Six months ago, veteran Hawaii politician Charles Djou gained national attention with his announcement that he was no longer a Republican because of his disagreements with the direction of the party under President Donald Trump.

Now he has turned his focus to the Honolulu City Council races.

Djou is helping Honolulu City Council candidate Heidi Tsuneyoshi in her bid to replace term-limited Council Chair Ernie Martin representing Oahu’s North Shore. Anyone who signs up for email updates from Tsuneyoshi’s campaign will receive an email from Djou’s email address, thanking them for signing up.

“I have no official title or role beyond enthusiastic volunteer,” said Djou, a former congressman and City Council member who ran unsuccessfully for mayor against Kirk Caldwell in 2016.  “I have endorsed, supported other candidates running for City Council as well as other races. But none I’m involved in probably as much as I’m involved in Heidi’s campaign.”

From left, Council Chair Ernie Martin, Charles Djou, and council members Ann Kobayashi and Trevor Ozawa at the Djou campaign headquarters during his unsuccessful 2016 mayoral bid. Djou is backing Ozawa, who is up for re-election this year, and Martin staffer Heidi Tsuneyoshi in their City Council races. Djou for Mayor

Djou also supports incumbent Councilman Trevor Ozawa of east Honolulu. And he is backing Kelly Kitashima in her race against incumbent Councilman Brandon Elefante to represent Pearl City, Waipahu and nearby communities. 

Tsuneyoshi works as a senior advisor in the office of Martin, who is Caldwell’s chief  critic on the council.  She and Djou align on their fiscally conservative approach to running city government, Tsuneyoshi said. 

She’s up against former state Senate President Robert “Bobby” Bunda, as well as Choon James and Dave Burlew in the race for Oahu’s largest council district.

Former Congressman Charles Djou is backing Heidi Tsuneyoshi, who worked for eight years in Honolulu City Council Chairman Ernie Martin’s office. Tracy Wright Corvo

“The city has been plagued and troubled by I think a lot of  mismanagement and fiscal irresponsibility. I am confident Heidi will be somebody who will rein in a lot of that mismanagement,” Djou said. 

Ozawa, who supported Djou in his 2016 mayoral campaign, belongs to a faction on the council that tends to be critical of Caldwell’s proposals, particularly on rail and tax or fee increases.

By contrast, Elefante — Kitashima’s opponent — is considered an ally of the Honolulu mayor.

The fourth council election this year is in District 6, where incumbent Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga faces three challengers to represent downtown Honolulu, Chinatown and neighborhoods stretching from Makiki to Aiea. Fukanaga has also opposed many of Caldwell’s policies. 

“I’m not active with Carol’s campaign, not because I don’t like her, it’s more she hasn’t specifically, unlike the other candidates, asked for my support or activity. But I like Carol,” Djou said.

Djou would be helped having a council filled with friendly politicians should he run for mayor in the future, said Colin Moore, director of the University of Hawaii Public Policy Center and a professor at UH Manoa. 

But Djou said to characterize his support for Tsuneyoshi as a power play should he run for mayor “would be a misrepresentation and incorrect,” Djou said. “I am supporting Heidi Tsuneyoshi because I think she is a good person, I think she has a heart for the community.”

Djou said he has no plans to run for mayor in 2020, adding, “in either case, it is way too early to be talking about the 2020 election.”

Djou criticized the city’s over-budget rail project and stressed the importance of reining in the budget in his 2016 mayoral bid, which he lost to Caldwell by about 12,000 votes.

Tsuneyoshi said she and Djou aren’t talking about campaign strategy. Instead, Djou is helping her with communication, “just helping with getting emails together, just responding to emails and stuff like that,” she said. 

Djou announced that he was leaving the Republican Party in a Civil Beat column in March that was harshly critical of Trump. “I am most disappointed by the failure of the GOP to clearly and consistently condemn Trump’s childish behavior,” he wrote.  

Moore said that Djou’s endorsement matters even though the council elections are nonpartisan. “He’s still probably the best known conservative in the state,” Moore said. 

“It’s going to be a really powerful signal to voters, if they know Charles Djou is backing someone then they know well, ‘if I’m more conservative this is probably my candidate,’” Moore said.

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