One of the first casualties of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is the impact it has had on 2020 races. The political drama of Honolulu’s highly anticipated mayoral election has been especially deflated by press conferences and emergency proclamations by both Mayor Kirk Caldwell and Gov. David Ige, who if not for COVID-19, would take a backseat to the 2020 election.

And while some might be thankful that Oahu, at least for now, does not have to put up with the usual rhetoric and clash of egos in the battle for Honolulu Hale, a big downside to COVID-19 stealing all the attention is that we aren’t able to vet candidates and discuss important issues other than the virus.

Allow yourself for a moment to visualize an alternate reality where COVID-19 never emerged in Wuhan, where the world was as it always was, and we were going about our ordinary way in Hawaii. By now, Honolulu would be talking about the mayor’s race as if it was the most important thing in town (and, I still believe it is) and we would be ferociously trying to identify which candidate could fix Oahu’s infrastructure, improve economic conditions, and have a vision for the next decade and beyond.

Press conferences from Gov. David Ige and country officials are getting the limelight that in other years might be focused on the upcoming election.

Cory Lum

While COVID-19 might make it both awkward and difficult for Honolulu mayoral candidates to court voters amidst the stay-at-home orders, the pandemic makes who we elect to lead Hawaii’s most populous city and county all the more vital. Between the economic implosion, the rash of re-open Hawaii protests, and all the management and infrastructure problems that were there before the coronavirus, we need to start vetting mayoral candidates now.

This is an election that we cannot afford to simply rush into and pick a candidate with minimal time to evaluate personalities and policies.

Assuming a best-case scenario where Oahu stops having any new coronavirus cases before the month is over and the statewide stay-at-home order is lifted, that still leaves a very short period of time from candidate filing deadline to the primary election to “speed date” candidates.

While we don’t have the benefit of going to candidate speeches, attending auditorium debates, experiencing door-to-door encounters, or any of the usual ramp-up events surrounding a mayoral election, we are not left without options for vetting.

Honolulu ‘Hollywood Squares’ Debates

What I suggest is that all prospective Honolulu mayoral candidates agree now to start holding multiple moderated online policy debates, to talk about their views about the COVID-19 situation and the future of Oahu. Since everyone is staying at home, I see no reason why, at least for now, we can’t have one every Friday night.

There would be several useful advantages to weekly online debates. The first would be that everyone committed to running for mayor would be able to participate, which would allow Oahu to see everyone, not just the big names, and hear their ideas. This could allow us to hear creative solutions and new or reform-oriented ideas that might not ordinarily be heard. It could also pressure less serious candidates with no strategic vision or expertise to drop out now.

Early Voting Special Election at Honolulu Hale1.

More time is is needed to vet candidates for the upcoming mayoral election.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Another benefit is that all candidates could be asked questions from online participants in an “AMA” or “Ask Me Anything” format, which would allow us to really get meaningful insights about candidates in a way that traditional forums or debates might not permit.

Important questions that could be debated, starting now, might include:

  • How will mass transit and urban density planning factor into a post-coronavirus future?
  • Should Honolulu put greater emphasis on public health, moving forward?
  • Does Honolulu need to plan differently to deal with tourists, who might be carrying future contagious diseases?
  • Can the county start providing some form of safety net or social assistance for families hit hard by COVID-19?
  • Should the state have more or less control over Honolulu’s emergency powers and taxation powers after the coronavirus?
  • Does the Honolulu mayor have too much power or not enough power?
  • What are we going to do about our homeless population?

These are not ordinary times. Now is the time to ask hard questions of the people who want big offices. Winston Churchill, at the darkest moments of WWII, once said, “If we win, nobody will care. If we lose, there will be nobody to care.” The nightmare scenario we should be worried about is that we end up in a position where we are rushed, confused, and knowing very little, we get drop-kicked into an all-mail election and select as the next mayor a person who is not equipped for the job.

Crazy things tend to happen in election years amidst crises, but bad electoral decisions emerge when very little time is spent vetting candidates.

One thing that the unusual events of 2020 has shown us is that the office of the mayor is far more important to our daily lives than we realized, and that the person who holds that position needs to be sharp as a razor. We need to identify now who the next best leader of Honolulu is, and why we should vote for them.

Want more information on COVID-19 in Hawaii? You can read all of Civil Beat’s coronavirus coverage, find answers to frequently asked questions or sign up for email newsletter updates — all for free. And check out pictures of how community groups and volunteers have been helping out in our Community Scrapbook.

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