A veteran state lawmaker who champions progressive ideas on homelessness and police reform is up against an entertainer and first-time candidate who is running on a platform of public safety and “common sense.”
Former Hawaii Sen. Will Espero and Augie Tulba, a comedian and marketing professional, will face off on the general election ballot to represent District 9.
The area, which encompasses Waikele, Mililani, Royal Kunia and portions of Ewa Beach, is currently represented by Councilman Ron Menor, who is term-limited and eyeing a 2022 run for lieutenant governor.
Espero is leading in campaign fundraising and has endorsements from the Sierra Club of Hawaii and a long list of labor unions including those representing government employees, teachers, longshoremen, firefighters, carpenters, engineers and laborers.
He also won the most votes in the August primary with 35% of the vote, with Tulba close behind with 32.7%. The votes of the 6,000 residents who chose third-place finisher Earl Tsuneyoshi are now up for grabs.
Espero, a 59-year-old Democrat, said the biggest thing he can offer voters is experience. While serving in the Legislature, he said he introduced and passed 99 bills on issues ranging from gun control to aerospace job creation. A longtime proponent of police reform, he also championed a new law that makes police misconduct records available to the public rather than kept secret as they had been for over 20 years.
In an unprecedented time, Honolulu needs leaders who understand how the government works, according to Espero. That requires a lot of knowledge his opponent doesn’t have, he said.
“It’s the state Capitol versus comedy clubs. It’s policymaking versus telling jokes,” he said. “And we believe that at this time, proven leadership is important and key to dealing with this crisis and reopening our economy.”
Tulba, 52, wants to bring an “everyday guy” perspective and what he calls common sense to the City Council. He believes residents are frustrated with the government and want a change.
“I’m running because I’m tired, just like a lot of people, and hope we can bring back trust by leading by example,” he said.
For instance, if he wins, he said he’ll take a 5% pay cut on his council salary, as will anyone who comes to work for him. As for the policy expertise, Tulba said he can learn it.
“I am going to surround myself with amazing people who will give me the best advice,” he said.
Espero retired from the Senate in 2018 to run for lieutenant governor but lost in the Democratic primary. He said he wanted to run for the council seat because it would allow him to have a greater impact as one of nine members rather than one of 76 state lawmakers.
At the top of Espero’s list of priorities is addressing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, including impacts to the city’s budget and revenues.
“And then, of course, how do we move forward from here?” he said. “And what can the city and county do in order to help open up our economy, get our residents working again and get to what’s going to be known as the new normal?”
Espero said he would expect weekly, if not daily, briefings from the mayoral administration on pandemic response efforts.
While Espero believes tourism will always be Honolulu’s No. 1 economic driver, the island also needs to diversify its economy in the areas of alternative energy and agriculture, he said. Espero supports the legalization of recreational marijuana and facilitating hemp production.
“Here is a crop that was probably in the Garden of Eden that can create money, and revenue, and anybody can learn to grow,” he said.
The island could also do more to diversify tourism itself, Espero said.
Espero, who founded a production company, also wants to see Honolulu become an international arts destination. Oahu should also work to attract sports tourism, such as for athletic competitions, and medical tourism, not only for people having surgeries in Honolulu but to also see the island as a place of healing.
The overarching goal would be to attract fewer tourists, but ones who will spend more money than pre-covid visitors.
“What will be important is not quantity, but quality,” he said.
Addressing affordable housing and ending homelessness are also top of mind for Espero.
He supports a variety of solutions to help Oahu’s homeless population of over 4,400 people: funding for mental health and drug treatment programs, tiny homes, dorm-style housing, tax breaks for landlords who rent to formerly homeless people, developing government land for affordable housing, and developing high-density housing around the future rail line, among other ideas.
Espero likes the city’s existing POST program, a tent city run by the police department that provides houseless people a safe place to stay until spaces open up in shelters or housing units. Honolulu needs to do that type of so-called safe zone on a “grand scale” which could include converted shipping containers, repurposed buses or yurts, he said.
“That, to me, is one of the quickest ways to get people out of the parks, off of the medial strips, off of the roads and the sidewalks and into a place of shelter,” Espero said.
The city’s current practice of daily sweeps of homeless encampments – what Mayor Kirk Caldwell calls “compassionate disruption” – and enforcing and expanding sit-lie bans is not a real solution, according to Espero.
“It certainly doesn’t sound caring and compassionate,” he said. “If you’re doing something like sweeps every day and it seems like this has been going on for months and years, then it looks like something is wrong.”
When it comes to law enforcement, Espero believes there is a lot of room for improvement at HPD and among police in general.
The former chair of the Hawaii Senate’s Public Safety, Intergovernmental, and Military Affairs Committee, Espero supports the formation of state and federal databases of officers who were fired or forced to resign so that problem officers can’t just start over in new jurisdictions.
Espero supports accountability measures for individual police officers, such as body-worn cameras that are already being deployed at HPD. He believes the Honolulu Police Commission needs more “teeth” to hold the department accountable.
He also feels HPD should review its policies on issues like no-knock warrants and high-speed chases.
As a state lawmaker, he advocated for the police standards board that is supposed to establish a certification system for officers and worked with HPD to change its policy so that officers may not carry their service weapons while drinking alcohol.
Espero said HPD needs to improve its clearance rates, which reflect the percentage of cases closed by arrest or other closure as a percentage of crimes reported. Data published by the Attorney General’s Office and the FBI shows Honolulu’s case closure rate is among the lowest in the nation and is at historic lows based on the department’s own standards, according to a Civil Beat analysis.
Chief Susan Ballard has disputed these numbers but hasn’t disclosed what she believes her agency’s clearance rates are and has declined multiple interview requests.
