Political Tempest In A Hawaii Teapot
The hotly contested primary race between state Sen. Pohai Ryan and challenger Laura Thielen spilled over into a Kailua Neighborhood Board meeting earlier this month.
It should have been one of those routine community meetings, the kind where the agenda is often reports on sewer lines and the latest police logs.
But on June 7, hot-button issues, strong personalities and political ambitions combined into a volatile mix that saw Ryan clashing with board members and attacking Thielen.
It's not the first time tempers have flared at a Kailua board meeting. But the ongoing dispute — maybe you've seen the headlines — among Hawaii Democrats concerning Thielen's candidacy surfaced.
The meeting was caught on the Olelo Community Media recording of the meeting — it's at the 50-minute mark on part two of the recording, right after Honolulu Councilmember Ikaika Anderson speaks.
Ryan, who represents the District 25 seat, first seems perplexed because the microphone she has been given is not turned on.
Once she has sound, Ryan asks the board to give her "the courtesy" of equivalent time to speak as her political opponents had earlier.
Ryan was referring in part to Thielen, who earlier in the meeting told the board about the legal issues involving regulating use of commercial activity on government lands.
Many Kailua residents are concerned about such activity at Kailua Beach, an issue currently before the Honolulu City Council, and Thielen believed she had useful information to share from her experience as the former state Land Board director.
But Ryan seems to have felt Thielen was given too much time to talk.
"I am the incumbent candidate for Senate District 25, and the sitting senator of the district," she reminds the board, her face flush, her voice slightly agitated.
In the video Ryan says the word "incumbent" so it sounds like "in-cum-BENT," as if to emphasize the point.
Ryan mainly wants to know why a recent applicant to the board faced questioning that evening — something she says was not the case for board member Leigh Prentiss.
That's when things get tense.
"Point of order," someone says.
"Point of order for what?" Ryan responds.
Some back-and-forth follows between Ryan and board members, who are out of camera range during this portion of the exchange. Ryan is told that board members have a right and privilege to ask questions of new applicants, but Ryan says that that was not the case for another board member, who she identifies by name: Leigh Prentiss.
"I'm just curious how you folks pick and choose who gets questions and who doesn't," she continues, her left arm waving back and forth.
"Mr. Chairman, point of order, please! This is totally inappropriate," someone says, to which Ryan responds, "No, it's not."
"Yes it is, Pohai!" a woman's voice says. "Sit down!"
"I will not sit down, I'm sorry, I have the right to be up here during my time," Ryan replies, defiant.
By this time, the camera quickly pans the board and stops just as a microphone is slammed down, apparently by Prentiss.
"I think your question is out of order," says board chair Chuck Prentiss — Leigh's husband — who asks that Ryan get back to delivering her report.
Ryan attempts to do so, talking about a crosswalk on Kalanianaole Highway.
But then she takes a crack at Thielen, noting how "gracious" it is of the Kailua board to ask a Waimanalo resident to address them. She says Thielen "had the power to take care of things" in Kailua during her four years at DLNR, but that didn't happen.
Somewhere during the exchange an audience member boos Ryan. Someone gasps, too.
"OK, that's enough," says another female board member, identified by Ryan as Donna. "You are definitely out of order, Pohai."
"How's it going, Donna? I'm not crying, yeah?" Ryan says, a strange smile on her face.
Later in the meeting, after Ryan has left, Leigh Prentiss adresses her fellow board members on the point of personal privilege to apologize for losing her temper.
"She has attacked me personally, publicly, professionally in this community for the past two years, and I am afraid that I just reacted this evening and I really beg your indulgence," she says.
Reached by Civil Beat this week, Ryan said the exchange at the board really didn't have much to do with her race against Thielen — something Thielen told Civil Beat as well. It mostly had to do with differences of opinion on an opinionated board.
But it's clear from the Olelo video that Ryan is upset, and that she does have Thielen on her mind.
By contrast, government reports from Anderson, state Sen. Jill Tokuda and Rep. Chris Lee at the same meeting were calm and uneventful. Tokuda even has a warm exchange with Chuck Prentiss, who praises Tokuda on her likely re-election. (Tokuda is running unopposed.)
Call it a political tempest in a Hawaii teapot. But there is also a history among these folks.
Chuck Prentiss finished second to Ryan in the 2010 primary by less than 300 votes out of more than 10,000 cast.
"It was close, it was tough," he said. "I went to bed leading and woke up to find out I had lost. But there are no hard feelings. It was a clean campaign."
Prentiss is also a member of Democratic Party of Hawaii that has made headlines this year for trying to bar Thielen from running as a Democrat. Prentiss declined to comment on matters that were conducted in executive session.
"Nice try," he said with a laugh.
Meanwhile, rumors have spread about who is supporting who and what kind of deals may have been made. For the record, Thielen said Prentiss is not supporting her campaign, while Prentiss said he'll put signs for the candidates in his yard but is staying out of the race.
Lurking in the wings is a third Democrat in the primary, Levani Lipton, and Republican Fred Hemmings in the general election. (Hemmings was at the June 7 board meeting.)