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Republican gubernatorial candidate Duke Aiona campaigned hard against Hawaii’s high cost of living — offering proposals to make housing, groceries and many other necessities more affordable — before losing by a decisive margin.
So perhaps it wasn’t too surprising that less than two weeks after David Ige became Hawaii’s governor-elect Aiona agreed to talk with me about his own financial challenges in bringing up four children here. But, as the energetic former candidate pointed out, “The cost of living was a huge issue in this campaign.”
There are clear tactical reasons why a Republican gubernatorial candidate would help to drive such an issue, with its broad non-partisan appeal in a deeply Democratic state, but Aiona didn’t just discover the high price of paradise. He and his wife Vivian have wrestled with it for decades, and their finances bear its scars.
The state Ethics Commission financial disclosure form that he filed as part of his candidacy for governor listed $934,000 in personal debts in 2013, including $575,000 for the mortgage on their house.
With the campaign behind him, Aiona was refreshingly honest about something that so many other professionals in the islands hide, perhaps for fear of being stigmatized. He and his wife Vivian will have to hustle, like so many others, to pay off debts they have accrued to house and educate their family.
As Aiona talked about some past professional decisions, it gradually became clear that the cost of living — as well as some optional spending choices that are not exclusive to his family — has affected his professional path and undermined his financial security even as he approaches retirement age.
With a gallows’ chuckle, the 59-year-old said, “We are probably going to end up working the rest of our lives.”
The Aionas’ four children are between the ages of 21 and 31. The two oldest have moved out of the house, married and each has a child. Both of their families are renters. The two younger siblings — one recently earned an advanced degree in education in Washington, the other one is in a master’s degree program in social work at the University of Hawaii — live with their parents.
Some of Aiona’s key campaign arguments and proposals were inspired by their circumstances. He put forward policy solutions that, among other things, aimed to help young people become independent of their parents in a state where rents are 50 percent higher than the national average and mortgages are often out of reach.
Post election, though, Aiona and his wife face other more pressing concerns. Long ago, they promised to help all of their children through college, he recounts. “My burden,” he explains, “is all of the education for my kids.”
By “burden,” he means the student loans that he is paying back for them. He didn’t offer specific numbers, but one of the standout expenses on the state’s financial disclosure form included a debt to the U.S. Department of Education for federal student loans for $150,000.
It is just one part of a mosaic of debts that many people around the islands might relate to. The total debt listed on the ethics form, owed to more than a half dozen institutions — including $27,000 to Visa and Mastercard — added up to $934,000.
Paying off the family’s debts, he said, will likely require “the selling of our home.”
The ethics form doesn’t ask candidates to list their residence and its value, so it is unclear how much the actual Aiona home is worth in Kapolei, but depending on real estate market fluctuations, the Aionas might also need to sell a small apartment they own which the disclosure form values at between $150,000 and $250,00, when they decide to pay off their debts.
It is something of a testament to the cost of living in Hawaii and the way many middle class and upper middle class people live here that someone like Aiona — a former prosecutor and judge, two-term lieutenant governor, mediator, teacher and recent candidate to the highest political position in the state — and his working wife are in such a position.
“Our home is basically my bank. That’s where everything is” — former gubernatorial candidate Duke Aiona
The way Aiona sees it, there are two ways for most people to set money aside for the future in Hawaii. “You can make a lot of money, which I never did, or use your home.”
His solution is similar to that of many other homeowners in the islands who seem unable to set money aside to cover their golden years. To make the long-term numbers pencil out, they sell their home and downscale to a more affordable one, if they can. “Our home is basically my bank,” the former lieutenant governor said. “That’s where everything is.”
The former candidate’s situation gets at why Civil Beat asked Aiona to open up about his family’s challenges. If the price of paradise weighs on a two-income couple like the Aionas — and they benefit from a mortgage from the early 1990s, when real estate was far less expensive — then it can weigh far more on the majority of people who earn less and who entered the rental or home markets after prices increased substantially.
The most vulnerable, of course, tend to be among the 44 percent of renter-households, whose residents usually can’t afford a down payment or qualify for a loan. Such people rarely have any real estate equity to bail them out down the road.
Since the Aionas bought a four-bedroom house for their family in Oahu’s budding “second city” 21 years ago, he says there have been many challenges bringing up their four children.
Aiona earned what he called a “very moderate” salary as a circuit court judge, and his wife worked for Wardair Canada, which was then acquired and folded into Canadian Airlines. That transition led to Vivian losing her seniority and enduring a $3-per-hour pay cut, her husband recounted.
