A trio of candidates is vying to succeed Honolulu City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi and represent District 5, a dense slice of town that includes Manoa, Palolo and most of the Ala Wai watershed.

It’s the district most affected by the controversial Ala Wai flood control project, which met widespread community resistance last year. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that one of the project’s most outspoken opponents, Dave Watase, is in the race as a political newcomer. 

Joining him is one of the state’s most seasoned political veterans — Rep. Calvin Say. The former House speaker has represented his Palolo-area legislative district for more than four decades. Now, he aims to make a switch to the council.

Stop Alawai Project Dave Watase walks near his property near one of the water detention areas off of Waiomao Road.

Dave Watase walks near his property in 2019, an area that was previously slated for a flood retention basin.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Longtime local legislative staffer and attorney Philmund “Phil” Lee rounds out the trio. Lee, a frequent candidate for higher office going back to the early 1990s, looks to offer the district’s voters an alternative to what he described as local “pay-to-play” political culture.

The centrally located district also includes parts of St. Louis Heights, McCully-Moiliili and Kakaako — as well as the University of Hawaii Manoa.

Watase, a retired engineer, was a member of Protect Our Ala Wai Watershed, which secured a court injunction against the flood control project’s proposed network of basins, channels and walls throughout Makiki, Manoa, Palolo and Waikiki pending further environmental review.

Without that opposition effort, “I would probably be non-existent” as a council candidate, Watase said.

“I’m really not a political kind of guy … I don’t like to get into arguments. But this is what basically opened the door to me to get involved,” he said.

He said that he eventually started to see similarities between the flood control opposition and community pushback against other projects at Sherwood Forest and Ala Moana Beach Park. He called “transparency and accountability” his top issues.

Rep. Calvin Say during a 2016 hearing at the state Capitol building.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Say, meanwhile, has been eyeing the open council seat — and a move to Honolulu Hale — since at least February

On Monday, Say said that his legislative office often gets calls from constituents about city issues, such as potholes, sewer lines and parks.

“I would like to take a much more active role” in those issues, Say said. He flagged the flood control project, landslides in the back of Palolo Valley and homelessness as the top issues to address. 

“I truly believe it is helping,” he said of the city’s so-called sit-lie ordinance, which prohibits residents from sitting or lying in certain areas as a means to address homelessness. Say said he’d also like to help guide the city’s finances through the COVID-19 crisis.

Phil Lee’s career as a local legislative aide goes back to the early 1990s, when he served as a deputy corporation counsel for the city. 

“As a legislative staffer, I have a lot of knowledge on the issues — but I don’t have a lot of … name recognition,” he said Monday.

Lee said he then went on to work for former state Rep. Terry Nui Yoshinaga and played a role crafting Hawaii’s endangered species act

“It was a massive undertaking — something I’m very proud of doing,” he said.

Phil Lee has worked in both city and state government on Oahu going back to the early 1990s. He’s also run for higher office multiple times.

More recently he’s worked for Rep. Rida Cabanilla, he said, but he left in May to avoid any perceived conflict of interest while running for office.

The Oahu native has run for higher office numerous times, including races against political heavyweights such as Ed Case and Kirk Caldwell to represent Manoa in the state House. 

He said that he’s consistently pledged to spend less than $1,000 on each of those campaigns. His top priority, Lee said, is to help residents stay afloat economically amid the pandemic.

“I don’t know if my name can get out there because I pledged not to spend more than $1,000,” Lee said. “I’m not beholden to anybody.”

“It’s very challenging,” he added. “I’m just trying to give the people a choice.”

Say Leads In Campaign Cash

Say, who’s been in state office since 1976, holds a sizable fundraising lead in the council race. Records show he’s received more than $34,000 and spent more than $21,000 since January. 

He’s seen widespread support from local trade unions. Political action committees representing local plumbers, carpenters, engineers, longshoremen and ironworkers have all donated to Say this year, records show.

He has a campaign balance of $3,696 largely due to $44,000 worth of loans to himself in 2015.

Watase, meanwhile, has raised more than $20,000 and spent nearly $7,000 on the race, the most recent records show. Architect Scott Wilson is listed as his largest donor, giving the campaign nearly $4,000.

Overall, his campaign account shows a deficit of just over $900, however, because he’s loaned his campaign $15,000, the records show.

“It’s not easy and if I didn’t have the resources — it’s tough,” Watase said. “I don’t have the name recognition that Calvin has.”

Lee doesn’t show any campaign donations or spending.

An important ask . . .

Our evolution as a public service news organization over the past 10 years has prepared us for this moment in time, when what we do matters the most.

Many of you have supported Civil Beat from the beginning. We are deeply grateful to all of you for making this nonprofit news experiment possible.

As Civil Beat embarks on our summer fundraising campaign, we’re asking readers to contribute what you think we’re worth. Whether you’ve valued our public service journalism for 10 years or 10 days, now is the time we need you the most.

About the Author