Kelly Takaya King, a progressive who’s championed climate sustainability and economic diversification while serving three terms on the Maui County Council, announced Tuesday that she’s running for mayor, joining a crowded field of candidates on the last day possible to enter the race.

Maui County locator map

Earlier this year, King announced she wouldn’t run again for the County Council and had instead considered vying for a seat in the state House. But at the urging of her supporters, King said she jumped in the mayor’s race along with at least seven other candidates trying to win voters’ support to lead the county of roughly 165,000 residents.

“When I thought about it, I thought the biggest impact I could have could be right here as mayor,” King told a group of two dozen supporters at a campaign event Tuesday afternoon.

In her years on the council, King has advocated and won more affordable rental housing in her South Maui district, pushed for policies to shift Maui away from its reliance on tourism and spearheaded a number of changes to boost environmental protection and sustainability.

Rather than working with 50 other House members to craft laws during a short window every year, she said she felt like she could more quickly enact change in the community as mayor, working together with the council that has in recent years tried to make big strides in tackling issues like the soaring cost of living, volatility of the visitor industry and threats from the climate crisis.

Kelly Takaya King, who’s currently serving her third term as a Maui council member, announced she’s running for mayor Tuesday afternoon. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

“It’s so last minute that you don’t think about something that big happening,” King said of her decision to run for mayor. “But we talked about the possibility and opportunity for change that might not come around again for another decade.”

With King’s late announcement, the Maui mayoral race is shaping up to be one of the most competitive in its history. King joins three other prominent government leaders who want to serve as Maui County’s chief executive, including Mayor Michael Victorino, Council member Mike Molina and former Judge Richard Bissen, all of whom have years of experience in their roles in government. So far, Bissen has launched one of the most aggressive campaigns, outraising his opponents by tens of thousands of dollars.

“Never before have we had such well-known and qualified candidates,” said Dick Mayer, a retired economics professor who’s been observing Maui politics for decades. “What makes it most competitive is the fact that good candidates may not win because other, perhaps weaker candidates, may take votes away from the best candidate.”

Although council members control the purse strings and make county laws, it’s the mayor — and the county administration as a whole — that launches new programs and runs things on a day-to-day basis on Maui, Molokai and Lanai.

The mayor serves a four-year term with the power to select and remove county department heads who control everything spanning from development to social safety net programs to environmental protection.

Politician wearing aloha shirt in headshot
Former Judge Richard Bissen 

Since the last mayoral election in November 2018, the pandemic worsened many of the county’s existing problems. After decades of talks of economic diversification, half of all jobs on Maui in 2019 still relied on the visitor industry. When the pandemic halted travel, Maui’s unemployment rate soared to 35%, the highest among all U.S. metro areas.

In the last three and a half years, the typical price of a Maui home shot up almost a half-million dollars to $1.2 million, driven by a flood of out-of-state buyers who flocked to the islands during the pandemic. There’s community concern that many longtime families are being forced to leave, and so far, there hasn’t been enough done to stop them from being priced out.

“We are just not doing what our people need,” said Stan Franco, who runs Stand Up Maui, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing. “That means whoever is running for mayor has to commit to make this happen for our people.”

Right now, the stakes are high: The County Council is expected to this week approve a $1 billion budget for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. It includes $58 million for the county’s affordable housing fund, which can be used to help pay to construct homes and cover the costs of roads, sewers and water lines in exchange for developers building homes within families’ financial reach.

Councilman Mike Molina 

It will largely be up to the mayor and the county department heads to spend that money and make sure it pays for projects that residents can afford. Right now, the county is facing increasing pressure to take a more active role in housing its residents, including by supplying county-owned land on which developers can build affordable homes.

“We are just losing everything in the process of not building housing for our local people,” said Franco.

The future of Maui’s relationship with tourism could also be swayed by the next county leader. After rental cars and crowds emptied during the pandemic, the county’s relationship with tourism came into sharp focus, with many residents pleading with county leaders to better control what many people believe is an unmanageable number of tourists.

Earlier this year, the council voted to enact a law that pauses the construction of new hotels and visitor lodgings for two years, or until the county sets a cap on such places — whichever comes first. Victorino tried to veto the bill, arguing that it would instead spur the growth of vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods. King and Molina, current contenders to be mayor, were in support of the proposal.

Mayor Michael Victorino 

“Our leadership has to take a strong stance on actually managing tourism — and not just lip service,” said Kai Nishiki, a longtime champion for shoreline access who’s rallied against overtourism.

In the months to come, Maui’s mayoral candidates will be pressed in a number of public forums to share their thoughts on the community’s most pressing concerns — from deciding who should control water to boosting ridership on the bus system to supporting the launch of the county’s new agriculture department.

Mayoral candidates are nonpartisan, meaning they don’t run as Democrats or Republicans. Besides King, Molina, Victorino and Bissen, the four other candidates who filed paperwork to run for mayor are: Cullan Bell of Wailuku, Kim Brown of Makawao, Alana Kay of Makawao and Jonah Lion of Makawao.

Voters will first be asked to pick their favorite candidates during the primary election in August, which will narrow the field down to the final two. Then voters are asked to weigh in for the final time in November.

A photo of Polo Beach on Maui.
The proposal to permanently cap the number of hotels is currently moving through the county vetting process. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

They’ll also be asked to pick their representatives for the nine seats that make up the Maui County Council, which are all up for reelection. Voters will also have the chance to weigh in on a number of ballot measures, including those that could require the county to operate as a bilingual government, create a separate housing department and ensure that residents in rural communities like Hana, Molokai and Lanai can participate remotely in council meetings.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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