But, despite the challenges making ends meet, the Aionas decided to put their children in private schools. Initially, it wasn’t such a burden because the two older kids enjoyed substantial fee reductions at Kamehameha Schools, he said, but the two younger children went to the Maryknoll School, a Catholic institution. (Current yearly rates there are between $14,600 and $15,150 per child.)
But by the late 1990s, with the costs of college looming for their older children, the Aionas came to a reckoning.
“We got to the point where we said, we could send them to public school, sell the house or both — if I was going to keep my job,” said Aiona. “If we were going to give them this opportunity to go to (the university), I had to step it up in terms of finances.”
At the end of 1998, he left the court where he was earning about $87,000 and went into private practice.
Asked how big of a factor the cost of bringing up four children on Oahu was in his decision to leave the bench, Aiona said, “It was huge.” He noted that some of the spending was by choice, like the decisions to get a four-bedroom place for the family of six, and put the children in private schools.
With his career shift, the family was suddenly better able to keep up with its spending. “We made a whole lot of money when I went on my own, for about four years,” he said.
Then he ran for office. In 2002, he was elected lieutenant governor alongside Gov. Linda Lingle, filling that role for eight years. The initial salary, he said, was about what he earned as a judge. In 2005, according to Ballotopedia, he earned $90,041. By the end of his second term, after a substantial pay increase and a small across-the-board cut, the lieutenant governor’s salary was $114,420 in 2010.
“Now whatever we have is our kuleana — our responsibility. We can sell the homes and pay off the debt, and survive on the pension.” — Duke Aiona
The Aiona’s two incomes allowed them to comfortably handle it all — until the college bills started coming in.
As a family that sees education as an investment in their children’s future, they could have educated them all at the University of Hawaii and kept costs fairly manageable. Instead, they told their children they could study wherever they wanted.
Aiona said that one son went to the University of Washington, and the first two years, he had to pay — with his parents’ help — the much higher out-of-state tuition. Another child went to Pacific University in Oregon. A third went to the notoriously expensive Loyola Marymount University in West Los Angeles (where undergraduate tuition, not including housing or supplies, now costs more than $40,000 per year). The other child went to Santa Clara University in California.
All those college costs added up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Duke and Vivian aren’t exactly without resources. When Aiona left the bench, he says, he essentially retired from that position in his early 40s. The result was a partial pension that pays him nearly 40 percent of his former judge’s salary, plus an annual 2.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment. It adds up to about $40,000 per year, he says.
In addition, the ethics disclosure form indicates that he earned $30,000 to $75,000 last year from substitute teaching, his adjunct professor gig at Chaminade University and consulting.
(Vivian, who left the airline when her husband was first elected to office, is now an administrative assistant at Pacific Rim Legacy, a wealth management firm.)
“I’m not complaining. We do okay,” he said.
“But we don’t live extravagantly and we calculate everything.” That includes shopping at Costco where he says the price of chicken wings, which his wife likes, have gone up a lot in recent years.
At this point, Aiona doesn’t think his kids will inherit much. “I say, ‘If you guys are expecting a big house and a million dollars, we’re not going to give that to you.’ We gave them an education. We did our part. Now whatever we have is our kuleana — our responsibility. We can sell the homes and pay off the debt, and survive on the pension.”
And on whatever he and Vivian earn before retiring — if they ever do.
A man who has made a living in recent years from a patchwork of jobs — including as a lawyer, consultant, professor, substitute teacher and wedding officiant — said that campaigning led him to forgo income that might have amounted to a conflict of interest, or that he just didn’t have time to earn.
“That has hurt us” — his family — “so there is basically no income,” he explained of current circumstances. “The savings, and everything, has been expended.”
In the immediate future, Aiona intends to take on new estate planning and family law clients.
With a decisive electoral defeat still fresh, as well as his sentiment that the people of Hawaii are just “numb” to the high cost of living, he says he has no plans whatsoever to run for office again, “but you never say never.”
If he does consider another campaign, he will likely remember the financial pinch that this run left his family in. “This one hurt because I wasn’t in any financial position to not work at all. My decision to run was … a big sacrifice on our part, but I did it.”
It wasn’t running for office, of course, that caused such cost-of-living difficulties. It was losing.
The governor’s job — which has a salary of $146,628 salary and includes four years of free rent, a housekeeper and a car — would surely have helped the Aionas to pay off some debt.
The gubernatorial also-ran said, with a laugh, he didn’t know that the governor’s salary had gone up so much since he was lieutenant governor.
But given that voters hired someone else, Aiona is in a position similar to a lot of other people in the islands. He has plenty of ideas about how to lower Hawaii’s high cost of living, but he’s not in much of a position to do anything about it anytime soon.
So, like the rest of us, he has to continue finding a way to live with it.
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