In the wealthy district surrounding the University of Hawaii’s flagship campus, incumbent state Rep. Isaac Choy is facing a Democratic primary challenge from a well-financed political newcomer with a familiar name.

Dale Kobayashi and the UH employees union have both sent out mailers criticizing Choy for what they see as his support for a proposal to convert the abandoned Paradise Park, which used to hold animal exhibits, into the Hawaiian Cultural Center.

The center would include a hula museum, classrooms and gardens. Some residents fear it would overload Manoa with traffic and tourists.

Kobayashi said he organized a movement that successfully delayed the redevelopment, but Choy maintains he would only support the proposal if community concerns were addressed.

The University of Hawaii Professional Assembly doesn’t care for Choy’s stands on university issues, either, and has endorsed Kobayashi. The challenger said Choy is too conservative for his constituency.

“I’ve never been carpet-bombed before but I’m living through that, so that’s pretty interesting,” Choy said. “That just goes with the territory I guess.”

 

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The Manoa Valley is part of House District 23.

Scot Nelson/Flickr

At the beginning of the year, Kobayashi had no campaign cash. As of June 30, donors had contributed $54,500 — more than twice what his opponent raised during that period, financial disclosure records show.

With only the two Democrats running, the Aug. 13 primary will settle the race.

Choy, a certified public accountant who said he believes well-spent taxes are the cornerstone of better government, chairs the House Higher Education committee.

Choy says he’s looking out for students getting shortchanged by university leadership, but critics say he stands in the way of the school getting the financial support it needs from the state.

In the seven years Choy has been in the Legislature, he’s become one of the university’s harshest critics.

In just the past session, Choy introduced 23 bills dealing with UH. He says he’s looking out for students getting shortchanged by university leadership, but critics say he stands in the way of the school getting the financial support it needs from the state.

Knocking off an incumbent is never easy, but Choy’s challenger has no problem with name familiarity. Drive down Manoa’s main streets and you’ll see more lawns sporting Kobayashi’s name than Choy’s.

Kobayashi is the son of Honolulu City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, whose Council district includes all of House District 23.

After spending years on the mainland to build up a career to support his wife and kids, Kobayashi moved back to the nation’s priciest state in 2002. He said he retired from his Morgan Stanley job as a financial adviser to focus on his political career.

It’s his first run for office, but whether the self-described “progressive” wins or loses, he plans to run again in 2018.

A Relatively Well-Off District

House District 23 spans Manoa, Punahou, University and Moiliili. The largest chunk of the district, Manoa, is a quiet, rainy community that’s home to many seniors and families. There’s just one main shopping center in the valley, which has far more residential developments than commercial.

Many neighborhood homes have an eclectic flair in their design and you’ll be hard pressed to find a residence that looks unkempt. But no matter where you are in Manoa, you’re inevitably surrounded by lush mountains stretching into misty clouds.

While 2010 U.S. Census data found 14.5 percent of Honolulu County’s population was age 65 or older, nearly 18 percent of District 23’s population was in that range, according to 2014 census data. Median household income in the district was more than $1,000 higher than the county average, according to the data.

Perhaps the sharpest divide between District 23 and the rest of the island is the population’s level of education. About 20 percent more district residents have received a bachelor’s degree than the county average — likely a testament to the many UH students and faculty members who live in the area.

Ask the typical residents what life is like in District 23 and you may not hear a lot of complaints — maybe some minor grumbling about roads, the unpredictable future of rail and management problems at the “money pit” they call UH. But they like where they live.

Residents who were visiting Manoa Valley District Park last week didn’t have such a rosy view of state politicians, who they said are out to serve their own interests and drag their feet when it comes to addressing concerns of the people.

Even though he’s the incumbent, Choy’s name didn’t resonate with the residents the way Kobayashi’s does. Some said it’s because of all those the signs he has, but most recognize his mother’s surname and laud her years of service on the City Council.

Both candidates had about the same amount of campaign cash on hand as of June, financial disclosure records show, but Choy spent about $5,000 more in the first half of the year.

Kobayashi is active on social media, where he frequently posts photos while campaigning.

Reviving An Old Public Attraction?

Kobayashi said voters often tell him they feel like they are ignored by politicians.

