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The marathon campaign to represent East Honolulu on the City Council ended Saturday night with Tommy Waters defeating Trevor Ozawa by 51.4% to 48.5% in a special election conducted mostly by mail.
Waters got 17,491 votes to Ozawa’s 16,487.
The longtime political rivals went into overtime to settle the matter after the Hawaii Supreme Court invalidated the November election results, which showed Ozawa winning by just 22 votes. The court ruled that some late ballots had been improperly counted, and the city enlisted two state election observers Saturday to ensure that wouldn’t happen again.
Waters’ victory is expected to prompt the City Council to shuffle its leadership. Ozawa has 20 days to contest the results, council members say.
Waters took in the results with about 100 supporters at The Brilliant Ox restaurant at Ala Moana Center, where the crowd erupted in cheers and chants of “Tommy, Tommy” as the results were announced. Ozawa was ensconced in a more private setting with supporters at Roy’s Hawaii Kai.
“It’s been a really, really humbling experience,” Waters said as the celebration continued. “I’m happy it’s over. It’s been a long time.”
Waters said he’s looking forward to tackling the problem of homelessness, Hawaii’s cost of living and trying to fix problems with rail.
Ozawa was originally elected to represent Council District 4, which stretches from Hawaii Kai to Kewalo Basin, in 2014, when he beat Waters by 41 votes.
Since January, District 4 has been served by interim council member Mike Formby, who will retain the position until the results are certified.
The Supreme Court decision blocked Ozawa from not only getting sworn in, but also from becoming the City Council chairman.
In January, Ozawa was on the cusp of replacing Ernie Martin, his political ally who left office in December, as head of the council. Ozawa’s leadership was supported by fellow council members Carol Fukunaga, Ann Kobayashi and Kymberly Pine.
Instead, Kobayashi became the interim chair and presiding officer.
Political observers suspect the Waters victory will shift the balance of power toward supporters of Mayor Kirk Caldwell. Waters was backed by Caldwell and council members Ikaika Anderson and Joey Manahan, both of whom were at Water’s party Saturday night along with Councilman Ron Menor.
The nine-member Council also includes Heidi Tsuneyoshi, who previously worked for Martin; Brandon Elefante, a longtime Caldwell supporter; and Menor, who has also often been allied with the mayor on issues like affordable housing policy.
Ozawa clashed repeatedly with Caldwell while in office on topics such as the funding of Honolulu’s massive rail project.
As he celebrated his victory, Waters was asked how he’ll work with other council members and the mayor: “We can agree to disagree, but we don’t have to be disagreeable,” he said.
Manahan said he was glad Waters won and happy the Supreme Court gave him a second shot at the council seat. He said Waters could help foster better discussions on some of the issues the council is facing.
The special election campaign between Ozawa and Waters got ugly as both candidates accused each other of lying to voters.
Ozawa’s campaign included misleading mailers and questionable advertisements, while Waters’ got most of the deep-pocketed contributors. Waters reported raising $289,168 from January to March — $97,000 more than Ozawa. Unions backing Waters reported raising another $170,000 during the same period.
Ozawa alleged three of the Supreme Court justices who invalidated the November result were biased in favor of Waters due to his former role on the judicial selection committee.
But Ozawa struck a conciliatory tone Saturday night, saying, “I want to congratulate Tommy on his win, and I want him to make sure he continues representing the community and delivers on his promises.”
Ozawa thanked his supporters and his family and said he still wants to work for his community, but didn’t say in what capacity.
For now, he said, “It’s all about family and friends and getting back to life (as it was) before the election.”
Waters and Ozawa have been linked by ultra-close election results for so long that it seemed appropriate that they ended up almost next to each other Saturday morning as they waved at passing motorists for hours at Beretania and Punchbowl streets.
“It doesn’t feel real,” Waters said of the campaign’s conclusion. “If I wake up tomorrow and I still won, maybe it will feel real.”
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