With incumbent Brian Taniguchi retiring at the end of his term, the race for the Senate seat covering Manoa and Makiki is ripe for competition.

Honolulu City Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga faces Makiki-Tantalus Neighborhood Board Chair Ian Ross for the Democratic nomination, while the sole Republican candidate, a political newcomer named Ben Sakai, will automatically proceed to the general election this November.

If Fukunaga were to win, it would mean a return to her previous position as senator for District 11 — Manoa, Makiki, Punchbowl, Papakolea — where she served for 20 years before redistricting merged her district with Taniguchi’s and forced a matchup between the two of them in 2012. Then, Fukunaga received 44.6% of the vote against Taniguchi’s 55.4%, leading her to run in a special election for Honolulu City Council that November and edge out 15 other candidates.

Ross is betting that he can transpose his hyperlocal experience with the Makiki-Tantalus Neighborhood Board to higher, statewide office.

University of Hawaii at Manoa with a backdrop of Diamond Head as seen from Tantalus.
University of Hawaii at Manoa forms Senate District 11’s southern corner. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Born in the district and raised on Kauai, Ross graduated from the University of Hawaii Manoa with a degree in economics, and credits his political interest with his mom’s activism in women’s and disability rights as he was growing up. As a teenager, Ross organized a youth advisory committee for then-Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho, and most recently, he worked as a legislative aide in the state Senate earlier this year.

He spoke chiefly about runaway housing costs, which he says pushes residents to the mainland and causes disengagement even among those who stay as they struggle to financially support themselves.

“We need to give people in Hawaii a reason to be optimistic and invest in their communities,” he said.

Ross pointed to Sen. Stanley Chang’s ALOHA Homes proposal – which is inspired by Singapore’s model and seeks to build public, high-density housing on state land near rail stations – as a way to accomplish this, but thinks low-density communities like Manoa should not be included as sites of high-density housing.

While he likes the concept of high-density housing, he said that areas like downtown would be better suited due to their walkability and density of services.

“We need to make sure Manoa stays Manoa,” he said.

Fukunaga also emphasized Hawaii’s housing crisis, referring to it as a primary reason she’s running.

“With the pandemic, the high cost of living and lack of really high paying jobs in Hawaii, a lot of people have been complaining to me that their children are moving away,” she said.

Her immediate solution leans toward tackling the jobs side of the equation, with economic diversification a main part of her platform.

“I have worked toward diversification for a long time,” she said, referencing her previous experience chairing the state Senate Economic Development and Technology Committee.

Fukunaga is especially interested in continuing to develop Hawaii’s film industry, which, through tax credits and a dedicated office for facilitating production, already punches above its weight.

Productions like the Jurassic Park series, Hawaii Five-0, and a string of Adam Sandler movies have all been filmed in Hawaii. Fukunaga would like to expand the sector even further, creating an ecosystem of jobs to support these on-location films.

“People who have worked in the industry have said that’s really what you are looking for, where you’re really creating whole new towns because all the work that springs up around that town is tied in with commercial post-production, graphics, animation, the whole nine yards,” she said.

And similar things could be done for health care and cybersecurity, she said.

Ross recognizes tourism will remain the backbone of Hawaii’s economy but also has some ideas for economic diversification.

“We should put aside some funds to support our business accelerator programs,” he said, speaking about “innovation hubs” that can be sites of concentrated business incentives for developers. He was reluctant to specify a dollar amount, calling the plan more of “a broad framework” at this point, but referred to it as a medium investment.

“The goal is just to get an effective package,” he said.

Echoing Fukunaga’s point about the importance of business ecosystems, he added, “there’s an add-on benefit in the culture when a bunch of these come up around the same time.”

Innovation districts can help rejuvenate downtown areas and reduce crime — “a huge societal win-win,” he said.

Ian Ross.
Chair of his neighborhood board, Ian Ross hopes to overcome Carol Fukunaga’s long tenure in public office. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Each of the Democratic candidates stressed the importance of public trust, a virtue they believe should permeate every debate from Red Hill to the Thirty Meter Telescope to vacation rentals here in Honolulu.

The candidates agree on a lot of things: vacation rental measures should be determined on the local level; the most important aspect of the Thirty Meter Telescope is that stakeholders should be listened to; and the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility at Pearl Harbor needs to be shut down.

Each also extols the power of technology for reaching constituents. Ross’s campaign website allows people to schedule him for talk stories, while Fukunaga enjoys the power that video chat applications grant, allowing remote communication with large groups of constituents.

Ross even uses the word “grassroots” to signify not just a campaign mindset but also when it comes to legislation – instead of brainstorming laws behind closed doors, he said, lawmakers can host town halls and problem-solve with their constituents.

