The election field for mayor of Maui County is starting to take shape, with Mayor Michael Victorino and former Judge Richard Bissen declaring their candidacies this week.

Maui County locator mapVictorino, 69, announced that he will seek a second four-year term to continue the progress he said his administration has made since voters installed him in the county’s top office in January 2019. He defeated Councilwoman Elle Cochran by 11% in the 2018 election.

A former insurance adviser who served on the Maui County Council for eight years before running up against term limits in 2016, Victorino pledged in a campaign announcement publicized on Sunday to develop more affordable rentals and workforce housing, invest in green infrastructure and diversify the economy to reduce the county’s dependence on tourism.

The veteran politician will face off against at least one opponent when residents of Maui County elect a nonpartisan mayor in November following the August primary race. Bissen, a former chief judge of the Maui 2nd Circuit Court, made public his intent to campaign for mayor two days after Victorino’s announcement.

Candidates can start officially filing to run March 1 with the Office of the County Clerk’s Election Division.

Candidates can’t officially file to run for office until March 1 but at least two people have declared their intent to run for mayor this election. Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2021

Bissen, 59, stepped down from his judgeship in December in the midst of his second 10-year appointment, which was set to expire in 2025. At the time he told The Maui News of his interest in pursuing politics following a 35-year legal career.

Maui Mayor Mike Victorino speaks to joint WAM Finance committees at the 2020 Legislature
Maui Mayor Mike Victorino said his campaign platform will focus on affordable housing, green infrastructure and economic diversity. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“I feel like I’m old enough to have gained experience in all the places that I’ve worked, but I’m young enough to still be able to contribute to our community,” he told the newspaper. “I love Maui. I love the people of Maui. Maui has been good to me my whole life. I want to continue serving it.”

Launching his career in 1986 as a 2nd Circuit Court law clerk, Bissen moved on to become a deputy prosecutor for Maui County and then the county’s lead prosecutor. He later worked as the state’s first deputy attorney general and as an acting director of the state Department of Public Safety before he was sworn in as a circuit court judge on Maui.

Bissen is a founding member of the Maui Drug Court, which offers nonviolent criminal offenders with substance abuse problems the chance to undergo supervised addiction treatment.

Politician wearing aloha shirt in headshot
Richard Bissen, a former judge, announced his campaign for Maui mayor with a platform centered on housing, jobs and the environment. 

In his campaign announcement, Bissen said he’s running to push forward improvements in housing, jobs and the environment. But, as with Victorino, no details on his platform were immediately available.

Neither candidate responded to requests to comment for this story.

Whomever voters install into Maui’s top leadership seat will take the reins of a county still reeling from the economic and public health effects of the coronavirus pandemic while also facing an affordable housing crisis and the uncertainties of climate change.

The county is also in the throes of a once-a-decade process to refine how local government works, with a volunteer commission nearing the end of an effort to propose a series of amendments to the county charter. The proposals will appear on the November election ballot and voters will be asked to vote each amendment up or down.

Of particular consequence to the county’s next mayor are a number of amendment proposals that would, for example, curb the mayor’s power to appoint department heads, grant the county council the ability to remove the corporation counsel from office without the mayor’s consent and require the mayor to garner buy-in from the County Council to remove the county prosecutor from office.

With a population of 165,000 residents spread across three islands, Maui County, like the rest of the state, suffers from exceptionally low voter participation. But when Hawaii transitioned to an all-mail voting system in 2020, turnout in the general election across Maui, Molokai and Lanai that year reached a 26-year high, with ballots cast by 66.4% of registered voters.

The boost in civic engagement raises expectations for another lively election season this year. Voters can expect to receive their ballots in the mail for the primary election by July 26, according to the state elections office.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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