In May, Honolulu Councilman Trevor Ozawa asked the Ethics Commission to investigate Misty Kelai, the head of Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s Office of Culture and the Arts. The city office’s official Instagram account had “liked” photos on the account of Friends of Tommy Waters, Ozawa’s political rival.
In 2014, Ozawa had beaten Waters by 41 votes in the race to represent City Council District 4, which stretches from Hawaii Kai to Kapahulu and includes Waikiki. This year the two men, along with community activist Natalie Iwasa, will once again compete in the Aug. 11 primary election.
Members of neighborhood boards in the district report that crime and homelessness are among their top concerns – the same issues that come up across Oahu.
“There’s not a burning issue out here. They’re not partisans running against each other, and so you’ve got two people whose names are well known and who are already kind of politically connected,” said Neal Milner, Hawaii Kai resident and professor of political science at the University of Hawaii Manoa. “That says something about how politics works, you know, politics is not that much policy driven.”
That’s why squabbles between Ozawa and Waters are becoming a focus of the race even though the two agree on a number of policy issues. One key difference between them, however, is political affiliation.
The City Council is nonpartisan, but two factions have emerged since Caldwell took office six years ago: one is friendly to the mayor’s proposals and the other, backed by Council Chair Ernie Martin, is critical.
Iwasa, meanwhile, brings new ideas to the race but a fraction of the funding and none of the high-profile endorsements.
“She’s a grass-roots idea person, idealistic in a good sense,” Milner said. “She becomes maybe the most interesting candidate. But interesting doesn’t mean she’s necessarily the most likely.”
Political rookie Ricky Marumoto is also in the race but he hasn’t been campaigning aggressively.
Local political heavyweights are throwing their support behind either Ozawa or Waters along the faction lines.
Charles Djou, a former Hawaii Republican congressman who narrowly lost to Caldwell in the 2016 mayoral election, is endorsing Ozawa and other candidates who seem to fall in line with the Martin bloc of the council.
The Friends of Caldwell gave Waters’ campaign $4,000, the maximum amount a Honolulu council candidate can receive. Lex Smith, Caldwell’s campaign chair, said the money is from a fundraiser but declined to explain why the Friends of Caldwell supports Waters.
“I don’t know,” Smith said. “I don’t think it’s a big deal.”
Councilman Joey Manahan of Kalihi, a Caldwell ally, gave Waters $500. He also declined to explain why he supports Waters.
Councilman Ikaika Anderson of Windward Oahu, who is eyeing the 2020 mayoral race, was open about his support.
“Tommy Waters has been a friend of mine for 16-plus years,” he said. “When my friends run for political office, I support my friends. That pretty much sums it up.”
Both Ozawa and Waters reject the idea that they belong to a council faction. But each criticizes the other for being in a faction.
“He’s aligned himself with the Caldwell bloc very clearly,” Ozawa said. “I would not believe that he would be an independent voice for the community. That’s what this election really is about.”
Waters says the factional bickering makes the council dysfunctional. He said he would neither align with a group on the council nor be a rubber stamp for the mayor.
“The council has a duty to review the mayor’s proposals and they should,” he said. “But if they’re just doing it because of personality clashes, then that’s wrong.”
The endorsements Waters gets from construction unions will make him a pawn for special interests, Ozawa says.
For his part, Waters says the money Ozawa gets from developers and large businesses will have the same effect on him.
Iwasa has raised $15,000 and only accepts funding from individuals and small businesses.
“I don’t want to feel like I have an obligation. I don’t want there to be like this reciprocal feeling there that, ‘Oh, well, I’ve given you a donation and so now you need to do something for me.’ People, I think in general, are already concerned about that, the pay to play aspect in government. I think we need to move away from that,” she said.
Ozawa and Waters are using campaign tactics typical in Hawaii politics: they mail flyers, their names are seen stretched across glossy posters along Kalanianaole Highway, they get up early to sign wave and go again as people are driving home from work.
In what she calls a “community changing campaign,” Iwasa and her supporters are doing community service projects around the district. They’ve cleaned out planters on Waialae Avenue, pulled invasive algae out of coral in Waikiki and cleared trash from an empty lot along Kapahulu Avenue.
Marumoto, who works full time at Honolulu Country Club, hasn’t raised money. Campaigning for him consists mostly of filling out questionnaires and talking to local media outlets.
As an incumbent, Ozawa can rely on name recognition and a clear legislative track record.
In his four years on the council he secured $1 million to save Kanewai Spring in Kuliouou from development. He also pushed a bill that requires businesses to install baby changing stations in both male and female restrooms.
More recently, he introduced legislation to slow the trend of so-called “monster homes” – massive concrete homes built in residential communities and thought to be used as apartments. The structures have infuriated District 4 residents in recent months.
Ozawa can also rely on relationships he’s developed with constituents.
East Honolulu resident Daniel Harris-McCoy said he reached out to Ozawa when the city “wildly overvalued” his home in a property tax assessment. Ozawa helped him contest the city’s assessment, Harris-McCoy said.
“I’m not saying I support him because he saved us a ton of money,” Harris-McCoy said. “He was helpful and efficient, and he dealt with it in a classy way.”
These individual interactions matter, especially when 41 votes can determine a race.
Waters is critical of Ozawa’s recent vote in favor of a bill that would have capped how much Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing companies can charge customers, a rule meant to help taxi companies stay afloat. The measure passed the council but the mayor vetoed it.
Waters, a former state representative, wants the city to invest more of its resources in building affordable housing. He supports the strategies already being deployed by the Caldwell administration, including using public land for housing as well as waiving permitting fees and other requirements for developers.
People who hang around Honolulu Hale probably know Iwasa. It’s possible she’s been to more City Council meetings than either Ozawa or Waters.
An accountant with a private practice and mother of two, Iwasa’s interest in local government stems from a 2003 battle over the protection of farmland in Kamilo Nui Valley. She has regularly attended monthly council meetings and budget committee meetings for almost 15 years.
“The more I went the more I wanted to learn, so then I went even more,” she said. “I go because I feel like it’s important for me to understand what is happening. I feel like I can provide valuable input on certain issues.”
A critic of government spending and the city’s $9 billion rail project, Iwasa thinks the rail line should stop at Middle Street rather than going all the way to Ala Moana Shopping Center. She also wants taxpayer dollars to stop going toward the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation’s public information budget, which she says is used on trade shows and promotional activities rather than disseminating useful information to the public.
She also challenges the use of the general excise tax to fund rail. Many tax experts see the GET as regressive and especially burdensome to low-income people. The council in 2017 passed a resolution supporting the use of the GET to complete rail. The measure passed 7-0; Ozawa and Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi were absent for the vote.
Even if they’re innovative, it’s hard to sell wonky ideas to a constituency that doesn’t pay much attention to local elections.
“She has a real difficult problem in this district because the district is so big. She doesn’t ride her bike around Waikiki, she doesn’t have a presence in Kahala the way she does from Hawaii Kai to Niu (Valley) to Aina Hina, so she’s hamstrung,” said Kahala resident and Civil Beat columnist Ian Lind.
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