Although seven names will appear on the ballot Aug. 11, the race for Big Island mayor is expected to come down to the top three candidates with the most name recognition – incumbent Billy Kenoi, Council Chairman Dominic Yagong, and former mayor and civil defense director Harry Kim.
All three candidates say they support the expansion of geothermal energy, but with varying degrees of nuance. Geothermal exploration, which taps the nearly boundless amount of energy coming from Kilauea Volcano, has become one of the central issues in the campaign.
Yagong, 52, believes geothermal energy has a place in Hawaii County's renewable energy portfolio, but not the number one spot. He said that should be set aside for solar.
"Not only is solar a clean energy, but it's a technology that would give immediate savings to the consumer," said Yagong. "People are saying if I can reduce my utility rate, it's better for the economy."
Kim, 72, maintains he has always been in favor of geothermal exploration, but his message has been muddied by his resolve to keep environmental checks in place. In May, Kim traveled to Oahu to testify before the state's Environmental Council, which had been considering environmental waivers for geothermal exploratory wells.
After Kim's testimony, the Council voted 6-4 to keep environmental impact statements in place for geothermal exploratory wells. But for Kim, the issue is not whether you support geothermal, but how far government has moved away from the people. He said that's the main reason he decided to run for a third term as mayor.
"The people in power have this attitude almost, that the people are there for government," said Kim. "I feel this gap between our relationship of people and their government."
Kenoi meanwhile, 43, has perhaps the most middle of the road outlook on geothermal exploration. He believes environmental safeguards should remain, but says a balance can be struck with potential developers.
"There's nothing wrong whatsoever with requiring environmental regulations," said Kenoi. "But we also have to be mindful of not putting up unnecessary hurdles, barriers and obstacles to moving projects forward. There's certainly a balance that can be struck."
After geothermal energy, the size and scope of county government is perhaps the second most talked about topic in the mayor's race.