In an interview with a Civil Beat reporter in mid-July, Hawaii County mayoral candidate Wally Lau brought along a guest: his lawyer.

As Lau talked about his vision for the Big Island, sitting in his air-conditioned campaign headquarters at the Hilo Iron Works Building, attorney Stanley Roehrig listened intently and made notes on a yellow legal pad.

Roehrig’s presence underscored the drama around an inescapable issue in the contest to replace Mayor Billy Kenoi: the incumbent’s indictment on several counts, including felony theft stemming from his alleged misused of a county-issued purchasing card.

Kenoi is accused of using the pCard, as it is called, for personal expenses such as buying a surfboard and bicycle and paying tabs at hostess bars.

Hawaii Island Mayoral Forum Wally Lau. 14 july 2016
Wally Lau at a candidates forum at Sangha Hall in Hilo on July 14. Formerly managing director under Mayor Billy Kenoi, Lau believes he excels at bringing people together to address community issues. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Lau, who served as Kenoi’s deputy managing director and then managing director, resigned in January to focus on his own mayoral run. But Lau retains Roehrig’s counsel because Kenoi’s legal battles continue and Lau thinks he has to be careful what he says to the media.

“He testified under oath to the attorney general and nobody knows how it’s going to shake out,” Roehrig explained. “And we don’t want to have the front page of the newspaper say, ‘Oh, Wally Lau said this or Wally Lau said that,’ because we respect the attorney general’s process, the investigation and we do not want to get involved in that.”

Lau was asked if the issue of the pCard is much of a factor in the mayor’s race.

“I think the whole aspect of integrity and trust is a legitimate concern of anybody,” he said. “I don’t hear it that much on the campaign trail because I think there are many other issues that people are equally concerned about.”

Hawaii island Mayoral Forum Harry Kim at Sangha Hall, Hilo, Hawaii. 14 july 2016
Harry Kim, who was mayor from 2000 to 2008, at the Sangha Hall forum. He wants his old job back. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Those issues, Lau said, include homelessness and the economy.

“And so we have got to have integrity and honesty when we are dealing with the homeless situation or the economy,” he said.

Hawaii Elections Guide 2016

Harry Kim, who is considered Lau’s main opponent, said that homelessness and the economy are very much top priorities of his, too. But trust in government is also on the minds of voters.

“When you have people like that, and they read about your government spending this way, even if it’s legal, it takes away something about your government,” Kim said, referring to Kenoi’s alleged use of a pCard. “‘We put you there to help me and this is how you spend my money?’”

During his eight years as mayor, Kim said, he was very careful with expenses and he intends to be that way again should he be returned to office.

“Government sets a role in regards to values and I am trying to live that,” he said.

Runoff In November?

Kenoi, who is term-limited from seeking re-election, was seen as a rising star in the state Democratic Party until his indictment.

Despite his pending trial in October and a county Board of Ethics complaint, Kenoi remains popular. He casts a shadow over the election to replace him, like a canopy of trees in a Big Island forest.

Hilo Hawaii Waiakea Forest HIlo Forest1. 15 july 2016
Hilo, on the east side of the island, is the seat of government and thus the locus of power. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Kim is Kenoi’s former mentor and boss, the man who preceded Kenoi in office and the man who nearly defeated Kenoi in 2012, when Kim challenged the mayor directly.

As with the Honolulu mayor’s race, unless one candidate wins 50 percent of the vote plus one in the Aug. 13 primary, the top two finishers advance to a general election runoff.

“I think the whole aspect of integrity and trust is a legitimate concern of anybody.” — Wally Lau

That’s what happened to Kenoi and Kim four years ago. Kenoi garnered 49.8 percent in the general election to Kim’s 47.6 percent — a difference of 1,438 votes.

This year, Lau and Kim could be heading toward a Nov. 8 runoff. With 13 candidates in the primary, it will be difficult for one to win a majority of the votes cast.

Just last week, longtime Hilo pollster George Yokoyama said Kim was leading Lau by double digits. It was conducted by mail and the results weren’t released, but Yokoyama predicted a runoff.

Lau has raised far more money than Kim and the other 11 mayoral candidates.

At a candidates forum July 14 at Sangha Hall in Hilo sponsored by the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce, the Big Island Press Club and other groups, Lau’s supporters sported purple and gold T-shirts.

