LIHUE, Kauai — The Kauai County Council race heads to the Aug. 8 primary with the power of incumbents on full display — not least because they are helped by leftover cash from previous races while new fundraising is constrained by COVID-19.
With mail-in ballots going out this week, only one first-time candidate has raised more than a couple thousand dollars, according to financial reports filed July 9.
Though 21 candidates are officially in the primary, several have shown little interest in actually running. Fifteen responded to questions from Civil Beat and 13 responded to questions from the Kauai Chamber of Commerce. Three — Donovan Cabebe, Richard Fukushima and Clint Yago, Sr. — didn’t respond to either.
Five council incumbents are in the race, along with former Mayor Bernard Carvalho, Jr., whose popularity on island appears undiminished from when he termed out in 2018, opening the way for the ascent of Mayor Derek Kawakami, who gave up a council seat to run. Those seeking another two-year term are Mason Chock, Felicia Cowden, Luke Evslin, Arryl Kaneshiro and KipuKai Kuali‘i.
Carvalho has seemed mostly quiet in the last few months, uncharacteristically failing to appear on a first virtual candidate debate. But in an interview, he said he had been caring for his ill father, who died in late May after a long illness, and has since been taking care of the estate.
It’s clear he sees the County Council as his moment. Carvalho said he considered running for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs but wanted to stay more local.
“I don’t believe I’m a shoo-in,” he said. “I served 35 years in the county, but never on the council, and at the council level I can bring so much to the table, especially during these times. Housing, jobs and the environment and I have to home in on agriculture, sustainability and business.”
This election is also unique in that it will be the first one conducted almost entirely by mail. Kauai had already been identified as the test bed for voting-by-mail before the Legislature expanded the concept statewide.
It is fair to say that no one has any idea what the shift may mean for incumbents and marginal candidates alike. The primary will pare the field from 21 to 14 to continue to the general election in November.
The council on Kauai has been operating one member short throughout the COVID-19 crisis after Councilman Arthur Brun was arrested in February on federal charges of running a large, international methamphetamine trafficking ring. He is in federal custody in Honolulu awaiting a tentative Oct. 26 trial date, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Honolulu.
Kauai’s council members run at large. While a district scheme to expand the body to nine seats divided among three districts has surfaced in the last few months, voters have rejected districting repeatedly in the past. A county charter amendment would be required, and while the Charter Review Commission has discussed it, the deadline for this year’s ballot has passed.
Only one member, Ross Kagawa, is leaving office due to term limits.
Chock and Evslin enjoy wide popularity on the island. Cowden enjoys solid support on the North Shore, where she resides, and has invested a great deal of time in constituent service activities. Kuali‘i has run several times over the last several years but has only won twice. Kaneshiro has been a consistent, if bland, council chair.
“This is a council that is really attempting to collaborate and problem solve toward solutions despite differences of opinion,” Chock said. “I believe our ability to foster healthy conflict has led to better decision-making for the island.”
Kuali‘i is Native Hawaiian and resides on Department of Hawaiian Home Lands property in Anahola. As is usual in at-large Kauai council fields, most candidates reside in either the east side, South Shore or the Lihue area. Two candidates — Shirley Simbre-Medeiros and Ed Justus — live on the west side.
With the island economy still contracting, only one challenger — Addison Bulosan — has raised a consequential amount: $12,962. Bulosan has been able to buy advertising on two radio stations. Much of his funding appears to have come from his family.
Bulosan made news when he pleaded no contest in early July to a citation he received for violating Gov. David Ige’s stay-at-home orders a few weeks before he filed to run. Police officers who cited him near the Wailua Falls Lookout described him and a woman with him as “acting suspiciously,” according to the Department of Land and Natural Resources. Bulosan, a chiropractor, has offices here and on Maui.
“There are seven seats for County Council and I believe voters will elect those who will best serve the collective interest,” Bulosan said. “The most important issue at the moment is the ability of our county government to adapt and innovate.”
