There may be suspense in a hotly contested mayor’s race, but don’t expect big changes in the Honolulu City Council after this year’s election.
Five of the nine Council posts are up for grabs. No one is running against Councilman Ikaika Anderson, who represents Waimanalo and Kailua.
Council members Kymberly Pine, Joey Manahan, Ron Menor and Ann Kobayashi are all seeking re-election and each have at least one opponent. The incumbents had all raised significantly more money than their adversaries as of Dec. 31, 2015 and none of their challengers has reported holding a single campaign fundraiser yet.
Meanwhile, the seats held by Council Chair Ernie Martin and Council members Trevor Ozawa, Carol Fukunaga and Brandon Elefante won’t be on the ballot until 2018.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Martin would be up for re-election in 2018. He will be prevented from running for Council again in 2018 due to term limits.
Having a lot of money in the bank is a good way to deter potential rivals, said Colin Moore, an assistant professor in political science who directs the University of Hawaii’s public policy center,
“I know from experience the only way to beat an incumbent is if they die.” — Kimberly Case, City Council candidate
“Raising money is time-consuming and not very enjoyable,” Moore said. When incumbents have big campaign war chests, “more credible challengers are discouraged from running.”
Kimberly Case, a former member of the Manoa Neighborhood Board, said she pulled papers to run before she realized Kobayashi, who is 79, would be seeking re-election after the councilwoman had earlier indicated this would be her last term.
Kobayashi had over $104,000 as of the end of last year and has broad name recognition as the head of the influential Budget Committee.
Case had just over $3,000 on Dec. 31, left over from a failed bid for the state House of Representatives.
“Running against an incumbent, my chances of winning are pretty small,” Case said bluntly. “I know from experience the only way to beat an incumbent is if they die.”
Case said she’s still running because she supports rail while Kobayashi is extremely critical of the project. Case also thinks there’s a lot more to be done on homelessness and affordable housing.
She said she’s not planning to raise any money this year because she doesn’t want to be beholden to special interests.
That may not be the best decision, according to Moore.
“If you’re a challenger, money is actually crucial,” he said. “It is nearly impossible to win in most cases if you aren’t able to raise a significant amount of money that comes close to matching what the incumbent has.”
From his perspective, a seat on the Hololulu City Council is more influential than one in the Legislature, which has 51 representatives and 25 senators. Oahu is home to nearly a million people, the vast majority of the state’s population of 1.4 million.
“Being a member of the City Council is a much more powerful position than being a freshman or even two- or three-term member of the state Legislature,” Moore said.
Political analyst and Civil Beat columnist Neal Milner said this year’s relatively tame City Council races are “likely to fit into the overall pattern of this coming election, which is that nothing exciting is going to happen except in the mayor’s race.”
Moore said it’s disappointing that the Council races don’t appear to be more competitive.
“Scared politicians are responsive politicians,” he said. “And I think they should have to fight for their seat. It’s bad for democracy that there aren’t more challenges at the state level and at the county level.”
The only City Council race on the Aug. 13 primary is in Pine’s District 1, which stretches from Ewa Beach to Waianae. On Oahu, two-person races for nonpartisan offices go straight to the November ballot.
It’s also the only race in which an incumbent is facing off against well-known competitors. Two of Pine’s three challengers are former Councilman Tom Berg and Neighborhood Board member Kioni Dudley, who led spirited opposition against a 11,750-home development by D.R. Horton called Hoopili.
But John Hart, professor of communication at Hawaii Pacific University, said name recognition may count against Berg, who was fined $250 in 2012 for violating campaign spending laws and videotaped in 2011 trying to enter a conference while drunk.
“Tom is known, but that’s not necessarily a good thing,” Hart said. Berg didn’t respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Pine also has a big money advantage. Her latest campaign spending report indicated that she had $26,445 as of the end of last year.
Dudley, who has served on the Neighborhood Board for 18 years, said he’s optimistic even though he’s planning to largely self-fund his campaign.
