County Council hopefuls talk gender equity

The Kaua‘i County Council may be all male if last month’s primary election results are any indication of how voters will cast their ballots next Tuesday.

Three women — Lani Kawahara, Christobel Kealoha and Rhoda Libre — made the cut on Sept. 20 to advance to the general election Nov. 4, but none finished in the top seven.

The trio of candidates said yesterday that they are campaigning hard, in part, to see to it that the council maintains some gender equity.

The legislative body currently has two female members, JoAnn Yukimura and Shaylene Iseri-Carvalho, which is the most to ever serve on the council at one time. But with Yukimura running for mayor and Iseri-Carvalho for prosecutor, neither will be returning Dec. 1 for another two-year term.

Kalaheo resident Anne Punohu, who serves on the county Committee on the Status of Women, said female representation on the council is critical, but voters should decide who they vote for based on the candidate’s qualifications.

“Gender equity is important, but it’s also important what that person’s belief system is,” she said. “We need women on the council — 50 percent of the island is women. But just because they’re a woman doesn’t mean they’d make a good leader. You shouldn’t just look at the list and vote for women. That’s not being a smart voter.”

The three female council hopefuls this year are “excellent,” Punohu said.

Kawahara was eighth in the primary, 1,099 votes behind Dickie Chang, the seventh-place finisher.

The Kapa‘a librarian gained legislative experience while working for state Sen. Gary Hooser, D-Kaua‘i/Ni‘ihau. She said gender equity on the council became a bigger factor for her after the primary.

“It’s not the main reason I ran, but one of the reasons,” Kawahara said. “I saw the same names and knew that two women were leaving and wanted to make sure there were going to be women voices on the council.”

Retired deputy state attorney general Christobel Kealoha finished 11th in the primary, 1,599 votes behind Kawahara.

The Lihu‘e resident said with both genders represented, the council would be more balanced.

“I need to rely on my qualifications and competence to get me to where I want to be,” she said. “The issue of gender is just like the balancing tool … it’s a tie-breaker, if anything.”

Westside resident Rhoda Libre, the only of the three candidates to have previously sought a seat on the council, was 13th in the primary, 1,134 votes behind Kealoha.

The entertainer and community activist echoed her opponents, saying gender equity provides a natural balance.

“It’s the only way we can represent the whole island,” she said. “We need to change our mindset … would you feel it’s fair for an all-male council to talk for all the women?”

There has never been a majority-female council on Kaua‘i. Since 1992, which is as far back as state election results are available online, no more than two women have served on the legislative body at the same time.

Maxine Correa was the only female elected to the council in 1992 and 1994, the same year Maryanne Kusaka was elected mayor.

Mary Thronas was the top vote-getter in 1996. But Correa finished eighth, leaving Thronas the sole woman on the council.

In 1998, there was a return to an all-male council and Kusaka was re-elected mayor.

Two years later, an all-male council was again elected. Libre finished 10th in her bid for a seat.

In 2002, Yukimura, who was first elected to the council in 1976, returned as the top vote-getter and only female voice. Libre finished 12th and the mayor’s office returned to male leadership under Bryan Baptiste.

Two years later, Yukimura was again the top vote-getter, Iseri-Carvalho was elected to the council and Libre finished 10th.

In 2006, Yukimura and Iseri-Carvalho finished first and second, respectively, but remained the only two female council members. Baptiste was re-elected mayor.

Punohu, who ran for council in 2002 in part to represent single mothers, said the lack of a woman finishing in the top seven at the primary this fall may be a “symptom of our past council.”

“The men seem to get along better than the women, traditionally,” she said. “There’s a difference between the way men discuss issues and women discuss issues. Men are more low key; women more passionate.

“We had two extremely strong women on the council for the last few years,” Punohu said.

“Both are brilliant, talented women who are confident and who are not afraid to make their opinions known. Traditional Kaua‘i voters are not always up to par with having these strong women on their TV screens every week. Maybe they’re looking for a different style.”

Gender equity has transcended local politics, garnering significant national attention this year in the presidential race.

The spotlight in the primary was on Democratic candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, who nearly defeated Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois to become the party’s first female nominee.

Attention has since shifted to Arizona Sen. John McCain’s choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as the Republican presidential candidate’s running mate.

Kawahara said a major reason she chose to run for council was to raise awareness for young women to see political office as a viable option.

“We’re woefully under-represented at all levels — local, state and nationally,” she said, noting emilyslist.org as an online source for more information. “I really encourage more women to think about (running for office). They can do it and they should. It has to become something that’s as automatic as it is for a male.”

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