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Commentary: The look, the feel, the taste of November 20

Everyone has their own interpretation of our recent election. Here are some of mine.

For many people who wanted “change”, the change that they sought was the end (or at least the interruption) of the Sunia family influence over the American Samoa Government.

For many people who wanted “change”, the change they sought was a clean break with the government they had been un-enjoying in the Togiola years, epitomized by the daily suffering of drivers forced to endure potholed roads, dysfunctional legislative relationship, rogue ASPA, problems at LBJ, and the entrenched imperious leadership and bureaucracy.

Governor Togiola Tulafono’s governance was not popular and Lt. Governor Faoa Sunia did not distance himself. In fact, in the early days of the campaign, he said things were fine in American Samoa, continuity was important, and he and Taufete’e were the best choice to maintain the satisfactory status quo (with some needed improvements of course).

Between unhappiness with the status quo and a desire to place the government in non-Sunia hands (especially amongst the people registered to vote in Manu’a), it would have been tough for Faoa to win. Being a “no-show” at the candidate forums didn’t help the Faoa/Taufete’e cause.

A well-run campaign by Lolo (largely planned and executed by seasoned local political operatives), along with four other strong candidates reminding voters that changes are badly needed, sealed the deal.

I suspect the lack of a military veteran on the Faoa/Taufete’e ticket, combined with the presence of a respected Army and Marine veteran on the Lolo/Lemanu ticket, had a substantial impact on the race as well, and this impact was strengthened by the presence of so many other respected veterans on the other candidate teams, most of whom formally endorsed Lolo and Lemanu after November 6.

Lolo suffered his share of hiccups along the way, and his high-profile verbal trashing of the Samoa News for publishing a critical draft report on the 1602 program — a draft that was later finalized with almost all the same negative conclusions — was not an example of his leadership (and, one hopes, was an aberration that will not be repeated, given the candidate’s commitment to Transparency and Accountability).

But this was a year for change, and Lolo was the change candidate with the best pedigree and the best chance of winning, and so he did. Congratulations!

Malo lava and fa’afetai tele to all the candidates. We couldn’t have a democracy without you. We couldn’t take our community’s pulse without you. We couldn’t frame and have national conversations without you. You are all winners, although only one candidate will be our governor the next four years.

On our TVs we learn about the negative campaigning that characterizes elections in the United States. What a relief that we are not subjected to that sordid business!

I was privileged to attend the final meeting of the Faoa/Taufete’e committee Tuesday evening at Fano’s guest fale. The hundreds of supporters were addressed by the candidates, Committee Chairman Lauvao Steve Haleck and other committee leaders. The speeches gave calm comfort and provided a dose of humor to ease the sad burden of the losers.

“The sun will rise tomorrow, and God has a plan for all of us,” Faoa counseled. He told Samoa News he was available to help the incoming team in areas where he has experience and expertise, such as the high risk situation with the Department of Education and Medicaid matters.

Fofo Sunia told the Samoa News that the people had chosen and he supports anything that will make American Samoa a better place.

The Faoa supporters were quiet and sad, but did not seem bitter or angry. Faoa said they were handling their loss with “faamatalii” (dignity/honor/grace) and he was grateful to his supporters for doing all they could and behaving well (unlike, he noted, the behavior of some losing camps in years gone by, when keeping the peace had not always been so easy).

Faoa, who has had health problems of late, said he is happy the campaign is over, but he is not happy that he lost. Now he will retire, tend to his banana plantation; he said he and his family will not starve.

The candidate expressed his admiration for the way Lolo and Lemanu conducted themselves in the campaign. “They personally were gentlemen and never said anything offensive.”

Meanwhile, over at the Lolo gathering in Matu’u, the mood was the polar opposite. In addition to simple happiness and joy, there was full-on jubilation once the results from Leone and Nu’uuli came in at about 7:45 and eliminated any chance of a late surge by Faoa. Of course there were hugs and tears, but the hugs were especially long and strong, and many of the huggers rocked left and right as they clung to one another, feeling relief and release and closure as well as the thrilling knowledge of being winners following months and months of hard work (and, in many cases, years of frustration from being out of favor with the Togiola and Tauese administrations).

“The dynasty is over,” one friend said to me, referring to the Sunias, and he looked like he was about to cry out of sheer relief.

The scene at Faoa HQ was dominated by older chiefs who looked very much alike, one to the other.

By contrast, the Lolo camp looked like a coalition of young and old, villager and professional, male and female. There was a distinct group of what looked like the new educated class of Samoans, more credentialed with degrees and retired military decorations than with chiefly titles.

And when I say Samoans, I mean Samoans. Tim Jones was a prominent presence at the Lolo camp, dispensing and accepting celebratory hugs and handshakes, but he might have been the only palagi — indeed the only non-Samoan — at either camp. Samoans might dominate American Samoa less than in the past, before the entry of so many foreign nationals to the territory in the past 40 years, but they were absent from the political camps.

The Lolo supporters were ready to celebrate. If there had been a statue to topple, politely of course, I think they would have toppled it. They looked like people ready to dismantle something. Change is what they were promised and they are eager for inauguration day in January.

As I left Matu’u, a steady stream of vehicles were headed to the party, from the east and the west. It was time to party; party like it’s 2012.