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Maui’s Mayoral Primary: Divisive Three-Way Race Decided by the Non-Voter

By the time the final print out for the Maui mayor’s race arrived after midnight, it was clear this was an election about extremes, and when it was over, this primary was decided not by those who voted, but by those who for whatever reason chose not to cast a ballot.

Out of a total registration of 94,194, only 34,073 voters participated (36.2%). That meant for every person who made a choice, there were two who could have voted but did not. The decision of who would provide Maui’s leadership for the next four years was made by a distinct minority and it pulled hard to either end of the political spectrum.

The three leading candidates are by now well known to most Mauians.

They were, in the order they finished last night: Michael Victorino (13,541 votes – 39.8%), Elle Cochran (10,428 votes – 30.6%), and Don Guzman (8,184 votes – 24%). The top two vote getters in the non-partisan race, Victorino and Cochran, now go on to face each other in the November election. Though there were four more candidates running, they received only a tiny fraction of the votes cast.

The day after the primary, the question that looms large is just how the votes received by Guzman will redistribute themselves. That recalibration and redistribution may well decide who wins and who loses the race for the county’s top job.

But no matter how you slice it, this was a race that gave Maui some pretty clear choices:

Candidate Victorino has been active in local politics for decades. He is a multi-term former member of the county council, a person long active in civic life at the grassroots level who was heavily endorsed by organized labor and closely associated with what he chose to call “local” values. He came out on top in the intense three-way contest.

Mike Victorino and wife Joycelyn host a gathering of friends at IBEW headquarters in Kahului. Photo credit: Susan Halas.

For many, Victorino represented a known commodity and a point of view which harked back to an older, more traditional Maui – a time when the plantation still played a major role in the local economy and the mind set. During his many public appearances in forums, debates, and interviews, Victorino repeatedly used the word “cooperation” and stressed his willingness to work cooperatively with others who might not hold identical views to his own.

A late comer to social media, Victorino reinvented himself on Facebook with a string of short but effective video messages stressing what he believed he could do for the community, as well as many short video endorsements by his supporters stressing their faith and confidence in his leadership.

Should he win the election, Victorino, a local insurance man whose resume includes a stint as manager at a local McDonald’s franchise with course of study at Hamburger University, will become the county’s CEO with responsibility for a budget in the vicinity of $800 million per year and a workforce that hovers abound 2,000 in round numbers.

Coming in second was Elle Cochran, named by MauiTime (Maui’s independent weekly newspaper) as the community’s favorite political figure, and endorsed by them as the best choice to be the next mayor.

Cochran and Victorino are a study in contrasts. In many ways, they are polar opposites in personality and politics.

In her public messages, Cochran emphasized the need to reallocate the way the county spends its money and uses it work force. She repeatedly called for a focus on affordable housing and homelessness. She called for sweeping changes in every facet of public policy, and in her election night TV comments, she stressed that while her opponent may be the face of the past, she sees her candidacy as the face of the future, a future that includes more young voters, more voters who were not born and raised in the plantation era, and whose priorities put the environment, sustainable agriculture, the future uses of former plantation lands ,and water concerns in the spotlight.

Group of Cochran supporters review early returns at AKAKU. Photo credit: Susan Halas.

If Victorino values the past, Cochran, who was a small business owner prior to entering public life, seems to see Maui’s recent political history as a burden, ineffective, producing few tangible results, and slanted to benefit entrenched and monied interests. Where Victorino’s tone is conciliatory, Cochran’s is adversarial. Where he calls for working together, she calls for ridding the system of those who she feels have corrupted it to further their own ends.

A former member of the county council representing West Maui, Cochran is best known for her advocacy of environmental issues. In 2016, she was top vote getter in the council elections, but was edged out of leadership in a bitter organizational struggle. As for the administration, she has been a consistent critic of the frequent cronyism of the present mayor. She is steadfast in her determination to “huli” (overturn) the status quo.

And where does that leave Guzman?

Many had high hopes that he would be the front runner and, at worst, come in second. But the third place finish knocks this local attorney of Filipino ancestry entirely out of the race. Guzman was the second top vote getter in the 2016 council elections. He relinquished what was certainly a safe seat to make the bid for mayor.

Perhaps it shows that his crystal ball was cloudy.

Guzman cast himself as a moderate, a reasonable, qualified, capable person not given to extremes who would represent the center and the real wishes of Maui more accurately than the other two candidates.

Perhaps he thought Mauians would pull for the middle, but he guessed wrong.

Guzman supporters gathered to watch the returns in Wailuku. The mood was subdued as Guzman trailed front runners Victorino and Cochran throughout the evening. Photo credit: Susan Halas.

The 36.2% of those who voted in the primary went by a substantial margin in the other direction, picking two candidates who represented the most extreme views in the political spectrum to face off against each other.

The morning after, it’s hard to tell where Guzman and the Guzman voter will go next, or if his supporters will find either of their current choices palatable. It is also hard to tell if the next round will bring an infusion of new voters into the race and who they might favor.

What is true is it might make a big difference if Guzman decides to endorse Victorino (who came to his election night gathering to shake hands and pay his respects) or Cochran (who did not). That choice remains to be seen.

Whether we will go “back to the future” with Victorino, or “huli” the past with Cochran, the message of this election is that two out of three voters just shined it on.

For those who see the contest as representing the true wishes of the majority, just a cautionary warning: “Be careful what you wish for as you just might get it.”

Maui County final print out numbers can be found by clicking here.

A breakdown of the results by printout can be found by clicking here. Spreadsheet courtesy of Dick Mayer.



About Susan Halas

Susan Halas is a Senior Political Contributor at MAUIWatch. She has followed Hawaii politics since 1976 when she moved to the Valley Isle. She was formerly a staff writer for the Maui News as well as other local print and digital publications.

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