He pointed to the district’s Paradise Park conservation land, where he said the community overwhelmingly opposed the proposed commercial development in a residential area. The area was first developed in the late 1960s and featured animal exhibits, but shut down and has been abandoned for decades.

Local hikers at the Manoa Falls trail – just north of Paradise Park – told Civil Beat last week that bringing more tourists and traffic to the area was something they didn’t want. Many liked the idea of a Hawaiian-themed park, but said they could see why nearby residents would be against further development.

To rally Manoa’s opposition to the development, Kobayashi said he organized the community group Save Manoa Valley. After hearing hours of testimony, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources delayed construction plans.

Paradise Park has been around since the 1960s, Choy said, and he said he’s always supported legal use of the property. He pointed to his 2014 testimony to the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, which was conducting a hearing on the proposal to extend a necessary permit for the developer. In the written testimony, he stated that community concerns must be acknowledged for the project to win his support.

But he also testified that the project had the potential to increase jobs and business activity.

A Disgruntled University Union

Choy maintains the University of Hawaii Manoa has serious oversight and fiscal management problems.

He said he’s hesitant to support giving UH more state money when he isn’t convinced it can be spent efficiently.

UH only supported six of the 23 university-related bills Choy introduced last year. The bills included allowing lawmakers to vote down tuition increases, granting graduate students collective bargaining rights and allotting more resources for sexual assault and harassment victims on all campuses.

Kobayashi said starving the university of resources will impact the academic environment and penalize students and educators who aren’t at fault for past financial mismanagement.

Kobayashi said his focus on big-picture issues rather than university-specific critiques won him the UHPA endorsement.

UHPA Executive Director Kris Hanselman said Kobayashi’s professional skill set will help him deal with financial issues the university faces. She said the union has been “very concerned for a couple of years” about Choy’s legislation and negative comments about the university.

 

State Rep. Isaac Choy listens to testimony during a University of Hawaii budget briefing in 2014.

Rep. Isaac Choy, left, chair of the Higher Education committee, listens to testimony during a UH budget briefing in 2014.

Hanselman said one bill Choy introduced last session would have resulted in less skilled faculty and less money brought in to UH.

That bill died, but it would have forced UH researchers to use their grant money to pay their own salaries. Most universities require researchers to pay part of their salaries with outside funding, the bill said, and UH’s research units like the Cancer Center or Institute of Marine Biology aren’t self-sustainable.

But Hanselman said the consequence of that bill would be that students would suffer from both the lack of quality staff and funding, she said. Sixty-six faculty members who live in District 23 bring in $70 million of funds for research, he said.

Kobayashi would better understand UH’s needs and understand the importance of maintaining relationships, she said.

“We believe that we need change and that Dale … (can) help start turning things around not only for (UHPA’s) members, but for the greater good of the university,” Hanselman said.

UHPA has also sent out mailers that say Choy is “not getting the job done for us” on issues like homelessness, education and Paradise Park.

Choy said UHPA is a special interest group that’s “protect(ing) what they’ve got in the status quo.”

“They endorsed my opponent the last time too,” Choy said, referring to Nathaniel Kinney, who Choy defeated in 2014.

Choy said he’s focused on advocating for the affordability and accessibility of higher education for young people. UHPA doesn’t have those same values at heart, he said.

Helping Vulnerable Seniors

While there’s little violent crime in Manoa, Kobayashi said senior citizens are targeted by scammers who go door to door or use the telephone. He said helping seniors age gracefully and with dignity is a priority.

Choy, too, said he worries for Manoa’s large elderly community, who may have difficulty navigating an emergency situation without help. Properties in Manoa tend to be openly accessible, he said, which also makes the senior population vulnerable to theft and trespassing.

Choy said he supports all bills that develop kupuna resources. Financial literacy education for the elderly in his district is not only important to protect them from falling prey to scammers, he said, but to provide kupuna with information to manage finances as they age.

Based on constituent complaints, Choy said he introduced a bill in 2011 to tighten penalties on burglaries that took place while a resident or guest was home, with the aim of cracking down on thieves who take advantage of the sleeping elderly or disabled.

The bill died, but Choy said he worked to combine it with another bill, which increased penalties for assaulting fire or water safety officers, to increase its likelihood of passing. Gov. David Ige signed the bill into law and created a class B felony for thieves trespassing in the home of the elderly or disabled.

