Hawaii island’s race for mayor pits two candidates who appear to be political polar opposites.

Hawaii County Prosecutor Mitch Roth faces businessman and community organizer Ikaika Marzo in the Nov. 3 general election for the county’s top executive seat. They advanced as the top two finishers in the crowded Aug. 8 primary.

Their views, as well as experience, differ drastically.

Roth, 56, has years of public service and administrative experience stemming from his career in Hawaii’s judicial system.

Marzo, meanwhile, has none – although the political newcomer says that can be an asset, as he will bring an outsider’s perspective to the job that manages a roughly $585 million annual budget.

With the election four weeks away, Roth has outraised his competitor by $229,076.

According to the latest financial disclosure reports filed with the state Campaign Spending Commission, Roth has raised $356,686, while Marzo has brought in $127,610.

Roth finished ahead of Marzo in the primary election by taking in 20,235 votes, good for 31.1% of the total in a race that featured 15 candidates. Marzo earned 13,775 votes, good for 21.2%.

Mitch Roth supports building the Thirty Meter Telescope. Submitted

Roth points to his experience as evidence he can handle the county’s top job.

Hawaii’s prosecutor since 2012, Roth was a deputy prosecutor for 19 years, five in Honolulu and 14 on the Big Island before that. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Hawaii Manoa and a law degree from Whittier Law School.

On Hawaii island, his office has established a number of programs, including the Big Island Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center, which is credited with helping reduce juvenile crime in the county by more than 50%, according to his campaign page bio.

Roth also helped start a Veterans Treatment Court and implemented several other safety initiatives.

But as prosecuting attorney – his term is up Dec. 7 regardless if he wins the mayoral race – he oversaw an $11 million budget and around 120 employees. He knows how to land grants, hire and fire staff, and lead big offices, he said.

“I’ve handled all that,” Roth said. “I feel very comfortable in this area.”

Long-term, he believes investing in green energy projects can diversify the island’s economy as well as help it environmentally. A supporter of astronomy and the controversial and delayed Thirty Meter Telescope project, he would look to ag tourism, aquaculture expansion and the aeronautical industry as sectors that could help the island’s economy grow.

Hawaii island has seen attempts to develop aeronautical industries before. Most recently, a proposed satellite launch facility near Keaau pitched by Alaska Aerospace Corp. was scrapped at the end of 2019 after community pushback.

“That’s a great opportunity,” Roth said of the possibility.

The additions would be doubly critical to develop, he said, should the astronomy industry jettison the island and take with it its reported $90 million economic impact and 500-some jobs.

But short term, quicker additions are out there.

Roth said at a mayoral forum in Hilo recently that a top priority should he take office would be to ensure people can safely but quickly get back to work. That would mean acting on projects that the county should already have in the pipes, such as capital improvement projects, as well as upgrades to technology infrastructure.

“The way we do that is getting government out of the way,” he said. “When we control, we stifle creativity.”

Ikaika Marzo is opposed to the TMT project. 

Marzo, on the other hand, doesn’t have any political experience – and he doesn’t shy away from that fact.

“Status quo is not what’s needed right now,” Marzo told Civil Beat.

Marzo is a businessman who grew up in Kalapana, in the Puna District. He is a graduate of Pahoa High School and operates Kalapana Cultural Tours, a business he started with “$50 in my pocket,” he said. He’s also a commercial fisherman and cattle rancher.

But Marzo, 36, is most well-known on the island for his role as a community organizer during the 2018 Kilauea eruption when he posted daily updates of the lava flow online.

He and several others formed a grassroots community center known as “the Hub” that distributed meals, donations and emergency items to the affected community during that time. It raised $228,000.

“With no government help, we succeeded,” Marzo said.

He points to that over office-holding as real-world experience that shows he can handle the mayor’s position.

“I was born with the gift to lead people in the right direction,” he said.

Marzo said he would bring in a diverse group of nonprofit, business and other leaders to fill out his Cabinet positions, but he’d also retain current Mayor Harry Kim for a short time to ensure a smooth administration transition should he be elected.

Marzo criticized Kim during the primary campaign for the incumbent’s response to the lava crisis, but said he’d have no problem retaining the incumbent to help him out in the first days.

“Every decision we make will be on my shoulders,” Marzo said at the Oct. 1 mayoral forum. “And I want to say that with authority.”

He said he wants to explore ag tourism, especially hemp production, to diversify Hawaii island’s economy.

“That’s an industry we can look forward to,” he said.

Mauna Kea

Perhaps the biggest difference between Roth and Marzo is their view on the future of telescopes on Mauna Kea. While it’s actually an issue under state control, the University of Hawaii’s astronomy leases are in limbo, as is the fate of the TMT.

Marzo is opposed to TMT being added to the 12 telescopes already on Mauna Kea.

He said he objects to extending the leases on grounds that Native Hawaiians weren’t treated fairly when the university 60 years ago constructed the Mauna Kea Access Road on Hawaiian Home Lands without permission from the U.S. Department of the Interior or the state.

This is an artist’s rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope, which developers hope to build on Mauna Kea. The issue has divided the community — and the mayor’s race. Thirty Meter Telescope

During the clash between opponents and proponents of the construction, Gov. David Ige assigned most of the responsibility to Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim.

With Kim leaving the post Dec. 7, it’s yet to play out what the new mayor’s role will be.

But Marzo said the $90 million economic hit from losing astronomy – should it transpire — could be made up with the aforementioned ag tourism and hemp development.

Marzo also said auditing and reviewing every department’s budget for more savings would be a way to “figure out ways to save money.”

Roth said he supports construction of TMT and that the entire community would benefit from the economic and educational opportunities it and the astronomy industry provide. The construction and high-tech jobs TMT would create would be all the more important for the island as it recovers from the pandemic.

“That’s where astronomy has the advantages,” he said of the industry’s role in diversifying the economy.

Roth has maintained on the campaign trail that TMT also represents deeply felt issues for many Native Hawaiians and, while the decision to build ultimately rests with the state and TMT, he is committed as mayor to provide leadership on behalf of Hawaii County to move the dialogue forward in an inclusive manner.

Hilo Bay with the majestic view of Mauna Kea with tiny dots on the summit, the observatories.
Hilo Bay is seen with a view of Mauna Kea, dotted by the astronomy observatories at the top. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Marzo and Roth agree on some issues.

Both said streamlining government, improving the permitting process and finding ways to ensure county recycling and transfer stations remain open are paramount.

The latter has been a challenge because of staffing issues, which have required the Solid Waste Division to juggle workers from one site to the other, forcing undermanned sites to close.

But Marzo has been short on some specifics when it comes to certain plans, saying he would take a look at all his options when it comes to his desk.

One example is whether he would rewrite the county’s taxing classifications since Marzo expressed surprise on the campaign trail at how high Hawaii County’s property taxes were in comparison to Maui’s rates.

“Maybe,” he said when asked about it at the forum.

While political experience isn’t on Marzo’s resume, it is in his family tree. Marzo and former Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi are cousins, and the candidate strikes a physical resemblance to the one-time popular county leader.

Both grew up in Kalapana, although Kenoi did so a generation before Marzo. Marzo said when he hears from voters that he reminds them of a young Kenoi, “I take that as a compliment.”

But, he added, they are different politically and philosophically. Namely, Marzo said, his older cousin was much more of a politician than he is. And Marzo says he himself has more of a business approach.

“His leadership and my leadership are different,” Marzo said.

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