Honolulu’s dense urban core is the focus of a major political scrum this year with seven candidates vying to replace political veteran Carol Fukunaga, who is leaving office because of term limits and has set her sights on a Senate seat.

The seven are running to serve as the City Council member representing District 6, which includes downtown Honolulu, parts of Kakaako, Punchbowl, Papakolea, Pauoa Valley, Nuuanu, Iwilei, Chinatown, Liliha, Alewa Heights, Kalihi and Kalihi Valley.

It’s a diverse area that encompasses both haves and have-nots, including affluent kamaainas living along the old Pali Highway in Nuuanu, rich newcomers in glistening high-rise towers in Kakaako, middle-income folks in walk-up apartments near busy highways, low-income families struggling to get by in public housing in Kalihi Valley and homeless people living under tarps in Iwilei.

Honolulu’s District 6 includes some of the most densely populated parts of Oahu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Bridging the district’s income and demographic divides would be part of the challenge of the job, the candidates said in recent interviews.

The race is notable for the deep Hawaiian roots of all seven candidates who will be running not just on the strength of their own network of contacts but also those of their ancestors. They include Tyler Dos Santos-Tam, Ikaika Hussey, Nalani Jenkins, Chance Naʻauao-Ota, Dennis Nakasato, Traci Toguchi and Chad Wolke.

The youngest, Naʻauao-Ota, is 21; the oldest, Nakasato, is 75. The two men are far apart in age but one thing they share is a worry that crime is on the rise in Honolulu. Two others, Toguchi and Jenkins, also named crime as their top concern in their responses to a Civil Beat candidate questionnaire.

Hussey cited municipal corruption as his top concern. Dos Santos-Tam said his focus is creating more affordable housing.

Most, if not all, are well-known in the community, having served in a variety of volunteer positions, though only one, Nakasato, has previously held elected office. Jenkins, an award-winning musician; and Toguchi, a singer who was Miss Hawaii 1995, bring not just acumen but star power to their candidacies.

“We’re very fortunate,” said Wesley Fong, chairman of the Liliha Neighborhood Board. “It’s not like somebody coming out of the woodwork running for office.”

This is a political rematch for two of the candidates — Hussey and Dos Santos-Tam — who vied for the seat in 2018 against Fukunaga, who beat them decisively.

Best-funded for the race is Dos Santos-Tam, who has raised almost $104,000 in the past six months, much of it from real estate developers and construction trade unions.

Carol Fukunaga.
Exiting councilwoman Carol Fukunaga won praise from voters. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Many constituents are sad to see Fukunaga go, with several neighborhood board officers praising her diligence and conscientious approach.

“It’s hard to top her,” said Patrick Smith, chair of the Nuuanu-Punchbowl Neighborhood Board. “She set a high bar for excellence.”

He is hoping her replacement will take the time to visit residents and hear their concerns as Fukunaga did as a regular attendee at meetings for the district’s six neighborhood boards.

The candidates need to receive at least 50% of the vote plus one to win the Aug. 13 primary outright. If no candidate reaches that threshold, the top two will face a runoff in the Nov. 8 general election.

Tyler Dos Santos-Tam

Dos Santos-Tam, 34, born and raised in Alewa Heights, has been a political activist and construction-industry lobbyist. The son of Roland Tam, a well-known doctor at St. Francis Hospital in Liliha, he attended Punahou and Yale University.

At age 23, Dos Santos-Tam joined the Liliha Neighborhood Board and served for six years, which gave him a window into local problems. When a pedestrian was hit by an SUV on Liliha Street in 2013, underscoring the need for an upgraded crosswalk, it took years for the city to do the work, he recalled.

“Even if someone nearly died, the city took too long,” he said. “The neighborhood had to wait and wait and wait.”

He later coordinated Joe Biden’s presidential campaign in Hawaii and was named chair of the state Democratic party in 2020.

Dos Santos-Tam has used his construction industry expertise to investigate monster home construction, discovering that many unlicensed contractors were doing the work without the city taking notice or shutting them down. He thinks he could provide much-needed oversight.

“That was instructional as to how the government needs to step up,” he said.

Dos Santos-Tam would also like to use his construction know-how to find ways to increase the number of affordable homes built each year, such as boosting the allowable density in existing neighborhoods.

Tyler Dos Santos-Tam wants to take forceful action to increase the city’s stock of affordable housing. Courtesy: Kat Wade

The construction industry connections are also helping fuel Dos Santos-Tam’s campaign, with some $25,500 coming from members of the Kobayashi real estate empire and other large donations from the Painters Union Local, the Tapers Union Local, the Carpet, Linoleum and Soft Tile Local Union 1926 Political Action Committee and the Masons PAC.

Dos Santos-Tam was also well funded in the 2018 race, when Fukunaga accused him of being behind PAC-financed mud-slinging. He denied responsibility for the campaign against her.

