State Sen. Russell Ruderman, an environmentalist
Image: courtesy russell ruderman

In all the excitement over filling Sen. Inouye’s seat, there’s been little attention paid to a newly elected state senator. The Weekly asked Sen. Russell Ruderman how it came to pass that, after decades of grassroots environmental activism on the Big Island, he tried for the newly created Puna District seat and his first elected office.

“It seemed like a logical extension of the work I was already doing,” Ruderman says. “It came down to, I want to be one of the players, one of the decisionmakers.”

The rural Southeast Hawaii district has experienced the state’s fastest growth rate–25 percent annually over the past 20 years–and services and infrastructure have not kept pace. “Puna needs better roads, schools and health care,” Ruderman says.

But the freshman senator isn’t just looking for handouts–he thinks his district has a lot to offer the rest of Hawaii. “We need to make major steps toward more sustainability,” he says. “Puna [has] all the resources necessary to be self-sustaining. We have affordable land, rainfall, a labor force. Puna and [neighboring] Kau have the tremendous potential to become sort of the breadbasket of the state.”

As owner of Island Naturals health food stores, which sell more organic local produce than any other establishment in the state, Ruderman has “learned a lot about how to [build systems] successfully. I support a lot of farmers and food producers,” he says.

But Ruderman, who fought to defend Wao Kele O Puna rainforest from geothermal development, isn’t keen on seeing his district generate energy for the rest of the state. “Puna has already paid its dues. The reality of Hawaii geothermal is very different than what it says in the glossy brochures. There are valid reasons why people are opposed to it,” he says. Any future geothermal development, he says, should be on Maui or Oahu, the sites of demand, eliminating the need for a costly undersea cable. As vice-chair of the Senate Energy and Environment committee, Ruderman will be advocating for “the cheapest and safest energy sources first, and that’s solar,” he says.