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Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of profiles of the leading Honolulu mayoral candidates.
Ask Kym Pine why she should be mayor, and she’ll tell you it’s because she’s already on the job.
The Honolulu City Councilwoman and former state lawmaker says she knows the city’s issues better than her opponents and she says she knows how to solve them.
“As a mother, I’m deeply concerned about my daughter’s generation and their ability to survive here and have a good life here,” she said. “I just want to create a city that is affordable, efficient, safe and most importantly resilient with an economy that no longer depends on the outside world to feed our families and to pay us to make a living.”
Pine, 49, has served two four-year terms on the City Council and is term-limited.
She lives in Ewa Beach with her husband, U.S. Navy Cmdr. Brian Ryglowski, and their 5-year-old daughter. According to her financial disclosure, her husband earns less than $99,000, and she makes about $69,000 as a council member plus a small side business she runs selling branded merchandise. Their combined income is much more in line with the average Honolulu resident than some of her wealthier opponents.
It makes sense then that as a councilwoman, Pine has stood out for her work on issues affecting working class families, including affordable housing, said Colin Moore, director of the University of Hawaii’s Public Policy Center.
“I would say she’s a modern working families candidate,” he said. “She can emphasize living the life of working families in Hawaii, being close to their issues.”
Being the only mayoral candidate currently in elected office could be both good and bad, said John Hart, a communications professor at Hawaii Pacific University and a longtime local political observer.
“She can say ‘I have the most current experience. I know what’s going on. I’m dealing with the present problems. I know what to do,’” he said. “The flip side is, she’s part of the status quo. Do people want a familiar face, or do they want something different?”
Campaign finance reports filed Thursday show Pine raised the second most campaign cash this election cycle with a total of $754,429. Keith Amemiya, a well-connected former insurance executive and nonprofit leader, collected the most, over $1.2 million.
Among Pine’s backers are developers from companies like the Kobayashi and MacNaughton Groups, the RM Towill Corp. and Stanford Carr. She is not backed by any labor unions, who have all endorsed her opponents.
Pine’s approvals of certain developments at the City Council have been a point of criticism. Opponents of the controversial Hoopili development, which involved rezoning agricultural land, objected when Pine approved the project in 2015 after accepting more than $160,000 from people connected to the project. The total amounted to 72% of her campaign contributions within a two-year period.
“Donations don’t influence me,” Pine said. “What influenced me the most was poverty, homelessness and the lack of affordable housing. We need 22,000 affordable units.”
She added that she isn’t proud of either of those votes, but it was what she felt was necessary at the time considering there was still other prime ag land that would be protected. Now, her philosophy is to build up, not out, and to build villages that have residences and agriculture on the same land.
“It’s not easy when you’re actually taking the vote and you have to solve multiple issues at the same time,” she said. “When you’re an elected official, it’s not as easy as black and white.”
In a Civil Beat/Hawaii News Now poll in May, Pine was a fourth-place finisher following former TV executive Rick Blangiardi, former Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa and Amemiya.
But the race is still up for grabs. The largest group of poll respondents were undecided.
Pine grew up on the North Shore with a Filipina mother and a haole father.
She graduated from Moanalua High School in 1988 and holds a degree in English from the University of California at Berkeley. In her early 20s, she said she had dreams of becoming a journalist and worked at the Hawaii Filipino Chronicle in the mid-1990s.
“I wanted to change the world by bringing the truth and news to people,” she said.
To better understand how government works in Hawaii, Pine said she got a job at the Legislature. From 1997 to 2001, she was the chief of staff for Republican state Rep. David Pendleton and later worked as the director of the House Minority Research Office.
At the time, her state House district was last in funding for parks, schools and roads, she said. Working at the Capitol motivated her to do more.
“I was so horrified by what I experienced and the people that were representing us that I spontaneously ran for office,” she said.
So Pine, who says she was raised in a family of “hardcore Gov. Burns Democrats,” filed to run against incumbent Democratic Rep. Romy Mindo. She ran as a Republican.
“I think we are the party of the people,” Pine told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin as a Republican candidate, in 2004. “I was raised on the stories that my grandma told me about how the plantation workers rose up against those who abuse their power. When I see what the Democrats do, I am reminded of those stories from my grandma.”
That same year, she also told the Honolulu Advertiser that it’s Republicans who are “fighting for the little guy.” Pine’s campaign was strongly backed by the GOP and Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, according to the Star-Bulletin.
Ultimately, Pine unseated her opponent and represented the Ewa Beach area from 2004 to 2012. During her last two years, she served as the House minority floor leader.
As a state legislator, Pine said she secured increased funding for the Leeward Coast for roads, schools and other facilities. She also launched the Hire Leeward Job and Career Fair, through which she says thousands of people have gotten jobs.
Today, she looks back on her GOP identity differently.
“I wasn’t even a Republican,” she said in a recent interview. “I didn’t know what that was. I just took the opposite of what the (other) person was.”
Asked to clarify what she means, Pine said she wasn’t a Republican “in terms of what is considered a Republican today.”
“People were looking for an alternative to what they saw as a powerful status quo that no longer cared about the people at the time,” she said. “So a lot of people were just hoping that by joining another party, maybe that could change things.”
Eventually, she said the Republican Party went in a direction she could no longer support. In 2018, Pine said she resigned from the party the day after President Donald Trump took office.
“As someone who is strongly for the environment and strongly for workers’ rights and as a half brown, half white woman, race is very important to me, and racial equality, female equality in the workplace – these are core issues that I think Republicans are still struggling with,” she said.
