Envelopes sent with no return address arrived at homes across north Oahu this summer. Inside were flyers criticizing the political record of Robert “Bobby” Bunda, one of four candidates in the Honolulu City Council District 2 race.

Dave Burlew, a Kahuku farmer also running for the seat, was shocked to receive one of these letters and even more surprised to find “VOTE DAVE BURLEW FOR CITY COUNCIL!!” at the bottom of the flyer along with his P.O. box number.

That’s when it got ugly,” Burlew said.

Burlew said he does not know who is responsible for the flyers. Heidi Tsuneyoshi and Choon James, the two other candidates in the race, also say they have no knowledge of where the letters come from.

“None of this stuff is true,” said Bunda, who served for almost three decades in the Legislature. “I’ve never been in a campaign where candidates would use this kind of tactic to smear somebody.”

Residents said the nasty campaign has taken attention away from issues that plague their district, which runs across the North Shore east to Kaaawa and covers parts of central Oahu to Mililani Mauka.

Signs for political candidates surround a much older anti-development poster on the Kamehameha Highway on the North Shore. Natanya Freidheim/Civil Beat

“I really don’t like the mudslinging,” said Wahiawa resident Alesia Au. “It’s really uncalled for.”

Au has seen campaign posters defaced. James said many of her signs, including those posted on her friend’s private property, were removed.

Meanwhile, tree roots are ripping up sidewalks in Au’s hometown of Wahiawa. The pool and field lights at Waialua District Park don’t work and a pipe just burst under the pool, said North Shore Neighborhood Board Chair Kathleen Pahinui.

Investors continue to gobble up property along Oahu’s magnificent north and eastern coastlines, turning homes into short-term vacation rentals and exacerbating the island’s housing shortage.

Council Chair Ernie Martin is term-limited out of his post and now running for Congress.

Dave Burlew is a Kahuku farmer and City Council candidate. Dave Burlew

“We have pretty much a split in the middle, two people who are similar like me and Choon … then you’ve got the others who who are more mainstream and status quo candidates with the big money,” said Burlew, whose platform focuses on preserving the district’s vast agricultural lands.

Tsuneyoshi, Martin’s legislative aide, is running for office for the first time. She’s frequented neighborhood board meetings on behalf of Martin and said she wants to focus on making the district affordable so residents don’t feel pressure to move to the mainland.

“The most troubling part that I’ve seen in city government is that they look to the taxpayer as a line of credit, which really shouldn’t happen,” Tsuneyoshi said. “Every time you run out of money at the city, you’re looking to increase taxes on the people.”

James, a real estate broker, has frequented City Council Budget Committee meetings for a decade. She’s urged council members to scrutinize the budget for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, the agency building the city’s $9 billion rail project (the original price tag was closer to $3 billion).

“The handwriting is on the wall that it’s going to spill into property tax increases,” she said.

Can Locals Afford Koolauloa?

In the cafeteria of Laie Elementary School, Maelani Valentine and her daughter Jamie chowed down on beef stew, rice, mac salad and greens served up for free by Tsuneyoshi’s campaign. The Valentines were among about 50 people attending one of Tsuneyoshi’s events that have been held across the district.

The Valentines have friends who rent units in their homes through Airbnb. “It’s the only way they can make their mortgage,” Maelani Valentine said. But she and her daughter agree the city needs to regulate vacation rentals.

Despite working for Martin, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s political rival, Tsuneyoshi supports rules Caldwell introduced last week that would limit the number of transient vacation rentals marketed by absentee owners.

A plethora of short-term North Shore vacation rentals can be found on various websites.  Screenshot

Homeowners on the North Shore and in the Koolauloa region, which stretches from Kahaluu down to Kaawa, saw the assessed values of their property jump 12 percent to 13.4 percent last year, according to the Star Advertiser.

After testifying during WAM hearing Choon James tosses a hand full of dollar bills into the air at the Capitol auditorium.
Choon James tosses money after testifying at a 2017 legislative hearing about the cost of rail. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

James and Tsuneyoshi both want to cap the amount of property taxes the city can collect from owner-occupied homes where the current owner has lived for a certain number of years.

James also wants the city to offer tax incentives to homeowners to rent long-term and she wants the city to require developers to build more affordable housing units.

“We shouldn’t kowtow to the developers,” she said. “Residents are now competing against essentially billionaire tycoons.”

Feeling ‘Trapped’

Traffic jams at Laniakea Beach northwest of Haleiwa may be mostly made up of tourists, but locals can’t avoid them either. Drivers have no option but to wait as tourists park in a city-owned lot and dash across Kamehameha Highway to see an area known as a turtle gathering spot.

The issue comes up year after year with studies and heated community meetings. There are still no solutions.

“We don’t need to study it: Cars stop there and there’s traffic,” said Burlew. “Some of us who live up here feel trapped. We just don’t go out on weekends. If we do we know we’re just going to sit in traffic.”

Traffic along Oahu’s North Shore near Laniakea Beach has long frustrated residents. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

He and Bunda have both proposed building a bypass lane that would go around the impasse and reconnect to Kamehameha Highway to alleviate traffic at Laniakea beach. Burlew wants to add bus lines that run exclusively in Koolauloa, and improved bike lanes. 

Bunda cites traffic congestion and homelessness as two of the biggest issues his district faces. On a topic that City Council candidates usually don’t raise, he said educating children is key to addressing the island’s homeless crisis.

Robert “Bobby” Bunda served for almost three decades in the Legislature. HART

“We should implement meaningful school programs for our kids,” he said. “I really believe it is the key to get the people or kids to not follow their mothers or fathers or grandparents in homelessness situations.”

The City Council has no authority to increase funding for the state Department of Education or affect school curriculum. However, council members often have relationships with principals at schools in their district and attend events, said DOE spokeswoman Lindsay Chambers.

Money And Messaging

Tsuneyoshi estimates her campaign rallies cost about $1,000 each – grand prize raffle winners go home with a $30 gift card to Longs or Foodland and a big bag of rice. The events are funded by the more than $259,000 her campaign has raised.

An electrical workers union’s political action committee as well as other unions donated to her campaign. More than $30,000 came from employees of engineering firm Mistunaga and Associates, a company with contracts to design public facilities around the state that has long been a key political donor.

She’s also backed by former Republican Congressman Charles Djou. Djou ran against Caldwell in the 2016 mayoral race and is playing an active role in Tsuneyoshi’s campaign.

Heidi Tsuneyoshi speaks during one of her campaign events that have been held across the district. Natanya Freidheim/Civil Beat

As the former state Senate president, Bunda likely has more name recognition than his opponents. He left the Legislature in 2010 and in 2011 was appointed to serve on the HART board. He left the board in 2015, three years before his term would have expired, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. Bunda’s campaign has raised almost $320,000.

Bert Kobayashi of the real estate development and investment firm Kobayashi Group gave Bunda $2,500, as did the development company Alexander & Baldwin, a large landowner on Oahu. Unite Here Local 5, the hotel workers’ union, gave Bunda $4,000.

Local 5’s website includes a statement speculating about the anonymous flyers criticizing Bunda.

“Google search Heidi Tsuneyoshi, Dave Burlew, Choon James and Bobby Bunda and start learning the facts,” the statement said. “Also, ask yourself which candidate has enough money to pay for an expensive mass mailing campaign and stands to gain the most from attacking Bobby Bunda?”

Burlew’s campaign has raised less than $1,000, while James’ campaign has raised about $34,000. James said she’s not accepting donations from lobbyists or corporations.

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