The two general election candidates running to replace Honolulu Councilman Joey Manahan have a lot in common. 

Manahan’s chief of staff Radiant Cordero and Jacob Aki, chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English, are both young, legislative staffers for Democrats who grew up in Kalihi and hold master’s degrees. And both are eager to respond to the pandemic, promote affordable housing and fortify and expand city infrastructure. 

They are running to represent District 7, which includes Kalihi, Iwilei, Salt Lake, Hickam and Sand Island. With Aloha Stadium, the rail project, the airport and Honolulu Harbor, it’s a dynamic area with a lot at stake, Cordero said. 

“The future of our city is definitely connected to the future of our district,” she said. 

The candidates for District 7 have similar priorities.

Cordero, 30, was the top candidate in the August primary with 7,258 votes, or 41%. Aki got 6,471 votes, just under 37%. A third candidate, Ryan Mandado, was the choice of 1,563 voters who will now have to choose between Cordero or Aki. Mandado is now backing Cordero. 

Among Cordero’s political donors are the campaign accounts of Councilman Brandon Elefante, former council chairmen Ikaika Anderson and Ernie Martin, and former state Sen. Robert Bunda; Schatz Collaborative, the company owned by U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz’s wife Linda; and executives from developers like the Kobayashi Group and RM Towill Corp. 

She is also backed by several unions including those representing teachers, operating engineers, ironworkers, carpenters and laborers. 

Aki’s supporters include the campaign accounts of English, Senate President Ron Kouchi, state Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran and state Rep. Sean Quinlan; Jason Higa, CEO of FCH Enterprises, which owns Zippy’s; the Island Insurance PAC; and Joseph Lewis, the CEO of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement.

His union supporters include groups representing police officers, glassworkers, tapers and general contractors. 

Because Cordero has already worked for the City Council for nearly eight years, she said she can hit the ground running. 

“Our district deserves the scale and urgency that this moment demands to make government more accessible, more transparent and to meet their needs,” she said. “I want to be the community connector, I want to be their community advocate, and I’ve been doing that.”

Aki, 25, said that on paper, both candidates look a lot alike: well-educated, professionally experienced, young, energetic. The difference, he said, is the type of leadership they would bring. 

“For me, I’m not running on the coattails of my boss,” he said. “Everything that I’ve done has been through my hard work and things I’ve accomplished. And I think it’s that type of leader we need. Someone who can make the hard choices, and someone who knows what the community is going through.” 

Connecting Government And The Community

Cordero said her core values were set by her family, including her mother, who founded the Fil-Am Courier, a Filipino publication. 

“I saw the impact of building community and allowing for the community to have a voice,” she said. 

Like many of her would-be constituents, Cordero has worked a variety of service jobs, sometimes several at once, including gigs at the Royal Hawaiian and Sheraton hotels in Waikiki and grocery stores. She has also worked at the Fil-Am Courier as a writer and radio host. 

When she was a student at the University of Hawaii Manoa, she attended an event featuring Manahan, then a state representative, and he inspired her to get involved. She got a job as a legislative aid in his office. 

Throughout her work with Manahan and various nonprofits, Cordero said she sees herself as a “community connector” – bringing the concerns of the public to the government, and letting the community know what the government is doing on their behalf. 

“Sometimes when we’re making policies, they’re left out of the conversation,” she said. “What I’ve learned about being a public servant is really knowing your community beyond just the community stakeholders.”

Radiant Cordero has worked for the City Council since 2013.

Courtesy: Friends of Radiant Cordero

Among Cordero’s priorities as a council member are “core city services.” That includes making City Council itself more accessible so the public can more easily find meeting agendas and submit testimony. 

She would also work to improve city infrastructure. That means repaving roads, establishing more community gardens and ensuring sidewalks are safe, she said, but also building new infrastructure to facilitate housing development. 

To increase the city’s stock of affordable housing, Cordero believes vacant government and private buildings should be turned into homes. 

“Repurpose those properties to ensure that we can have housing for all incomes,” she said. 

Honolulu is doing a lot better responding to homelessness today than it was seven years ago, according to Cordero. She pointed to the opening of the Punawai Rest Stop, a city-funded hygiene center in District 7 that Cordero said builds trust with people living on the street and helps stabilize them. 

“It really restores the dignity of our neighbors experiencing homelessness,” she said. 

The district is also home to Hale Mauliola, the homeless navigation center at Sand Island, and Kahauiki Village, a plantation-style community established via a public-private partnership. 

“We can continue to do that,” she said. 

