Bad blood in Puna: Ousted councilwoman cries foul

  • Eileen O'Hara and Ashley Kierkiewicz.

When the dust settled on the Hawaii County Council District 4 primary election race, the final returns showed a political newcomer winning a 20-point landslide as a result of what she called an “aloha-driven, clean, positive campaign” and the ousted incumbent saying it “was anything but that.”

In a non-partisan tilt, Ashley Kierkiewicz, a 32-year-old Hawaiian Paradise Park resident won the seat representing a portion of Puna over one-term Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara. The margin of victory was 2,545 votes to 1,674 votes, or 60.3 percent to 39.7 percent of the valid ballots cast.

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“Right now, I’m a little exhausted, but I feel incredible, I mean, I’m still kind of pinching myself that this is real,” Kierkiewicz said Sunday.

The 66-year-old O’Hara said that she’s “relieved” the election is over, and accused Kierkiewicz’s supporters of running “a very nasty campaign.”

“I’m not pointing fingers at Miss Ashley, but in a campaign, the candidate sets the tone,” O’Hara said. “And for some reason, her supporters didn’t follow that positive, aloha-driven message she seems to think she put out.”

O’Hara said the bad blood started May 9, six days after the Kilauea volcano lower East Rift Zone started, with an accusation she was trying to shut down Pu‘uhonua O Puna, aka “the Hub,” a community volunteer clearinghouse run by Puna businessman Ikaika Marzo where Kierkiewicz volunteered.

“Then the accusation was that I called the … health inspector and not once, but three times tried to shut them down,” O’Hara said. “According to Ikaika’s video, (the inspector’s) name was Dale. I don’t even know Dale. … I have no idea why this all started. I called all the associated people, including Ikaika, and told them it isn’t real, it didn’t happen. But they never recalled it; they kept making that charge, over and over and over again.

“It went from there to attacking my staff, attacking my family. It was not pretty. And it was not a part of the aloha-driven campaign for those of us that lived it.”

A Facebook live video almost 22 minutes long was posted by Marzo on Friday night. In it, he referred numerous times to “this person” and the individual’s alleged efforts to hamstring the Hub.

Kierkiewicz said her involvement with the Hub “wasn’t political at all.”

“I made a conscious decision to put the campaign on the side for a couple of months when the lava started flowing. And when I was there, my hair was up in a bun and I was Ashley,” she said. “If anyone recognized that I was running for office I would acknowledge that but quickly ask them to … set a time to talk politics outside of ‘the Hub’ because I was there to volunteer.

“But I think the lava flow, with our response as a community to act and to serve, I think it shows what the incumbent and I are made of and what we would be doing in those kinds of situations. And my initial reaction was, ‘How are we going to work together as a community and get folks the thing that they needed.’”

O’Hara also accused Kierkiewicz’s supporters of taking down or destroying “about a thousand dollars worth of campaign materials (and) yard signs over the past few months” following posts on the Ashley 4 Puna Facebook page showing defaced campaign signs, including one showing her face with a bold, black, spray-painted caption saying “Only da strong survive.”

“I tried to tell them that I didn’t have anything to do with it, but it unleashed a response,” O’Hara said. “And every week I was losing two to four banners … and all kind of yard signs disappeared. You can tell it was done with prejudice … just ripped up and shredded, things like that.”

O’Hara said the acrimony escalated until Kierkiewicz’s “T-shirted supporters would heckle” at public forums, prompting pleas for decorum from moderators.

“That was an unpleasant experience,” O’Hara said. “But she won, and that’s fine, because … I feel relieved that (supporters, staff and family are) not going to be the target of so much hatred. “

Kierkiewicz reiterated Sunday her campaign “was clean and positive and on message the entire time,” and added she is going to work hard to “revitalize Puna” and “rebuild the infrastructure” of the partially lava-ravaged district.

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I’m proud of the work our campaign has done and really grateful for the trust and the faith of the community for me to eventually represent the district,” she said. “I look forward to working with the community to get things done.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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