He believes he will be able to reach across demographic divides to help people in the community work together more effectively.

“We are at a crossroads as a city,” he said. “We need someone who can bring people together.”

But bringing people together wasn’t how U.S. Rep. Ed Case saw it when the state Democratic Party under Dos Santos-Tam’s leadership passed a resolution expressing “disappointment” with the Hawaii Democrat for not doing more to advance Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. Case said that he had not been notified of the resolution nor given a chance to respond, adding that he had, in fact, voted for the bill while also advancing an infrastructure package that actually passed.

Dos Santos-Tam said the resolution sprang up quickly amid the heated debate over the two bills and he didn’t think it would pass. Now he wishes he had handled it differently. “I regret I didn’t reach out and engage in the way I should have,” he said.

The City Council is nonpartisan so candidates aren’t designated by party affiliations. Dos Santos-Tam said he would work across any ideological lines to get things done.

“Filling potholes,” he said, “is not a partisan issue.”

View of Alewa Heights located above Honolulu, Hawaii.
Alewa Heights is one of the neighborhoods that make up District 6. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Ikaika Hussey

Hussey is running on an anti-corruption platform, starting with rail, housing and the police, and is looking for new ways to empower the public.

“We need elected officials who see government as a sacred trust, not merely a way to enhance their lobbyist careers or sweeten their rail contracts,” he said.

He is the only District 6 candidate who has taken the “Our Hawaii” pledge not to accept contributions over $100 from political action committees and out-of-state developers. He has raised $13,791 in the last six months, primarily from individual donors who gave less than $1,000.

Hussey, 44, thinks that political contributions by corporate interests have injured Hawaii by causing officials to favor business interests over average people’s needs.

“The influence of that kind of money is deleterious,” he said.

Hussey ardently supports mass transit but wants to get tough on what he calls fiscal mismanagement by the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation. He said that HART’s volunteer directors were never skilled enough nor given enough knowledgeable staff support to provide proper supervision of the rail project’s construction. Much more intense intervention by the council is needed, he said.

Ikaika Hussey thinks it is time to clean up city government. Photographer: Kaipo Kiaha

“I, as a member of the City Council, would see it as my job to own the responsibility for it,” Hussey said. “I don’t think we should be passing the buck. We should own the problem and the success of the rail.”

He thinks the council also needs to independently investigate and closely monitor the actions of the Honolulu Police Department.

Married with three children, Hussey grew up in Kalihi, in a progressive Catholic family that taught him the values of “social justice and equality,” he said.

His grandmother grew up speaking primarily Hawaiian, he said. Hussey said it disturbs him how many local kids believe they need to move away in adulthood.

“I feel this community is no longer ours,” he said, explaining that he believes the city has been administered in ways that favor tourists in short-term rentals, not people born in Hawaii.

Having served on the Kalihi Neighborhood Board for more than five years, he would like to see each board given a small amount of money to deal with minor but bothersome problems. He thinks revenue from parking meters in each neighborhood, for example, could be transferred to the local boards rather than the city’s general funds, allowing money that is raised locally to be used locally.

“I would love for us to give neighborhood boards more power,” he said.

Nalani Jenkins

Jenkins is part of a musical trio called Na Leo Pilimehana, which in Hawaiian means Voices Blending in Warmth. But as she campaigns for City Council, she is sounding a distinctly steelier note.

Jenkins, 55, and her musical teammates met as boarding students at Kamehameha Schools and began harmonizing. About 38 years ago, they won the statewide televised musical competition “Brown Bags to Stardom,” which launched them on an international career. Jenkins wrote the popular song “Local Boys.”

She comes from a prominent Hawaiian family. Her grandmother, Elizabeth Nalani Ellis, principal at Kapalama Elementary School, spoke Hawaiian and assisted in the production of early Hawaiian language textbooks used by the University of Hawaii to save the language from disappearing. In her childhood, Jenkins lived with Ellis in Alewa Heights.

Jenkins, a mother of three, is running for office on the strength of the business acumen that she has developed in the course of building and maintaining her musical career. She also managed bank branches in Haleiwa and Waialua, giving her experience she hopes will rein in cost overruns that leave the city without enough money to provide vital services.

Nalani Jenkins hopes to be a “servant-leader” for the city. Courtesy: Nalani Jenkins

She got a taste for public service when she joined in the effort to save the YMCA on Atkinson Street in 2013. The plan to redevelop the site while saving the Y ultimately failed but she said she was thrilled to see “how the community came together” in the effort.

“I’m running as a servant leader,” she said.

She has spent $67,000 on the race so far. Much of her campaign has involved canvassing the district and asking people what was on their minds and what they want the City Council to do for them, she said.

“Crime kept coming up,” she said. “It was 98% people’s major thing. Some were in fear of being harmed or feared their family members were vulnerable.”

Two events that had occurred in Chinatown were mentioned by many—the security guard killed when he was hit in the head with a metal water bottle and the man who was set on fire, she said, with both events having “ripple effects” on others.