Despite these projects, Honolulu’s homelessness count remains high. The state ranks No. 2 in the nation for per capita homelessness, largely due to Oahu’s numbers. The total is worse than it was a decade ago, according to Point In Time count data, and unsheltered homelessness has been trending up for years. 

Cordero would like to see a greater investment in the Housing First program, an evidence-based strategy promoted by housing experts that puts people into housing and provides wraparound services. As of earlier this year, the city offered only 375 Housing First vouchers. Meanwhile, there were more than 2,300 unsheltered homeless people identified in the PIT count. 

“That is a huge, huge gap,” she said. “I really want to find a way to match that.” 

Cordero is not in favor of homeless encampment sweeps. She said they just move people around and cause them to lose their belongings, including personal documents they need to get back on their feet. She said she would vote against a sit-lie expansion. 

“The best support that the city can give is to be a support to our social service providers when they’re doing outreach,” she said. “We need to gain that trust. Trust doesn’t come from a police officer who is yelling at you.”

Regarding the city’s response to the pandemic, Cordero said Honolulu has done well overall, but the rules and communication at times have been haphazard and difficult for even council staff to understand.

Volunteers from the Lighthouse Outreach Center give out food to Kalihi community members during a distribution event on Thursday, May 14, 2020. Cars snaked for blocks as hundreds of people showed up to receive food donations. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)

Thousands of island residents have sought help with groceries, including at this Kalihi food distribution.

Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat

“It’s hard for us to really regurgitate the information when we are confused as well,” she said. “A lot of times it just doesn’t make sense. A lot of times people didn’t feel they were at the table until after they had raised heck about it.”

The city could’ve done more to do outreach to certain communities, Cordero said, but she was hesitant to criticize the administration.

“Because we are part of the city too, under Joey’s office,” she said. 

Regarding the rail, Cordero said her district stands to benefit from a new transportation option and the surrounding planning development. It will improve her neighbors’ quality of life, she said. 

“We have a lot to lose if we have to stop it and pay the federal government back,” she said. 

“But right now, the trust in the rail project has absolutely been diminished. It makes it hard to fight for it. But to really make sure that we are continuing, we need to make sure that we know exactly what the plans are, or if there are no plans. We need to hold their feet to the fire.” 

Cordero supports a “phased approach” to the Ala Moana finish line suggested by Mayor Kirk Caldwell last week. The idea is to continue the rail line into downtown and then pause until more funding becomes available. 

At the Honolulu Police Department, Cordero believes officers need enhanced bias training and that the department should ban chokeholds. She agrees with activists who have brought attention to systemic racism in the criminal justice system.  

Cordero also believes officers are “overburdened” by responding to homelessness and substance abuse. 

She would support moving funds from HPD to the Department of Community Services to address social issues that currently receive a criminal justice response. For HPD positions that have been vacant for several years, those positions could be eliminated, she said, as long as it didn’t impact HPD’s core functions. 

“DCS needs a lot of that support to really respond, to be that lead agency,” she said. 

Cordero said she would also like the City Council to have a committee meeting to address HPD’s low rate of solving crimes. 

“We need to figure that out,” she said. 

Ultimately, Cordero said she wants to bring her community’s concerns to the forefront at city hall. 

“I want to continue to fight to show that they matter,” she said. 

Understanding Neighbors’ Struggles

Aki grew up as the oldest of five kids in a Native Hawaiian family, living in public housing. He said he knows what it’s like to go without food in a household living paycheck to paycheck. 

“Growing up, I faced many of the same socio-economic challenges like poverty, domestic violence, drug abuse, things that continue to affect our community,” he said. 

He graduated from Kamehameha Schools, and at UH Manoa, he started getting involved in community and political issues, including a Washington, D.C., internship with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. 

Immediately after graduating in 2016, he started working for English’s office. In 2019, he earned a master’s degree in political management from George Washington University. 

“I’ve really had the opportunity to really sit back and watch and learn about how to legislate, learn more about public policy,” he said. 

Being a council member would allow Jacob Aki to use his policy knowledge and lived experience.

Aki said the struggles of families in his district are the same ones his own family has experienced. As a council member, he said that would give him a unique perspective. 

His first priority would be to support the economic recovery of the island amid the pandemic. The council will need to work with the mayor and the state legislature to navigate out of the crisis. 

“It’s going to take a collaborative approach, all levels of government working together,” he said. 

Part of the response will be reconfiguring the island’s economy. He noted that the number of visitors to the islands has increased for years but tourist spending has dropped over time

“We have an opportunity to reimagine and re-envision what tourism looks like,” he said. 

The island also needs to expand other sectors like agriculture, Aki said, including vertical farming. 

