KILAUEA, Kauai — Mayor Bernard Carvalho works the crowd deftly, slowly moving from person to person, kissing, hugging and shaking hands. He’s at an event celebrating the third anniversary of Aina Ho’okupu, better known as the Kilauea Community Agriculture Park.
Thirty years in the making, the park is cementing itself in the agricultural fabric of Kauai. And, as he does frequently, Carvalho has turned out to help make the event in a white rented tent in the middle of a field special.
He takes a little more time than usual to chat with three young aspiring farmers — none seemingly older than 20. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees someone with a camera. Instantly, Carvalho puts his arms around the three guys and wheels them so they are in perfect position in front of the lens. Everyone beams radiantly.
It is, after all, an election year, and Carvalho’s behavior is classic politician running. But that’s where the story gets interesting.
Carvalho spent more than three decades in the employ of Kauai County — 17 years as a line civil service worker, six years as department head for parks and recreation, then 10 years as mayor, after succeeding Bryan Baptiste, who died in office. Carvalho terms out in December.
But this year was something of a political Waterloo for Carvalho. He ran for lieutenant governor in the Democratic primary — his first attempt at statewide office — and lost big to Josh Green. In fact, Carvalho finished third with 18.5 percent of the vote.
Carvalho’s campaign theme was “Think Big,” and to know him is to understand that’s a play on words in a couple of different ways. For one, Carvalho is big. Big enough that he played pro football for the Miami Dolphins for two years.
There’s a football internet fan site, though, that says of his Dolphins service after the team drafted him in 1984: “The Dolphins later drafted Bernard Carvalho, who turned out to be a much better politician than football player.”
Watch Carvalho “run” in the annual Kauai Marathon and it’s easy to see that football left him with very dicey knees, but he turns out for the event doggedly, year after year.
But even though he could retire now at age 57 and live comfortably from his decades of county pension eligibility, he doesn’t intend to do any such thing. He has three adult children, one of whom, 33-year-old Bronson Carvalho, currently resides at the mayor’s home with his wife, regrouping after returning to Kauai from the mainland.
There are two grandchildren and a mother-in-law for whom Carvalho is a key caregiver. Sarah Blane, the county’s public information officer, volunteered that Carvalho often calls in to say he’ll be late getting into the mayor’s office because he has to drop off his grandchildren at school.
So for Carvalho, the question of the hour is: What now?
“Of course, I’m still mayor until 12 o’clock noon on Dec. 3,” he said, “and I’m going to finish strong.”
He has not taken his foot off his mayoral gas pedal. His priorities include two desperately needed housing developments, a multifaceted project to make the island more bike- and pedestrian-friendly and the revitalization of Lihue as the urban core of Kauai.
He could have just walked away. That wouldn’t be Carvalho.
“So that experience (as mayor) is ending and I’ve been regrouping with all of our team members and we’re looking at all of our projects,” he said. “I’m not looking for more. We’re on a good pace. I want to finish a number of things.”
“People are asking if I’d be interested in looking at different private sector positions, say in housing or tourism,” he said, emphasizing those opportunities are all with nonprofits. “Or maybe some government appointed position. What has happened (since the primary) is more opportunities are coming. I get to have a menu of options.
“Now, I can narrow it down to one area and focus. I’m privileged.”
He was, however, coy about which area of opportunity he favors. He insisted he had expected to win the lieutenant governor’s race.
“When I do it, we go for the win,” he said. “The touchdown and no field goals accepted.”
This attitude does not surprise people who know him even tangentially.
Said Beth Tokioka, who served for several years as Carvalho’s chief of staff: “We will definitely hear more from Mayor Carvalho. He has placed himself in leadership positions his entire life. It’s where he’s most comfortable and where his heart is.”
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