Kailua Kona, Hawaii. 2 july 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Some say that Kailua-Kona, on the west side of the island, has received more attention under Kenoi’s administration than it had in the past. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

There are other viable candidates, such as former Hawaii County Councilman Pete Hoffman and Marlene Hapai, an educator and a former regent of the University of Hawaii.

Both participated in the July 14 forum and all four have been featured at other forums around the island, sometimes with other candidates in the field (Wendell Kaehuaea, Daniel Howard Cunningham, Helen Olena Luta, Paul Bryant, Alvin Akin Jr., Shannon K.K. McCandless, Gene Tamashiro, Eric Drake Weinert and Timothy Waugh).

The race for mayor of Hawaii County is not just about Kenoi, homelessness and the economy. There are many pressing issues, including roads, agriculture, telescopes, Mauna Kea and renewable energy.

As Lau said, voters on the campaign trail aren’t asking much about pCards.

But it’s not a coincidence that Hoffman, who is said to have the best chance besides Lau and Kim of making it to the runoff, lists “integrity” and regaining “the voters’ trust in government” among his priorities on his campaign website. Kim’s website says he will “never betray” voter trust and “will do what is right by law.”

The Big Island Is Big

Hawaii County is larger than all the other counties combined, and it is divided into at least seven distinct regions.

Politically, the island has generally been considered as having an east side (concentrated in the county seat of Hilo) and the west side (where Kailua-Kona dominates).

Hawaii island Mayoral Forum Marlene Hapai at Sangha Hall. Hilo, Hawaii. 14 july 2016
Marlene Hapai is a former University of Hawaii regent. She has been active in mobilizing community preparedness for public health and safety. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In recent years, the Puna district south of Hilo (geographically about the size of Oahu) has seen the bulk of the population growth. Puna, Kona and Hilo have about 50,000 residents each, with the island’s total population nearing 200,000.

Few know the Big Island better than Kim, 76. In addition to his two terms as mayor (2000-2008), he spent the previous 24 years as head of Civil Defense. Kim was often in the news, especially when lava wiped out Kalapana.

“Government sets a role in regards to values, and I am trying to live that.” — Harry Kim

Kim’s parents were born and raised in Korea and they came to the islands to work the sugar plantations. Kim served as a U.S. Army medic during the Vietnam War. In addition to his government service, he has worked as a coach and teacher and ran the Keaau Kim Chee business with his mother.

Kim asks voters to look at his record over the past 40 years. He believes it shows that he is a no-nonsense leader who is not beholden to political parties. The mayor’s race is nonpartisan, but the union-linked Democratic Party is still a powerful force.

Kim said his top goal is to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots. But one criticism of his time as mayor is that he more than doubled the county’s operating budget to well over $400 million, a criticism he feels is unfair.

“I am very proud of what we did,” he said.

Another concern is Kim’s health. He has had three heart attacks. He said his heart is “normal” and that there has been no lasting negative impact from the heart attacks.

“I feel better than I felt in 30 years and that’s the truth,” he said during an interview at the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel cafe that looks out on Hilo Bay.

Bringing Everyone To The Table

Lau, 67, was born and raised in Honolulu, but his ancestors are from the Big Island, in Naalehu and Keauhou.

Prior to government work, he was employed at a residential treatment center for children at the Salvation Army, served as director of alternative education for Kamehameha Schools and was executive director of the Neighborhood Place of Kona, a nonprofit focused on prevention of child abuse and neglect as well as the strengthening of families.

Hawaii island Mayoral Forum Peter Hoffmann. Sangha Hall. Hilo Hawaii. 15 july 2016
Pete Hoffman served eight years on the Hawaii County Council. He wants the island to finally develop diversified agriculture, which he says can help create careers, not just jobs. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Lau, who lives on the west side, said he believes that he did a good job working under Kenoi to effect a “balanced” administration that considered the needs of both sides of the island. What the Kenoi administration did for the west side, Lau said, was “long overdue.”

Major accomplishments, said Lau, include completion and extension of the two-lane Ane Keohokalole Highway, known as the “mid-level road” and running from Kealakehe Parkway to Hina-Lani Street near Kailua-Kona. Traffic congestion, especially on Highway 11, which runs parallel to the north-south midlevel road closer to the coast, has been a chronic frustration.

