Infighting among Democrats over nonpartisan council race

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There’s a dustup in the local Democratic Party over an official’s endorsement of a candidate in a nonpartisan County Council race.

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There’s a dustup in the local Democratic Party over an official’s endorsement of a candidate in a nonpartisan County Council race.

Valerie Barnes, with the backing of four other local party members, filed a formal complaint Tuesday with the state Democratic Party against Patti Cook of Waimea, the chairwoman for the party’s District 7. The complaint accuses Cook of campaigning for Tim Richards, who is not a party member, over incumbent Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille.

Wille, incidentally, is the party’s District 7 first vice chairwoman, under Cook. She’s also a member of the party’s State Central Committee.

Barnes says Hawaii Democratic Party bylaws clearly state party members cannot endorse outside the party. She’s calling for Cook to step down as chairwoman.

“It’s time for Democratic Party officials, including those in Hawaii, to follow the party’s rules,” Barnes said Thursday.

The bylaws posted on the state party website include this language: “A member of the Democratic Party of Hawaii may be expelled, reprimanded or censured for … active support or promotion of a political party or any candidate(s) of a political party other than the Democratic Party. Examples of active support include, but are not limited to, making monetary or in kind contributions, accepting a position in an opposition campaign, sign-waving, letter writing, appearance in campaign ads …”

Cook has campaigned for Richards on her Facebook page, promoting his campaign events and showing photos of herself at the events. She has also stood beside Richards sign-waving.

Wille said Thursday she brought the issue up at a July 17 Hawaii County Committee meeting. She was seeking clarification at the meeting, not lodging a complaint, she said.

“I’m not the one filing a complaint. But I appreciate that they’re standing up for it,” Wille said. “If you don’t like what it says, get the rule changed. But this is how the rule is right now.”

Cook said she at first thought she was in conflict with party rules, but upon further reading of the rules, she thinks she’s in the clear because Richards doesn’t belong to any political party.

Cook said concerned committee members could follow procedures to initiate a complaint rather than discuss it at the meeting. Complaints are handled by the State Central Committee, which next meets in October.

Cook, who’s been the district chairwoman for more than a decade, said she won’t step down.

“But I am of course not hiding from a discussion. I do acknowledge being in conflict with party rules in the current campaign cycle for the District 9 County Council race, and it is troubling because I really am a dedicated, (dyed)-in-the-wool, long time party member who has worked hard to uphold and support party values, beliefs and rules,” Cook said in an email to the local party that is part of the complaint. “I even tried quite persistently to convince this candidate to join the party. While I was successful in helping bring another candidate in another race into the party, not so with this race.”

Frankie Pang, the third vice chairman of the district and also a Richards supporter, resigned after the July 17 meeting. He couldn’t be reached for comment by press time Thursday.

Hawaii Democratic Party officials could not respond by press time Thursday, as many are at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Richards doesn’t know what all the fuss is about.

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“I am aware of the complaint in the Democratic Party but do not know many of the details. This race is a nonpartisan race and I’m puzzled why there is a party concern,” Richards said in an email Thursday to the newspaper. “I am running as a nonpartisan. As to my party affiliation, I do not have one. I have always voted the person and never the party. This election is about our local concerns, not about party politics.”

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.