There is also a need for job training to help people transition to new fields, Aki said. The candidate has an economic recovery plan on his website that includes supporting renewable energy, expanding film and television production and assisting small businesses. 

Throughout the pandemic, there has been a lack of effective communication from all levels of government, which has caused confusion, Aki said. Many businesses in District 7 weren’t sure whether they were “essential” businesses and didn’t know whether they could be open or closed, Aki said. However, he said communication has improved more recently. 

Aki said he has “mixed feelings” about the Honolulu Police Department’s aggressive ticketing practices in August and September. 

“I’m a strong believer that the law is the law. If it’s going to be a policy put in place, it has to be enforced,” said Aki, who is endorsed by the police union. 

However, Aki wondered if the effort was really effective and whether it was worth clogging up the court system. Also, homeless people on the street were impacted because they had nowhere to go and sometimes didn’t have masks, Aki said. 

So, the effort was worth reassessing, he said. Recently, Chief Susan Ballard has stated her officers are again giving out more warnings than citations. The city’s efforts are better spent on outreach, particularly in immigrant communities that don’t speak English, Aki said. 

Regarding affordable housing, Aki said the city should incentivize private sector investments, not build public housing itself. 

“I don’t think the city has the ability to lead in the creation of affordable housing,” he said. “Money is already tight.” 

The city can also speed up permitting, make city land available for housing and proactively build infrastructure for prospective housing developments. 

“If the city did that, it would definitely bring down the cost of what it takes to build these affordable housing units, which would drive down the cost for people like me looking at buying their first home,” he said. 

Honolulu should also embrace solutions to homelessness like Kahauiki Village, where there is on-site access to services and child care, Aki said. He also admires the work of Puuhonua o Waianae, a homeless community that privately fundraised enough money to buy a piece of land mauka of the Waianae boat harbor. 

In general, homelessness needs to be addressed collaboratively between the city, state, and federal governments along with the private sector, Aki said. 

“Homelessness, it’s everyone’s responsibility,” he said. “I do think it’s going to take everybody working together.”

While Aki said he understands “the purpose” of sit-lie bans, he said they don’t really solve any problems and he would probably vote against expanding them. 

“You kick them out from one area, they’ll just move to another,” he said, noting that the homeless population is disproportionately made up of Native Hawaiians. “We need to find a more permanent solution to it and not go straight to criminalizing them because many who are arrested in these sit-lie bans are being criminally prosecuted for the plain fact that they don’t have a home.”

It’s possible Honolulu’s sit-lie bans are not even constitutional, Aki said. A 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision states that homeless people cannot be punished for living outside when there is no other place for them to go. 

Despite a lack of housing units to shelter everyone living on Oahu’s streets, Honolulu has continued to cite and sweep homeless people anyway. City officials point to HPD’s tent city program as evidence that there is a place for homeless people to go. 

Aki said he is a strong supporter of the rail project but he is starting to wonder whether a public-private partnership is even feasible. HART hasn’t been transparent, he said, and with the city backing out of the P3 process, Aki has a lot of questions.

HART rail guideway columns near the Keehi Lagoon Beach Park / MIddle Street area. September 17, 2020

Both candidates are rail supporters but have a lot of concerns about the project.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Why did they do that? And what do they know that we don’t?” he said, adding that he doubts the project will be done by HART’s estimate of 2026. 

Aki doesn’t believe stopping the project at Middle Street is an option. 

“We might need to come to a point where we need to pause and look at the feasibility of the financial situation. But the goal should be to complete it all the way to Ala Moana.” 

During a year in which there were national calls for police reform, Aki doesn’t believe Hawaii has the same problems regarding race and policing as departments on the continent. He appreciates that the department is reviewing its use of force policy. 

“Are there a few rotten apples that do spoil it? Yes, there definitely are,” he said. 

Aki said HPD has been unable to address serious crimes in Kalihi and Salt Lake because they have been “severely underfunded” for years. 

“Police haven’t had the resources to combat those problems,” he said. 

Aki agrees with calls to increase funding for social service programs, but that money should not come from the police department budget, he said. HPD needs to fill its vacant positions, according to Aki. 

“While there are issues in our police, we need to ensure they have the funding and the support, and look at ways to have them more integrated into our community,” he said. 

Aki said what sets him apart from his opponent is his experience – in government and throughout his life. 

“We need someone with the proven ability to lead, and relationships with every level of government. To get through this pandemic, the city can’t do it alone,” he said. 

“And I think the second biggest difference is I went through many of the things our community members are going through. I understand firsthand what needs to be done to address these socio-economic issues to really make improvements for their lives, not just those in our district, but for everybody.”

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