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They live on the wrong side of Honolulu’s traffic jams and like everyone on the island they think housing costs too much, but it’s hard to find Mililani residents who are dissatisfied with their community.
The slice of Central Oahu suburbia has its own commercial shopping centers, schools, parks, community centers and a golf course.
Locals describe it as tight-knit, quiet and relatively safe, although they’re concerned about a growing homeless population forced out of urban areas by sit-lie bans.
The overall sense of satisfaction may help explain why a recent visit didn’t turn up a lot of excitement about an election to represent Mililani in the Legislature.
The race does have intrigue.
Old rivals — House Minority Leader Beth Fukumoto Chang and former longtime lawmaker Marilyn Lee — are both campaigning again for the District 36 legislative seat.
But first Lee has to get by newcomer (and former Civil Beat columnist) Zuri Aki in the Democratic primary for the chance to challenge the Republican incumbent. Lee’s got the experience and deep community roots, while Aki is a 34-year-old lifelong Mililani resident and newcomer touting his fresh perspective.
Meanwhile, Fukumoto Chang isn’t ruling out the possibility that she’ll eventually become a Democrat herself, but said that’s not a move she’d make immediately after getting re-elected.
Lee, who served in the House for 16 years, and Fukumoto Chang have competed for the seat twice before.
After Lee won the 2010 election against Republican Shaun Hayato Kawakami by a mere 16 votes, she was ousted by Fukumoto Chang in 2012 by a nearly 5 percent margin. That year, religious groups attacked Lee’s values and questioned her community ties — something she’s still upset about.
In the 2014 election, Fukumoto Chang defeated Lee by 31 percent.
Lee, a nearly 40-year Mililani resident, had raised $6,450 by the end of June for her campaign, financial disclosure records show. She loaned her campaign $1,000 and had spent about $5,000.
Lee said traffic is her top concern. A proponent of rail, Lee called the current plan to halt the project at Middle Street “bizarre” and “ridiculous.”
She hopes to see the rail route eventually extend past Ala Moana Center to the University of Hawaii Manoa so Mililani residents can more easily commute to downtown and the campus. Extending rail would bring tourists and workers to Mililani to boost local businesses, Lee said.
She said she also supports building more affordable housing for young people growing up in the community and making solar energy affordable. She said she’ll continue to press for women’s rights.
Like Aki, she said that she too has a fresh perspective — but one that has more local engagement. The Legislature could benefit from a more mature representative with leadership experience, she said.
“I’ve been out of the Legislature for four years, I’ve been out in the community more than (Aki),” she said. “I know this community like the back of my hand.”
As for the incumbent possibly changing parties, Lee said she doesn’t think Fukumoto Chang is a Democrat at heart. If she does leave the GOP, it’ll be for the sake of convenience, Lee said.
Fukumoto Chang’s efforts to reach across the aisle have been a positive step for the Republican Party, Lee said. But she added that the incumbent hasn’t been an effective minority caucus leader and should speak up on the floor to criticize bills more often.
Despite Fukumoto Chang being nationally recognized as a young Republican leader who vows to change the party, Lee said the incumbent “sits on her hands” when important issues take center stage. Though Fukumoto Chang has a house in the district, Lee questioned how much time she spent in Mililani.
Lee said the incumbent has done a good job of using social media, doesn’t spend as much time at neighborhood board meetings as she should.
Lee, a Mililani Neighborhood Board member, said Fukumoto Chang sometimes comes late to board meetings and leaves before chatting with constituents.
“I never had ever seen her walking down the street in Mililani,” Lee said. “I don’t think she spends a lot of time in the community.”
Though Lee has stronger name recognition, Aki has been campaigning on Facebook, Twitter and has been sign-waving and walking door to door in Mililani. He is a former teacher who recently graduated from the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii.
Aki had raised about $6,500 from non-family members during the campaign and had spent a little more than half of that by June 30, according to disclosure records.
The former Civil Beat columnist cited traffic, environmental issues and homelessness as his key community issues. He prioritizes establishing more educational and work opportunities over completing the rail project, arguing it’s unlikely there’s enough money to do both.
Although Lee has been out of the Legislature for a while, Aki said his new perspective affords a unique advantage that her four-year hiatus may not. Still, he lauded Lee and said he hoped she would be a mentor to him if he’s elected.
Although he said he’s never tried to contact Fukumoto Chang, Aki said politicians should reach out to their constituents for input, not vice versa. Aki said she should be more proactive in updating the community on legislative efforts.
If elected, Aki said he would hold meetings in Mililani often so residents don’t have to drive to the state Capitol to be heard. He said it often seems like state politicians are “playing a certain game to keep their job in office” instead of focusing on issues and staying plugged into the community.
Aki also commented on the talk that Fukumoto Chang is planning to switch to the Democratic Party and said she may be more of a “conservative Democrat.”
“(Fukumoto Chang) seems like on occasion, she plays with her party,” Aki said. “There’s a disingenuous sort of thing going on with her.”
Facing off against Lee in the primary, Aki knows he’s got his work cut out for him. Even if this election doesn’t turn out in his favor, Aki hopes to make a career out of politics.
“Definitely, I’ll be back,” he said. “I’m in it for the long haul.”
Fukumoto Chang has been criticized by her party for cooperating with Democrats.
After she openly questioned Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s sexist and racist remarks, Republicans shouted her down at this year’s Republican state convention. Angry audience members called her a RINO — “Republican In Name Only” — and some suggested she resign or join the Democratic Party.
Housing development, engineering, carpentering and plumbing industry representatives donated to Fukumoto Chang’s campaign this year, according to financial disclosure records.
Honolulu City Councilwoman Kymberly Pine and former Republican state Rep. Barbara Marumoto also donated to Fukumoto Chang, records show.
Correction: An earlier version of this report stated Fukumoto Chang had spent about $30,000 on her campaign.
Fukumoto Chang had spent just under $10,000 on her campaign as of June 30 and Friends of Beth Fukumoto had just over $44,000 on hand.
Fukumoto said traffic, the high cost of living and taxes are the most important issues in her district.
“Nobody has a lock on fresh ideas,” she said, adding that while Aki may have a new perspective, she hasn’t been in the Legislature so long that she’s become “the establishment.”
Since taking office in 2013 she said she’s been instrumental in forming a coalition between Democrats and Republicans.
“I think what voters really want is to see Republicans and Democrats working together,” she said. “I think what voters want is less partisanship and more of an ability to get good measures passed.”
Fukumoto Chang said she’s been surprised by criticism that she isn’t active enough in the community that she lives in full-time.
Constituents can sign up on her website to receive a weekly email update and traffic/road closure updates or schedule meetings in Mililani. Fukumoto holds quarterly “talk story” events in her district.
Lately, she said she’s held informal meetings at the Mililani Mauka McDonald’s to talk about issues over coffee. Newly established office hours at her Mililani office provide another means of contact for residents.
She said that either she or one of her staff members has attended all but one of the Mililani Neighborhood Board meetings during her time as a representative.
Fukumoto Chang said it would be dishonest to leave her party immediately after the election.
Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson, her predecessor as House minority leader, switched to the Democratic party less than two months after his 2014 re-election.
“What I have said is that I’m not going to make any guarantees about what party I’m going to be in forever,” said Fukumoto Chang. “I don’t know that anyone could really honestly make that guarantee. I can’t guarantee where the party’s going and at the end of the day, my responsibility is to my constituents and to my district.”