A jubilant mood filled Wisp Restaurant and Lounge near Diamond Head late Tuesday as Honolulu City Council candidate Tommy Waters hugged supporters and posed for photos.
After trailing early, Waters was ahead of incumbent Councilman Trevor Ozawa by 72 votes with all the precincts counted in East Honolulu’s District 4. There was just an unknown number of late-arriving mail ballots that wouldn’t be counted until early Wednesday.
“I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart,” Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell told Waters, before the happy party disbanded.
Hours later, Caldwell’s mood had no doubt changed. The mayor told Civil Beat he was not ready to comment on the final results of the election, which Ozawa came back to win by just 22 votes.
Ozawa is an outspoken critic of the mayor. A win for Waters would have shifted the balance of power on the nine-member council, putting Caldwell allies back in the majority.
“We would have won the leadership,” said Councilman Joey Manahan, who supported Waters.
“(Ozawa’s) victory means nothing changes,” said Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii Manoa. “We’re not going to get a more complaisant council.”
Incumbents won three of the four City Council seats up for election this year. Political newcomer Heidi Tsuneyoshi won the fourth vacated by her boss, Council Chair Ernie Martin, another longtime Caldwell critic.
Many see Tsuneyoshi as Martin’s protegé, with expectations she will adopt his adversarial attitude toward the Caldwell administration. But she has said that she plans to work collaboratively with the council members in both factions, and even supports some of Caldwell’s policy proposals.
Ozawa’s relationship with the mayor soured in recent weeks when the Federal Transit Administration demanded $44 million in city funds be dedicated to Honolulu’s rail project. Measures that would allow the city to float $44 million in bonds stalled for months because Ozawa failed to schedule them for his Budget Committee.
In a series of press conferences, Caldwell criticized Ozawa for his inaction. After the FTA sent a threatening demand letter to the city, Martin created a new committee with himself as chair. The committee passed the measures with a 7-2 vote, with Ozawa and Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi voting against them.
As chair of the Budget Committee, Ozawa regularly grilled members of Caldwell’s cabinet. After four years in office, he said Wednesday that narrow victory over Waters is no reason to change his approach.
“I’ll continue to be an independent, strong, passionate voice for my district,” Ozawa said. “I don’t just go along to get along.”
The tight race felt like deja vu.
Ozawa beat Waters by 41 votes four years ago in a race for the same council seat. Waters unsuccessfully sought a recount that year. It’s unclear if he will do the same this year, because he did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
Unlike some states, Hawaii has no statute that would automatically initiate a recount in close races. Candidates need to file a petition with the state Supreme Court before Nov. 26 arguing why a recount is warranted, and the court ultimately decides.
The race drew the attention of well-heeled campaign contributors and the electorate.
Ozawa’s campaign raised more than $500,000 this election cycle, more money than any other City Council candidate running this year. Waters’ campaign raised $192,000, but he had backing from Caldwell and Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board member Natalie Iwasa, who ran against both Ozawa and Waters in the primary and received 13 percent of the vote.
The mayor’s and Iwasa’s involvement in the race may have driven more voters to the polls. There were fewer blank votes cast for the council seat this year than four years ago – just 7.3 percent blank votes down from 12 percent in 2014.
Waters and Ozawa each got just over 16,300 votes in 2014. This year each received just over 18,300 votes.
Waters actually received more votes than Ozawa in nine of the 17 District 4 precincts.
But the incumbent had big leads in some areas.
In the precinct that includes Koko Head Terrace makai of Hawaii Kai Drive, where Kaiser High School is the polling place, Ozawa received 51.8 percent of the vote and Waters 43 percent.
The largest margin for Ozawa came from a precinct near Ala Moana where just 108 people cast their ballots — 71 for Ozawa and 37 for Waters.
In parts of Niu Valley, Aina Hina and Waialae Nui, Waters beat Ozawa by a large margin.
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