State Senate District 2: Island Naturals founder versus Republican Party chairman




Tribune-Herald staff writer

When it comes to politics, Russell Ruderman and Daryl Smith might as well be from different worlds.

Ruderman, the founder and owner of Island Naturals, is an environmentally conscious businessman and Democrat who sees government as having an “active” and “positive” role. He is pro-labor, pro-gay marriage and a critic of corporate influence in elections.

Smith, the chairman of the Hawaii County Republican Party and a former contractor, is a self-described libertarian and fiscal conservative who is wary of government spending. He advocates reform and accountability.

Yet both men, opponents in the state Senate District 2 race that incorporates Puna and parts of Ka‘u, have made the same issue a focus of their campaigns — improving education.

How the state should handle it is where they depart on the issue.

For Ruderman, the problem is funding.

He believes cuts made to the state Department of Education over the last few years need to be undone.

Ruderman said he believes the state’s “budget crunch should be over” and doesn’t think additional cuts should be made to schools.

“I don’t think throwing money at it is the only solution,” he said, “but taking away money from it would make it worse.”

Ruderman, 58, of Keaau said he believes schools should also provide social services such as counseling for students and families.

He believes the state has the money available to restore funding but would support raising more tax revenue if need be.

“If revenue enhancements are needed, then I would be in favor of those,” Ruderman said. “The first step is to look at the budget, seriously at the priorities.”

He’s also an advocate for more local control of schools and equal funding for charter schools.

Smith said he believes the department can improve education by spending what it has better.

In particular, he said, the department is too top heavy and not enough funds are getting to students. Smith advocates an audit to reduce waste.

“You can’t run a business if it’s … top-heavy,” he said. “You can’t run a school system efficiently like that either.”

Smith, a Volcano School of Arts and Sciences board member, also supports equal funding for charter schools.

He said he supports paying teachers more, particularly the good ones, and believes their salaries should be based on performance.

Teachers have expressed concern over such proposals, and questioned whether they can be implemented fairly.

Smith believes they can.

“Everyone in the school knows who is a good teacher and a bad teacher,” he said.

Smith, 59, of Volcano said he believes other agencies should be more efficient with their expenses.

A former welfare recipient, he said such social programs should be reformed to reward or encourage users for finding work.

“There should be a transition phase,” Smith said. “This all or nothing makes people stay on welfare.”

Smith used to run alarm and construction companies but says he is now retired. He receives disability for back and neck injuries received while in the Army.

He’s also been active on homeless issues and started a charity to assist low-income families balance their finances and afford a mortgage.

Smith is also a former Democrat who campaigned for Big Island candidates.

“It’s hard to be a businessman and vote for a Democrat,” he said, when asked what prompted the change with his party affiliation. “You’re basically inhibiting people’s ability to go into business for themselves.”

Though a businessman, Ruderman said he believes in workers’ rights and protecting the environment.

“I’m a fair person who cares about people,” he said.

His store, which caters to organic foods, started in 1998 and has four locations around the Big Island.

Ruderman said he also supports solar energy, including ways to make it easier for homeowners to install photovoltaic panels, and expanding public financing for candidates.

Currently, public financing is mainly limited to county-level candidates as part of a pilot project for Hawaii County.

Ruderman said it wasn’t available for his race, though it’s an option he would use if he could.

“The benefit of it is it reduces the influence of corporate money in our politics,” he said. “It’s a reform that makes all other reforms possible.”

Ruderman said he has received some donations from unions but he doesn’t believe they have the same negative effect on politics as money from businesses.

“They are not representing one corporate view or one agenda,” he said. “They are representing the rights of workers and I do believe in that.”

Ruderman said he would introduce legislation to create a business incubator for his district, if elected, that would help support local farms and other business ventures.


The election is Nov. 6.

Email Tom Callis at

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