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Race for Mililani House seat pits veteran against rookie

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - 10/14/2018

Oct. 14--In state House District 36 that covers Mililani Mauka and part of Mililani, a Republican is squaring off against a Democrat to replace a Democrat who won the seat as a Republican.

This race could be the Legislature's most competitive contest in the Nov. 6 general election.

On one side is a veteran politician, Democrat Marilyn Lee, who held the seat for

16 years but lost to Republican Beth Fukumoto in 2012 and tried twice unsuccessfully to regain the job.

On the other side is a political rookie, Republican

Val Okimoto, a former public school teacher who said she's running to give district members a chance to elect a Republican for a fourth straight time.

The seat was left open when Republican incumbent Fukumoto, who switched parties last year, ran and lost the Aug. 11 Democratic primary to replace U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa. Fukumoto left the GOP last year after her criticism of President Donald Trump created tension that led to her ouster as minority leader.

The district, where major issues include traffic, education and cost of living, leans Republican but voters have shown a willingness to move between parties.

Rep. Lauren Matsumoto, a Republican, represents a neighboring district that includes part of Mililani, while Rep. Ryan Yamane, a Democrat, represents another district also covering part of Mililani.

Lee said she is counting on her deep roots in local community service and past legislative experience to win.

"I do feel the issue of experience is huge," she said.

Lee, 78, a retired Wahiawa General Hospital nurse and Navy veteran, serves as vice chairwoman of the Mililani­-Waipio-Melemanu Neighborhood Board and is a member of the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women. She also is a member of the Lions Club International, has a public access TV interview show and has lived in the same Mililani house for

40 years.

A mother of four adult children, Lee was first elected to the Legislature in 1996, taking the place of her husband, Sam, who served five two-year terms and died in 2012.

Some constituents were perturbed when Sam Lee

announced his campaign for re-election in 1996 but then backed out one day before the filing deadline for candidates to run against him. Marilyn Lee was ready to step in and then beat a hastily arranged Republican contender.

In the upcoming contest, Lee is facing a more prepared candidate as well as a bigger fundraising challenge after fending off three Democratic contenders in the primary.

According to state Campaign Spending Commission reports, Lee spent $14,153 on the race through Aug. 11 and had $722 remaining at that point.

Okimoto, who was unchallenged in the primary, reported raising $31,860 and having $17,689 on Aug. 11.

Okimoto, 42, says she will bring a fresh outlook, represent a younger generation and offer a Republican option to serve the district.

"I don't come from a professional political background," she said. "I consider myself just a normal person in the community who wants to make a difference."

Okimoto was born on Kauai and earned an accounting degree from Brigham Young University-­Hawaii and a teaching certification from Chaminade University.

The married mother of two moved to Mililani in 2003 after college and spent 10 years as a special education teacher at Makalapa

Elementary and Highlands Intermediate schools before taking a break to be a full-time mom to two daughters, ages 10 and 5.

Okimoto still serves as a substitute teacher at Mililani schools and also sits on the Mililani Town Association board of directors.

The decision by Fukumoto to run for federal office spurred Okimoto to compete for the open seat instead of letting a Democrat grab an automatic win.

"That didn't sit well with me, that the people in my district wouldn't have a choice," Okimoto said.

In the last two elections, Fukumoto topped Lee with about 65 percent of the votes. But in 2012, the margin was much closer at

51 percent to 46 percent.


(c)2018 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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