As she runs in the nonpartisan mayor’s race, Pine says she holds progressive views on equal rights and the environment but is more conservative when it comes to keeping taxes to a minimum. She sees her experience working on both sides of the aisle as an asset.
“I realized all the conflict that we’re having can be solved if we sit down and get to know each other,” she said.
As a councilwoman, Pine says she is most proud of fighting for affordable housing and solutions to homelessness.
When she was the chair of the Zoning, Planning and Housing Committee, the council passed two major housing bills which became law.
Bill 58, an “inclusionary zoning” measure, required developers to set aside affordable units when constructing residences with more than 10 units. And Bill 59 incentivized construction of moderately priced units near rail stations.
Pine said she negotiated with 100 stakeholders on opposing sides. The meetings were tense, she said, but in the end, the parties found common ground.
“We found a way to get affordable housing units at some of the lowest levels while also making sure that the developers have incentives to actually build in Hawaii,” she said.
When a developer wanted to install a so-called “poor door” – a separate entrance for tenants of affordable units – Pine took the project off the council meeting agenda. The developer later removed the proposal from its plans.
“I said no,” she said. “If we’re going to give you extra density, you will make sure everyone has the same respect.”
Last year, Pine sponsored Bill 7 which offered developers incentives, including tax breaks, in exchange for building units for people making 100% of the area median income – units that would stay affordable in perpetuity. The law was changed recently to reduce the affordability time period to 15 years. Pine said she would’ve liked it to be 20 to 30 years.
When short-term vacation rentals were tensely debated in 2019, Pine sided with affordable housing advocates and voted for a crackdown on illegal rentals. She also voted to approve limits on monster homes.
On homelessness, Pine has consistently voted against sit-lie ban legislation, although more recently she voted in favor of a bill that would expand the practice in Iwilei. She calls the strategy “a complete waste of time and money” but said she approved Bill 13 to support the sponsor, Joey Manahan.
“It causes the homeless to have their personal issues compounded to become worse,” said Pine, who worked at U.S. Vets, a nonprofit that serves homeless veterans, in the early 2000s.
“If we had places for people to go, they wouldn’t be living on the street.”
Last year, she advocated for $23 million in capital funds for council members to address homelessness in their districts. The money was put into the budget, but Pine said Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration hasn’t released the funds.
As chair of the Business, Economic Development and Tourism Committee, Pine has made efforts to limit the impact of overtourism on Oahu.
Pine said Hawaii tourism had exploded in recent years but spending remained flat. She said Oahu needs to return to the tourism of the 1980s when the islands attracted fewer, but higher-spending, tourists. Doing that will benefit the tourism industry and the environment, she said.
Her Keep Hawaii Hawaii Pass Program, approved by the council on Wednesday, will offer visitors and residents discounts and priority access to island attractions. The proceeds will go to a special user impact fund that will be used to maintain public parks and beaches and supplement the operating budgets of the emergency services, police, fire and parks departments. The fund still needs to be established.
In general, Pine says she backs policies that save taxpayers money.
When it comes to the rail, she has long supported finishing the project at Ala Moana to bring traffic relief to drivers in her district. But she said it needs greater federal oversight. In 2017, she voted against raising the rail tax cap and last year opposed a measure that would charge taxpayers for HART employees’ criminal defense attorneys.
Last year, Pine voted against a tax hike on hotels that ultimately passed. She said she would’ve preferred the hotels commit to better wages and benefits for their employees.
“I felt this tax would go straight to be used for projects that we don’t need, like the Blaisdell Center,” she said.
She has spoken in opposition to many of the administration’s decisions including his former plans to build a sports complex in Waimanalo and to spend millions on renovating the Blaisdell Center. She also spoke out against the arrest of protesters who opposed the Kahuku wind farm and the Honolulu Police Commission’s $250,000 payout to former Chief Louis Kealoha.
Within her first 100 days as mayor, Pine said she would declare a state of emergency on homelessness to address not only the existing problem but the financial impacts of COVID-19.
Oahu’s latest homeless survey counted over 4,400 homeless people – about half of them unsheltered. Pine has advocated for using federal aid funding to pay for villages of 5,000 tiny homes that could be used during the coronavirus outbreak and beyond.
“You have to have this comprehensive, unified, collaborative effort with all resources all in to solve this very serious problem that is going to double because of the pandemic,” she said.
The city needs to coordinate better with the state to secure funding for mental health and drug addiction services, Pine said. If the state is unwilling to adequately fund these areas, Pine said she would allocate city funds to fill the gaps.
“Those are two areas I feel have been completely ignored and not funded enough,” she said.
Pine said she has a family member who had both mental illness and an oxycodone addiction that stemmed from taking painkillers after an injury.
“For 20 years, we’ve tried to get this family member help and there are no openings,” she said. “It’s very personal for me.”
She would also implement reforms at the Department of Planning and Permitting to speed up permitting and stimulate the economy. That includes moving from a plan-driven model to one based on inspections that will catch illegal building in the field, like monster homes.
The current inefficiencies at DPP mean a huge loss of money for people trying to build, she said. Interest rates and people’s financial positions change during delay periods, or people just get so frustrated that they give up, Pine said.
“It’s a symptom of decades of mayors not fixing the problems in the department that has caused the situation we’re in today,” she said.
Once tourism has recovered from the pandemic, Pine said she would like to reduce the number of visitors to the island.
“We have a limited carrying capacity before we start destroying our island and causing damage that we can’t fix,” she said.
Read other profiles in this series:
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