To bolster his candidacy, last week Bulosan offered members of the Kauai Chamber of Commerce free chiropractic examinations and testing for $100 that he said “normally” costs $2,285.
Even more than most years, the resources incumbents and Carvalho bring to the race may be decisive.
Carvalho, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor after leaving the mayor’s office, had nearly $31,000 cash in hand at the start of the race. Evslin, who pledged to minimize fundraising, had $5,174. Kaneshiro had the highest balance of all, at $45,933; Cowden had $8,745; Chock, $2,748; and Kuali‘i, $13,975.
“I think our biggest success is that we all work well together,” Evslin said of the current council. “We’ve had some strong policy disagreements and heated arguments, but I think we all genuinely enjoy working with each other.”
Kaneshiro said passing a “structurally balanced budget” two years in a row has allowed Kauai to remain “resilient” despite diverse challenges like the 2018 floods and the COVID pandemic.
“In many instances, we led the state with our proactive approach to COVID-19 and it paid off,” he said.
With Carvalho and the five council incumbents leading in the cash column, more than most years it appears 2020 is a race for one seat.
Yard signs and banners are seemingly less visible this year and bumper stickers less common. Sign-waving has barely materialized, possibly because of social distancing concerns related to COVID-19. It’s clear that COVID casts a long shadow over the race.
“Until there’s widespread use of a vaccine or effective therapeutic drugs,” Chock said, “we’re going to be stuck in this nightmarish dance of trying to revive our economy while ensuring that case counts don’t rise.”
What’s also clear from their responses to a series of Civil Beat questions is that the incumbents and the former mayor have vastly better understandings of the workings of county government than the opponents, none of whom has held previous elective office. Only one — Ed Justus — has experience serving in government. He was a member of the Charter Review Commission.
That experience is especially important since the incoming council will inevitably need to deal with a budget crisis related to the pandemic.
Kuali‘i has advocated for what he calls “responsible tourism.”
“Everyone agrees we need to move forward to a place where tourism has a lighter carbon footprint; a place where tourism is no longer threatening our environment, as well as not lessening our residents’ quality of life,” he said.
Candidates seem to understand that the COVID-19 crisis may momentarily eclipse other urgent county issues, but not for long.
Jade Waialeale Battad, a Lihue minister and wedding officiant who is a longtime community member, said, “We continue to have our unacceptable affordable housing shortage and the community’s drug problem. Once tourists return, our traffic will return, as well. There are many tough issues — climate change response, domestic violence, overcrowded parks, to name a few.”
Each of the candidates was asked if COVID-19 is primarily a political or public health problem. Battad summed it up well: “It is, of course, both. It is at its base a public health issue, but the response to the public health crisis is steeped in politics.”
Traffic, housing and solid waste management figured prominently in the priorities of nearly all of the candidates.
Justus, who has a strong libertarian bent, said COVID-19 is “a political issue because there are many on both sides of the aisle who are using this public health crisis as a political tool to further whatever their political agendas are. I find the politicization of this crisis inexcusable.”
Justus and his wife own Kauai’s only surviving bookstore, Talk Story, in Hanapepe.
Victoria Franks, the music minister at a local church and community volunteer, saw the race this way: “I would propose curbside recycling, the implementation of a materials recovery facility and exploring other options for disposing of our waste rather than expanding the landfill. I also advocate identifying the most logical traffic plan.”
Mike Dandurand, owner of a local musical store and DJ, said his perspective is that “local business people are all hurting. We are all in the same boat. I embrace limiting rental cars, limiting tourist access to sensitive sites, limiting the number of helicopters and planes, promoting using and buying local produce, products and services when possible and supporting only locally owned businesses.”
Perhaps the most experienced previously unsuccessful candidate in the race is Billy DeCosta, a schoolteacher whose consistent focus has been to promote local agriculture and persuading young people to get involved in it. He has run and lost four times.
Kauai, he said, needs “a farm-to-live subdivision (where) children can learn special skills and secure state land to create long-term farm leases.”
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