HILO, Hawaii Island – Eight of nine Hawaii County Council races were decided in Saturday’s primary election, with lava-ravaged Puna getting two freshmen lawmakers expected to help implement what could become the largest disaster-related relief effort in state history.
With two incumbents running unopposed and only a pair of candidates competing in each of four other contests, avoiding a general election runoff was a virtual certainty for a majority of this year’s council races.
In the lone undecided council race, South Kona voters will pick between Rebecca Villegas, a marketing and event coordinator, and Kelly Drysdale, who works as director of logistics for a local coffee company. They emerged as the frontrunners in what was a four-way race for the open 7th District seat.
Likely the most-watched council race pitted one-term Lower Puna Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara against Ashley Kierkiewicz, a public relations executive whose inaugural campaign drew backing from both organized labor and the business community.
“It takes guts to go up against an incumbent,” said Kierkiewicz, who finished with 2,545 votes to O’Hara’s 1,674 votes.
Kierkiewicz attributed her 4th District victory to running an “aloha-driven campaign” that focused on the need for “effective leadership.”
O’Hara hurt her chances at re-election by making unsubstantiated theft allegations against the all-volunteer operators of Puuhonua o Puna Information and Supply Hub, an effort Kierkiewicz helped start to aid victims of the Kilauea volcano eruption.
In the 5th District for the vacant Upper Puna seat, Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder, a solar electrician, defeated fellow political newcomer Frederic “Ric” Wirick, a businessman and farmer, by a wide margin of 2,223 votes to 959 votes.
“I have a lot to learn,” Kanealii-Kleinfelder said of his first venture into politics.
He won the seat held for the past two-year term by Jen Ruggles, who unexpectedly dropped out of the race for unstated reasons and then chose not to endorse either candidate. Ruggles still received 443 votes, however, because her departure came after ballots had been printed.
“He’s obviously a very hard worker,” Ruggles said of her successor, adding she was very uncertain of the election outcome.
Kanealii-Kleinfelder and Kierkiewicz, along with the two candidates remaining in the South Kona race, have equivalent skill sets as the outgoing officeholders, said Chairwoman Valerie Poindexter, who easily won her 1st District Hamakua seat against a candidate with little name recognition.
“I don’t think it’s much different from our past council makeup,” said Poindexter, who is willing to continue serving as chair, but is unsure who will emerge as the council’s leader.
“I think we’re moving forward and upward,” she said.
Regardless of leadership roles, all council members will face several major issues in the coming term.
“Everything takes a back seat to the Puna situation right now,” returning Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung said of the months-long disaster that has destroyed more than 700 homes, displaced thousands of residents, and crippled the district’s agricultural and tourism industries.
Chung easily won re-election to a seventh term, garnering 75 percent of the votes cast in a two-person race. Chung served for eight consecutive years before term limits forced him to leave office. After a decade out of office, he returned in 2014 and has since been the council’s most-experienced member.
“Unless we have a huge infusion of money from the state, we’re going to be in a rough spot,” he said.
That process will ramp up Monday, when Mayor Harry Kim is scheduled to meet with senior legislative leaders, including state House Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke, to request $550 million in disaster relief. State Sen. Russell Ruderman, who plans on attending, said he expects a battle.
If passed, the aid package would become the largest disaster-relief appropriation in state history. By comparison, Kauai County received $100 million earlier this year to repair that island’s massive flooding damage.
The incoming County Council’s focus will be on helping disaster victims and issues relating to vacation rentals, said Poindexter, who has been told of the finance meeting, but as of Sunday morning was still awaiting confirmation that she’s invited.
“It’s all tied to housing right now,” Poindexter said of council priorities that include addressing the homeless problem.
Also on the council’s plate will be improving public safety, which was a growing public concern even before last month’s shooting death of police Officer Bronson Kaliloa.
“People want to be safe in their homes,” Kanealii-Kleinfelder said, noting a woman constituent recently approached him to emphasize that point by stating she feels unsafe at home.
Kierkiewicz also said combating drugs and crime will be a priority, while Ruggles said implementing the county’s $750,000 plan for improving its public bus system should also be a key issue for the council to address.
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Jason Armstrong has reported extensively for both of Hawaii Island’s daily newspapers. He was a public information officer/grant writer for the Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation from 2012 to 2016 and has lived in Hilo since 1987. Email Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org