time. At the rate I was gaining, I would have won if the campaign had been ten days longer. The race did what I hoped it would, put us in the game on a new level, bring in many new participants, and perhaps most importantly, bring in new kinds of supporters.
If we had not done as well as we did it, the decision would have been a mistake. But coming so close to something no Green has yet done, the decision is now widely seen as the beginning of something much bigger. Whether this actually happens will be determined by what do next.
Many people believe we will win at least one councilmember in 1998 and the mayor’s seat in 2000. If we do, it will go down as a major step in making the Green Party a real political player in the US. If we fail, the decision will be a mistake. The responsibility to prove us right is now the responsibility of many. I’ve committed to helping others in the next campaign, and if the financial and volunteer support continues for me, I will run again in 2000.
For myself, my finance and my family, being out of office has been a blessing. The sacrifices have been hard on all of us. We are using this time to recuperate and rebuild. It’s also exciting because a whole new generation of Greens are stepping up to the plate and acting like real political players. Times are as scary as ever, but not as lonely on the front lines as it used to be. Pray for us, as we will pray for you.