“We need to have better numbers,” Espero said. “It shows either the criminals are smarter than the police, or the police can use some more training and assistance, maybe from the feds.”
Espero was also critical of Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration’s unprecedented citation spree, ticketing tens of thousands of residents for minor pandemic-related infractions. The over $30 million HPD received in CARES Act money could’ve gone to better use, he said.
“The biggest beneficiaries on that, and I don’t mean this with disrespect, are the police officers getting overtime pay and buying new ATVs,” he said, adding that he would rather hire unemployed workers to do pandemic-related educational outreach and keep the police focused on their usual work.
Overall, Espero said voters should choose him because he knows how to get things done in government.
“My perspective is going to be different than my opponent, who is just greener than green and who is just trying to figure out things, where to go, and how to do it,” he said.
Tulba is more concerned with the quality of life issues he hears about at the grassroots level than getting into the weeds on government policy details.
The struggles of his neighbors are the same ones his family has, he said, like his parents having to move in with him because they can’t afford a place of their own.
“I want to fight for the everyday guy because I understand the everyday guy,” he said. “I’m not a politician. I don’t want to be a politician.”
While he has worked for former Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi and former Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui, he has spent the majority of his career being an entertainer and radio host. He currently does marketing work for a financial education firm called Sweeps Strategies.
Before the pandemic, Tulba said he knocked on 10,000 doors in his district and he found that what constituents want is greater public safety. Residents are concerned about crimes of opportunity, from assaults on kupuna to thefts of slippers outside people’s front doors.
“How do we increase the police beats so that police officers can be visible in my community?” he said.
Unlike his opponent, Tulba – who received an endorsement from the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers union – sees no need for police reform.
“I do not support that on any grand scale,” he said. “I support the men and women in blue.”
There are “bad apples in every job,” Tulba said, and all city employees should be transparent and accountable. But all first responders should have “all the resources they need.”
Tulba’s other top issue is traffic congestion.
“We can find ways to fix the roadways so people can get to where they’ve got to get to, quicker,” he said.
If elected, Tulba also said he wants to open a district office so that constituents don’t have to drive to town to meet with their representative.
Tulba is supportive of the rail project and still believes in its promise to connect West Oahu to downtown. He remembers riding the bus from Waianae into town once when traffic slowed because of an accident. A construction worker on the bus became visibly panicked, Tulba said.
“He knew he was going to get fired because he was going to be late again,” he said. “Maybe it was his last chance. I just remembered how that affected me personally and I was like, how many people who live on the Waianae Coast or out in Ewa lost jobs because of an accident, because they’re on their last legs?”
However, he acknowledges the uncertainty around the project as costs have soared and the path to completion seems increasingly unclear.
Tulba said it’s like contracting someone to paint a sunset and the artist promises they can do it, but “a month later I go and check on your work, and I just get the water.”
“What’s it going to cost the taxpayer?” he said. “I am so tired of building projects we cannot finish or building projects we cannot afford. I’m tired.”
He said if the city cannot afford to finish the rail, he has no reservations about halting the project. Stopping it at Middle Street isn’t an attractive idea though, he said.
“I ride the bus,” he said. “I’ve never stopped at Middle Street. How does that help me?”
When it comes to the pandemic, Tulba said it’s “frustrating” to watch the government’s response but he hesitates to second guess from the sidelines. Overall, he said he is in favor of the mayor’s current tiered response plan.
However, he believes Mayor Kirk Caldwell has too often acted unilaterally without asking the City Council for input and permission. He would like to institute a requirement that forces the mayor to ask council members to extend his emergency orders every 30 days.
“If you’re in government, we all should take responsibility,” he said. “I want to keep the mayor accountable.”
On affordable housing, Tulba admits he hasn’t researched solutions.
“That is something that I’m still working on,” he said, but added it’s an important subject. “If anybody wants to see local people owning homes in Hawaii, it’s Augie. I cannot afford to buy a home.”
Regarding homelessness, Tulba supports the sweeping of homeless encampments and enforcement of the island’s sit-lie bans. But in terms of getting houseless people into homes, Tulba acknowledges he doesn’t have the answers.
Tulba believes the use of crystal meth and a lack of mental health resources are contributing factors. He said “new, fresh ideas” are needed but didn’t provide any specifics.
“We’ve got to put all the players in a room and we’ve got to stay there until we solve the problem,” he said. “I don’t think it’s humane for people – I get it, they have rights – but I don’t think it’s humane, seeing people sleeping on the streets. So, I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure that we don’t see that.”
In the nonpartisan council race, Tulba isn’t running in alignment with any political party.
“I left the Republican Party, and I left the Democrat Party,” he said.
A 2018 Instagram photo of Tulba’s brother wearing a red Make America Great Again hat caused some speculation online that Tulba is a supporter of President Donald Trump. He wouldn’t confirm or deny.
“I don’t think it’s important in my race,” he said. “I think what’s important is that I represent people who are Republican and Democrat.”
Tulba is running for the council seat with endorsements from Kenoi, Tsutsui, North Shore Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi, former Republican Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona and Democratic state Rep. Ty Cullen. He is also supported by the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association and unions representing plumbers and pipefitters, nurses, longshore workers and electrical workers.
Overall, what Tulba wants voters to know about him is that he understands their challenges and will work to address them. Government wasn’t designed to be run by “lawyers or amazing smart, MIT Harvard guys,” he said. It’s meant to be run by everyday people.
“I stepped outside my comfort zone because I love my community, and I’d love to see my family stay here, live here,” he said. “I would like to see my mom have her own place that she can afford. I’d like to see parents come home 15, 20 minutes earlier so they can spend time with their children. That’s why I’m running.”