Familiar Name, New Ambition

Kobayashi said he dreamed of working in the political sphere as a teenager, before his mother first ran for office in 1978. While he’s happy to have instant name familiarity, he said he wanted people to recognize his own merits.

He said he’s about “progressive change,” while his mother is more “status quo” and “establishment.”

Hawaii’s cost of living was one major problem that Kobayashi said influenced his decision to run. An increase in the minimum wage could help make housing more affordable, he said. Many island jobs are low-paying ones in the service industry and Kobayashi said diversifying the economy would help local workers.

Kobayashi said he’s walked throughout the district twice and estimated he’s spoken to about three-quarters of voting households.

dale kobayashi manoa signs

Kobayashi signs like these near the mouth of Paradise Park can be spotted throughout Manoa.

Courtney Teague/Civil Beat

In an affluent community like Manoa where residents live comfortably, he didn’t think a message of “change” would wear well with constituents. But he said voters had grown disgruntled with the legislative process and dissatisfied with Choy.

Rail has been especially unpopular in Manoa because local taxpayers say the project won’t benefit them, Kobayashi said.

The failed NextEra Energy-Hawaiian Electric merger was yet another development in which locals felt special interests were trying to buy an outcome over public opposition, Kobayashi said.

Above all, Kobayashi said politicians need to take away power from wealthy special interests and return it to their constituents.

“People don’t really seem to have a say anymore and I believe that’s getting worse and worse,” Kobayashi said. “I see our democracy as deteriorating.”

In addition to the UHPA, Kobayashi has secured endorsements from the LGBT Caucus of the Democratic Party of Hawaii and the Sierra Club of Hawaii.

An asterisk next to Kobayashi’s name in an LGBT Caucus announcement indicated that Choy had either voted against or not shown up to vote on gay rights bills.

Choy didn’t show for the vote on a bill to legalize gay marriage in 2013 and voted against legislation to make it easier for transgender citizens to change their birth certificate gender in 2015. Both bills ultimately became law.

As a representative from a liberal district, Kobayashi said Choy’s abstention from the marriage equality vote and final vote against a bill to establish medical marijuana dispensaries are important issues that voters should be reminded of.

Kobayashi believes “the writing is on the wall” for candidates who ignore public opinion for their own agenda. He said if he wins, other incumbents will turn to each other and ask, “‘Do you wanna end up like Isaac Choy?'”

Several donors gave $1,000 or more to Kobayashi. The UHPA gave the maximum of $2,000.

Kobayashi spent $19,000 and had about $35,000 on hand as of the end of June, just $3,000 less than Choy.

Opposing Gun Control Bills

Choy said many of the problems in his district are shared statewide.

Homelessness in rainy Manoa hasn’t increased much because of the climate and mosquitoes, he said. But his district extends along Beretania Street and he said he knows many of the homeless who live under a nearby freeway bridge.

He helped clean up that homeless site, he said.

Especially in the wake of Tropical Storm Darby, Choy said flood mitigation and disaster preparedness are important. Woodlawn Bridge, located near the community’s central Manoa Marketplace, was flooded from the storm, he said.

In a Facebook post, Choy shared a photo where he ran into incumbent Mayor Kirk Caldwell:

Invasive species that desecrate Hawaii’s local animal and insect populations are another important statewide issue that resonates in Manoa, he said. The coqui frog, which has a piercing screech, poses a threat to native state species. It’s been found in Manoa before.

Many of Choy’s donations were from unions and PACs, financial disclosure forms from January through June 2016 show. During that period, he pulled in roughly $24,500 from donors.

Choy had spent about $24,000 and had just over $38,000 on hand.

Choy’s website lists the Hawaii Government Employees Association, Hawaii State Teachers Association, Hawaii Association of Public Accounts and other unions among his endorsements.

Absent from that list is Choy’s Hawaii Rifle Association endorsement. When asked about it, Choy said it was the first he’d heard of the group’s endorsement, but that he wasn’t against gun control.

Last session, however, he voted against two gun-control measures that became law. One prevented those convicted of stalking and sexual harassment from owning a firearm and another required those diagnosed with “significant” mental disorders to surrender their firearm.

He said both measures were problematic because there was no “due process” to get guns back.

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