“I think our effort in the next four years shouldn’t be to fill potholes but to fill stomachs, especially children’s” — Pete Hoffman

Lau said he excels at bringing people together to hash out problems and reach solutions. The collaborative, everyone-at-the-table style is ingrained in him, a “hooponopono” approach rooted in Hawaiian values.

“I think it’s part of my DNA, when I look back now,” he said, adding that it may be “a little God-given talent. … I always say, ‘I’ll be a good listener.’ My mom always say, ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood.’ Understand where the other person is coming from.”

During Kim’s eight years as mayor, Lau said he had very limited interaction with him and saw Kim only once on the west side, when Lau convened a meeting with officials and his nonprofit.

“He just sat there quietly and didn’t really participate,” Lau said.

Feeding Kids And Being Safe

Hoffman, the former Council member, said he believes the island has “missed the boat” when it comes to diversifying agriculture. If elected mayor, he’d like to dedicate staff to research and development.

“We could be the breadbasket of the state instead of importing 80 percent to 90 percent of our food,” he said.

And, while he gives the Kenoi administration credit for fixing park facilities and roads, generating more food would solve another problem facing the county.

“I think our effort in the next four years shouldn’t be to fill potholes but to fill stomachs, especially children’s,” Hoffman said. “All too many go home on Friday afternoon and do not have a nutritious meal until they go back to school Monday.”

Hoffman, 75, spent 28 years in the Army, including 25 months in Vietnam. He retired at the rank of colonel and lives in Waikoloa on the west side, where he is active in community arts and the Catholic church.

Experience in the military, Hoffman said, is a good fit with running the Big Island.

Banyan Drive Hilo Hawaii road. 15 july 2016
Several candidates for mayor describe Banyan Drive in Hilo as ripe for development to generate revenue. But the leased land is controlled by the state, not the county. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

“I think it’s fundamental to a chief executive in any endeavor — business, government or otherwise — to have the discipline and leadership that you receive on a constant basis in the military,” he said. “That is the way you conduct business. How to select the best people, how to listen to all sides, how not to be afraid to make a decision and how to stand up and take the blame if it goes wrong.”

For Hapai, the former UH regent, administrator and educator (she holds a Ph.D. and has taught science and biology), the priorities are health, safety and emergency preparedness.

In her campaign, she has emphasized the need for sufficient road connectivity in case of natural disasters. Much of Hapai’s recent work has been as a volunteer on Puna Community Development Plan Action Committee, which she cites as a model for other communities and even for county government.

“Hawaii Island is No. 1 where the most natural hazards can occur, and in many areas there is only one way in and one way out,” she said.

Lessons Of The pCard

A resident of Kurtistown in Puna, Hapai, 67, has also lived and worked in the Honokaa, Kona, Kohala, Hamakua and Hilo districts, which she said has given her a thorough understanding of issues in each region.

She currently manages the Andrade Building in Honokaa, which was built by her grandparents in 1924 and is active in the Hawaii Island Portuguese Chamber of Commerce.

As a regent, Hapai helped manage a $1.2 billion budget. She’d like for the county to apply for more federal grant money, a process she has experience with.

Hawaii Mayor Billy Kenoi share Big Island priorities with state lawmakers.
Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi was prevented by term limits from seeking re-election, but the scandal seems to have short-circuited his other political ambitions, at least for now. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Like other candidates for mayor, Hapai acknowledges the legal and ethical troubles of Kenoi.

“A lot of people are waiting for resolution, but Billy has done a lot of good things,” she said. “People appreciate that. But we all have to realize that when you are in a top post, everyone looks at you. You are the role model.”

Still, Hapai is cautious to not have the mayor tried in the media.

“A lot of people are waiting for resolution, but Billy has done a lot of good things.” — Marlene Hapai

“He has not been proven guilty yet, in all fairness,” she said.

But there is a lesson to be learned for leaders in county government, one she took from her own days when she was issued a pCard at UH.

“I think the pCard has gone from what it was supposed to serve — if you need to purchase something quickly and not go through the whole UH process — and just gotten out of hand,” said Hapai. “It should go back to its original purpose, which is to expedite everyday office purchase. No personal purchases unless there is an emergency.”

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