Ross’s vision of long-term investment also includes more of a focus on kupuna and long-term care. Hawaii’s prior arrangement was limited in its scope, providing $210 per week to eligible caregivers who were fortunate enough to make it off the waitlist. He referenced Washington state as a possible model: there, a statewide paycheck tax of 58 cents per $100 provides insurance for almost every worker.

On homelessness, Fukunaga spoke about the importance of state funding for local clusters of service providers – a community-oriented approach the City Council took during her tenure there, she said, which members found to work best.

Fukunaga also said that recent efforts to implement “tiny homes” are preferable to getting more people into crowded shelters, especially during the pandemic.

Ross took it a step further, referencing Lt. Gov. Josh Green’s fact page on homelessness in Hawaii and its overwhelming cost on the state’s Medicaid system. Of its $2 billion annual budget, 61% is spent on less than 4% of Medicaid users, the vast majority of whom are chronically homeless. The state already partially combats this by employing Medicaid dollars for “Community Integration Services” that aim to assist individuals with finding housing, the idea being that simply having housing decreases a person’s chance of developing severe health problems.

Ross’s vision involves furthering this initiative through mental health check-ins and addiction support, which he says would be a more efficient use of money than waiting until people require emergency room visits.

After almost five years on his neighborhood board, Ross said his belief has shifted in how good governance works. Previously, he felt that bottom-up work – work stemming from neighborhood boards, for example, which act purely in an advisory manner – would suffice.

“Now I really believe that the community needs a champion who’s elected in the Legislature to bridge it back to the people. And that person has to be offering a fresh perspective; they have to be someone new, because we need new results.”

And after 10 years as a council member, Fukunaga now views the levels of government differently than when she was previously in the Legislature. “I think in the past, we in the Legislature never viewed the county council as an equal partner, partly because in the past we viewed the counties as more emergency services,” she said.

The pandemic helped change that.

Now, she said, she feels “you cannot really make a dent in some of these difficult problem areas unless you bring together a lot more cooperation and collaboration among many levels of government.”

Carol Fukunaga.
After serving 10 years in the Honolulu City Council, Carol Fukunaga hopes to return to her old Senate seat. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Because of Hawaii’s Democratic tilt, the winner of Aug. 13’s Democratic primary will likely also win the general in November.

But Ben Sakai, the Republican candidate, isn’t letting that discourage him.

Sakai enters the race at 25 years old with no previous political experience. An Eagle Scout from the district, he works 60 hours each week between his job at Sura, a Korean barbecue restaurant, and the Hawaii Kai branch of AT&T.

“I’m just a regular dude, really. Just living my life and just trying to help the community inspire other people,” he said.

Recent inflation catalyzed his interest in politics, he said, as he saw friends and family struggling to get by. He’s personable and an avid churchgoer, attending multiple times per week, and was inspired to run for office last month.

“A church member approached me, and she said, ‘I think you’d be great for the state Senate.’ And I thought about it, I prayed about it. And here we are,” he said.

Like his Democratic opponents, Sakai pointed to rising costs and public safety as the most salient concerns for District 11.

But he was light on policy talk, reiterating his busy work schedule. When probed about the vacation rental debate, for example, Sakai asked about the different views: “Do you have any opinions or anything that your friends have told you about this certain policy?” He said he would work hard to speak with residents and figure out what other kinds of problems they’d want him to solve.

One area Sakai did speak about was his feeling that young people lack structure.

“I just feel like a lot of people my age were lost. A lot of my friends, we fall into that trap of just making money, going out on the weekends, partying, having fun, and there’s no foundation in that,” he said.

Where District 11 could improve this is by further investing into “more organized sports, more rec centers, more places for our youth to go to,” he said.

Makiki District Park could have indoor basketball courts, he said, along with coaches and mentors.

“I want everyone to live a better life. I want our community to be safe, and I want everyone to be happy,” he said.

Ben Sakai.
As the lone Republican running for Senate District 11, Ben Sakai will automatically advance to the general election and face the Democratic nominee. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Brian Taniguchi, the retiring Democratic incumbent, has so far resisted endorsing a specific candidate.

“I’m definitely voting for whoever wins the Democratic primary. Other than that, I don’t have much else to say,” he wrote in an email.

Tom Heinrich, a legislative aide for Taniguchi, suggested that Fukunaga might currently have the upper hand with more name recognition than Ross beyond Makiki’s borders.

But if Ross is an underdog, he’s working hard to overcome that label.

“I am out there every day knocking on doors, making phone calls, sign-waving, chatting with people, having talk stories,” he said. “Our campaign is the most visible campaign for this seat by far.”

To an extent, Fukunaga seems to recognize this too.

“I think he’s going to be a very hard campaigner, and I have great respect for him,” she said. “The more choices you have, the better.”

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