“Scared politicians are responsive politicians. And I think they should have to fight for their seat.” — Colin Moore, UH professor
“I wouldn’t have gotten into (the race) if I thought that money was going to be a problem or if it was going to be the reason you would win,” he said.
He’s counting on support from community groups who back his opposition to development in West Oahu.
But he’s also realistic. Dudley said he’s hoping that if he doesn’t win outright in August, that Berg and Anthony will split the vote enough to force a Pine-Dudley run-off.
“If we can keep Pine from getting 51 percent on Aug. 13, that gives us until November to get our act together,” he said.
Pine didn’t respond to a request for comment Wednesday. She has held four fundraisers this election cycle, including three recently at the Pacific Club, Roy’s Ko Olina and a home in Nuuanu.
Pine’s third challenger is Marc Anthony, who doesn’t appear to have held elected office in Hawaii previously, hasn’t yet filed a campaign spending report and didn’t respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Like Kobayashi’s campaign, Manahan and Menor have far more name recognition and money than their opponents.
Manahan, who represents Kalihi, has held five fundraisers this election cycle, more than any other City Council candidate. He said Wednesday he feels pretty good about the money that he’s raised so far — over $56,000 as of last year — and doesn’t have any immediate plans for more fundraisers.
Manahan has also garnered several major endorsements, including from the unions representing government workers and carpenters.
His lone opponent is Chace Shigemasa who has never held elected office before and had less than $500 in campaign funds at the end of last year.
“I feel that we have to stop electing the same people and expecting different results,” said Shigemasa, who unsuccessfully ran for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs in 2014.
Shigemasa and Manahan both support more fiscal oversight of rail and extending the line to the University of Hawaii. Shigemasa also said he supports Manahan’s efforts to establish a hygiene center for homeless people in Kalihi, which the councilman cited as a major accomplishment Wednesday.
One difference is that Shigemasa opposes the bans against sitting and lying on sidewalks that Manahan and other Council members approved in areas like Waikiki.
“We’re discriminating against these people on the streets,” Shigemasa said. “These are actual people. They’re human beings.”
Both Shigemasa and Manahan said they plan to go door to door in Kalihi to meet constituents and encourage them to vote.
But Milner said he thinks that even with grassroots organizing, Manahan’s money will play a key role.
“These are big districts so it’s pretty hard to just rely on shoe-leather (campaigning),” he said, noting that legislative districts are much smaller.
Milner also said the mayor and governor tend to get blamed for problems like burgeoning rail costs and increasing homelessness, rather than Council members. That makes it harder for challengers to capitalize on those issues to win support.
Then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s huge money advantage wasn’t enough to hold off David Ige two years ago, and Mayor Kirk Caldwell faces significant challenges this year from Charles Djou and Peter Carlisle even though the incumbent reported having $1.6 million in hand as of Dec. 31.
“The mayors and governors are more likely to get darts and more likely to get the credit for some of those issues than someone on the City Council,” Milner said. “(Voters) don’t blame the Council as much as they blame everyone else (for rail). … The targets are the mayor and the target is HART.”
That’s not stopping Emil Svrcina from challenging Menor largely on the platform of stopping the rail project “boondoggle.” On his website, Svrcina’s boasts that he is a “LEGAL immigrant” and promises to “MAKE HONOLULU GREAT AGAIN.”
Svrcina said he also ran because he didn’t want to give the incumbent a free pass, even though he acknowledged, “I don’t think I have too many chances to win.”
Svrcina, who has previously run unsuccessfully for the City Council and the state House, hasn’t yet filed a campaign spending report. Menor reported $58,776.58 as of Dec. 31.
Despite the long odds against an upset, Menor isn’t complacent. The councilman, who wasn’t available for comment Wednesday, is scheduled to hold a fundraiser July 6 at MW Restaurant, an upscale eatery across from Ala Moana Shopping Center. The suggested donation is $500 to $1,000.
All of the challengers face daunting prospects, said Hawaii Pacific’s Hart.
“These are known incumbents who are well-financed who are against people with either less name recognition or less positive recognition,” Hart said. “I just don’t see at this point any challenges there.”