In March, something unexpected happened. State Rep. Derek Kawakami gave up his secure spot in the House after a five-year stint and decided to run for the Kauai County Council.
The rare open seat has spurred a three-way race to represent District 14, which runs from Wailua on the east side through Hanalei on the north shore.
The Aug. 13 Democratic primary pits Nadine Nakamura, a 54-year-old former councilwoman and managing director under Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr., against Fern Anuenue Rosenstiel, a 32-year-old environmentalist who led the charge to establish buffer zones around areas where biotech companies that grow genetically engineered seed crops spray pesticides.
The winner will face Republican Sandi Combs in the Nov. 8 general election.
In a sense, this state contest is a microcosm of the presidential race. Rosenstiel was a Kauai delegate for Bernie Sanders at the state convention in Honolulu whereas Nakamura is more of an establishment Democrat like Hillary Clinton. Combs served as a delegate for Donald Trump at the national convention in Cleveland.
Nakamura, whose background is in land-use planning, said she built a successful consulting company for 20 years before deciding she wanted to do something different. She won her first bid for a Council seat in 2010 and was reelected in 2012 before Carvalho appointed her managing director a year later.
“My background with county government and my experience in the public and private sectors is a good thing for this island,” Nakamura said, adding that she was also vice chair of both the Hawaii Tourism Authority and Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp.
“I have a good understanding of this community, and I have the desire to improve the community in which we live,” she said. “That’s why I’m running, I hope I have the chance to contribute.”
Rosenstiel, who has three environmental science degrees, wants to go translate her activism into politics, and is making her first run for elected office.
“Politics can be an effective avenue to create meaningful change that affects the community,” she said, explaining why she wanted to enter the “crazy world of politics.”
Rosenstiel said she’s particularly discouraged about the lack of public involvement in government, which is part of the reason she decided to seek office.
“There’s an illegal overthrow history that clouds the veil of trust that people have with the government,” she said, referring to the United States takeover of the Kingdom of Hawaii in the 1890s.
That distrust in the system, she said, contributes to the lack of competition in races for elected office. Kawakami ran unopposed in the primaries in 2012 and 2014.
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There are 65 seats up for election this year in the 76-member Legislature, including the entire House and roughly half the Senate.
Sixteen members of the Legislature are unopposed this year, including some of the most influential lawmakers, like House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke, Majority Leader Scott Saiki and Senate Judiciary and Labor Chair Gil Keith-Agaran.
“There’s no choices,” Rosenstiel said. “I realized that our generation needs to step up.”
Working at the county level, Nakamura said she got a better understanding of the areas where the counties really rely on the state and areas where the levels of government can do a better job of collaborating to utilize resources.
“That intersection is what I’m really interested in,” she said.
As an example, Nakamura said there’s a need for better collaboration between the county and state to address limited parking at Haena State Park. She envisions a shuttle system that takes visitors and locals from Hanalei — or even from towns farther away such as Kilauea or Princeville — to the end of the road at Haena.
“It’s a situation in which we’re not going to build our way out of it,” she said. “We have to think outside the box. We want to preserve the rural character, so I think it’s in all our interests to bring our resources to the table, with the visitor industry and community, to solve this problem.”
Nakamura sees similar solutions involving multiple levels of government in addressing drug addiction, protecting natural resources and creating more affordable housing.
Rosenstiel said she sees many of the biggest problems facing the district and the state as interconnected.
“Drug abuse and addiction is related to affordable housing and homelessness and crime,” she said. “We need to address all these social issues as a comprehensive whole.”
Nakamura has raised nearly four times as much money for her campaign as Rosenstiel and from a broader pool of supporters. She had hauled in $33,381 as of June 30, compared to Rosenstiel’s $8,585.
Mina Morita, who held the District 14 seat before Kawakami, donated $250 to Nakamura’s campaign in May, as did Jay Furfaro, the former council chair. Democratic Party officials past and present contributed money and she received $1,000 from developer Jeff Stone.
Rosenstiel received $1,000 from Kim Coco Iwamoto, a retired lawyer and former state Board of Education member. Iwamoto is also a candidate for state Senate running in the Democratic primary against Keone Nakoa and Karl Rhoads.
Actor Pierce Brosnan’s family, who lives on the north shore, donated $1,000 to Rosenstiel, and ecological activist Jeffrey Bronfman, who lives in New Mexico, contributed $2,000.
Nakamura isn’t spending too much more than Rosenstiel though — $7,124 compared to Rosenstiel’s $5,163 over the past six months.
Both plan to continue sign-waving and campaigning hard until the primary. Neither had anything negative to say about the other when asked why voters should choose one over the other.
“I’m just a Kauai girl,” Rosenstiel said, noting she was born and raised and works in the district. “I connect very well to the issues, and am committed to addressing the things that our community needs addressed.”
The district’s population is 22,581 people, according to the state Office of Planning. The median household income is $57,131, slightly less than the other two House districts that represent Kauai.
Nakamura grew up on Oahu and married a man from Kauai who said it would be great to retire where he grew up.
“It didn’t quite work out that way,” she said.
They moved to Kauai right after Hurricane Iniki hit in 1992 and things haven’t slowed down since her first 45 days on the island without electricity.
Nakamura said she was able to contribute a lot as a planner, including to the Kauai General Plan update and before that the Honolulu rail transit plan under former Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi. But there are certain things at the policy level that she feels she’d be best able to address in elected office.
During her time on the council, Nakamura pushed through an anti-nepotism policy in the council rules.
“I thought it was important in county government,” she said.
Nakamura isn’t sure about trying the same thing at the state level though. She said before she stepped down as managing director last month so she could focus on her campaign, all the county department heads gave her their priorities should she be elected.
For Nakamura, the top priority is traffic on the east side. She said the state must partner with the county to create shuttles that serve the north shore and east side, in addition to the state’s plans to add a southbound lane fronting Coco Palms and a northern lane along the Kapaa Bypass Road.
Rosenstiel said she feels like she’s going up against a 100-year-old paradigm, trying to break into the good ol’ boy system. But she said the times do seem to be changing, and she’d be most effective being part of that change by serving in the Legislature.
“The issues that I’m most passionate about — be it funding our education system, fixing our infrastructure, preserving our environment — the real meaningful control is coming from the state level,” Rosenstiel said.
That includes government transparency and accountability, she said. She said her lack of experience in elected office can be a strength in that she’s not beholden to anyone and owes no favors.