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House District 3: Smart, Onishi face off

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of articles examining contested Big Island primary election races.


Tribune-Herald staff writer

Democrats will have a choice between a former union leader and a first-term County Council member in the state House District 3 primary.

Richard Onishi, a computer programmer for Hawaii County and former Hawaii Government Employees Association president, and Brittany Smart, who represents the council’s sixth district, are both seeking the nomination.

The district includes Keaau, Kurtistown, Hawaiian Acres, Volcano, Pahala and parts of Hilo.

Smart, 29, was elected to the council in 2010 but has been interested in politics since she was in grade school.

She laughs when she says she was one of the few students who watched C-SPAN for fun; she also places a high priority on government access and transparency.

“In order for the residents to get involved they have to know what policy is being set,” Smart said.

Smart, who grew up in Oregon, received a bachelor’s degree in political science from University of Hawaii at Hilo and has lived on the Big Island since 2001.

She has worked for the county’s solid waste division and Arc of Hilo’s Hi-5 Redemption Program; she resides in Volcano.

Her biggest issues range from the economy to food security and the environment.

Smart said she opposes recent cuts to education but believes the state Department of Education, which oversees Hawaii’s public schools, is too “top heavy.”

Her biggest accomplishment on the council, she said, is amending the county’s building codes.

Onishi, 58, said he thinks the state should do more to create jobs, including investing in infrastructure and other construction projects, to keep Hawaii workers off unemployment.

“You have to look at boosting our economy,” he said.

The Waiakea Uka resident sees the role of a state representative as being a facilitator and doesn’t identify too many issues as being important to the area, other than jobs and the economy.

“It’s not my job to be telling them what they should want in their community,” Onishi said. “It’s for me to listen to them and find out what they want and try to help them.”

Onishi, the brother of County Councilman Dennis Onishi, said he is spending a lot of time during the campaign season travelling the district to get to know people’s wants and concerns.

He also said his experience lobbying Honolulu while representing HGEA and nonprofit groups including Hawaii Island Adult Care and the American Cancer Society gives him valuable insight to the workings of the state capitol.

Asked if he could be an impartial representative after serving as HGEA president from 2006-2008, Onishi said he would represent everyone in the district equally.

“Everyone in my district has influence over my decisions as a lawmaker,” he said.

“… I feel like I have to treat everyone equally. I need to represent everyone in my district.”

Onishi also has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from UH-Hilo and served four years in the army.

On geothermal energy, he said he would have to do more research before forming an opinion.

Onishi said Hawaii Island needs to sort out its own energy needs before supporting an inter-island power cable.

Smart said geothermal should be “done properly,” and opposes environmental exemptions for power plants and geothermal exploration.

She said she doesn’t think the island should be the “battery bank for the state” when asked about her position on a cable between the islands.

The primary is held Aug. 11.

Also running for the seat are Republican Marlene Hapai and Libertarian Frederick Fogel.

Email Tom Callis at