She thinks city officials aren’t taking the problem seriously enough. She notes that it took too long to hire a new police chief, with Joe Logan sworn in more than a year after his predecessor stepped down.

She disagrees with the city’s policy of allowing homeless people to remain on the streets, where she says they intimidate other people living in the area.

“I don’t think it’s compassionate to have a person have to sleep on the streets or compassionate to the people who live in Chinatown and see a lot of this going on,” she said. “It seems inhumane and it’s not fair. If that was my front door, I wouldn’t feel safe.”

Instead, she wants homeless people to be sent to hospitals or other places where they can receive care.

“We have a problem and it’s getting worse,” she said.

Chance Naʻauao-Ota

Naʻauao-Ota is the youngest of the candidates, but he has already spent almost four years working on the public’s behalf while serving on the Liliha Neighborhood Board.

He was pleased to be able to draw attention to a pothole near his house and get it fixed.

“It felt cool to make a difference to the community,” he said.

Naʻauao-Ota got his first taste of political power and how it can make a difference when he was in school and a water from a leak began seeping into his science classroom. He wrote State Rep. Scott Saiki asking for help. Saiki responded and soon it was fixed, he recalled.

Naʻauao-Ota threw his hat in the ring for City Council because Hawaii has a lot of problems to fix and he wants to get started early.

Age 21, Chance Naʻauao-Ota wants to get to work early fixing Honolulu’s problems by taking a seat on the City Council. 

“I’m running because, being 21, we will eventually inherit these issues so I better start working on them now,” he said.

He’s worried about what he sees as an increase in crime. He thinks criminals are being allowed to escape with impunity.

He wants to see Honolulu adopt a “Stand Your Ground” law that will give citizens protection from liability if they need to use deadly force to protect themselves. Hawaii laws calls for a duty to retreat if it is possible to do so.

“The state needs to change laws to make them more stringent,” Naʻauao-Ota said. “I would like to see a Stand Your Ground law in place so people don’t need to worry about protecting their families.”

A Hawaiian version of Stand Your Ground, House Bill 2464, which would have clarified when use of deadly force was justified, was set aside by the Legislature this year. Testimony was mixed, with supporters seeking more legal right to defend themselves and others saying that the change would cause more deaths.

Naʻauao-Ota has lived in District 6 all his life, as have his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. He oversees the after-school program at Lanakila Elementary School.

Dennis Nakasato

Nakasato grew up in Kalihi Valley, living with his parents and six siblings in a two-bedroom, one-bath house while raising chickens and growing vegetables for barter.

He first came into the public eye in 1962 as a starring high school fullback, proclaimed “outstanding on defense” by the Honolulu Advertiser. Nakasato graduated from Farrington High School in 1965. He later joined a celebrated group of 120 male flight attendants hired by United Airlines when the aviation company first started operations in the islands.

But Nakasato made a name for himself as a state legislator representing the 16th District in the 1970s and 1980s, when he chaired the House Tourism Committee and pushed for the introduction of the transient accommodations tax. The TAT tax, first proposed as a 2% levy on visiting tourists to help fund visitor amenities and promote tourism, was enacted in 1985 and has since become a major source of state and city funding. Over the years the state tax has grown to 10.25%.

Nakasato later served in the state Senate, leaving office in 1994 after a reapportionment. He retired from United Airlines in 2003.

Dennis Nakasato wants the office to help boost police morale. 

He would like to see the use of the TAT money returned to its original purpose, which he said was finding ways to improve the tourist experience instead of “throwing it here and throwing it there.”

In December, the city approved a new 3% TAT, an addition to the state’s 10.25%. Much of the money raised will be used to pay for some $2 billion in cost overruns for the rail project.

If elected, Nakasato said he would try to crack down on crime by homeless people. He said he feels sorry for them, but that “big able-bodied people taking free food” have started “taking advantage.”

He would also like to take steps to boost police morale.

“I want police officers to get good pay and get a good life, so bright young kids will join the force,” he said. “Everybody wants to be liked and respected.”

Nakasato won’t be accepting campaign donations from any organizations, and said he is instead funding his candidacy primarily with small contributions from friends and through personal savings.

“We have a little savings for retirement, we can use that,” he said he told Jean, his wife of 56 years. He said she agreed it was a good thing to do.

Traci Toguchi

Toguchi, 47, is probably best known in the state as a beauty queen, singer and actress, including a childhood role in “Karate Kid 2” and a stint performing on the Broadway show “Miss Saigon,” but the reason she is running is the sense of mission she found when she began working as a legislative aide to Fukunaga in June 2020.

During the darkest days of the Covid pandemic, Toguchi accompanied and assisted Fukunaga as she sought to serve her constituents in a time of panic and civic disruption.

She said she wasn’t sure she wanted to run when friends and co-workers asked her to consider doing so, but she made up her mind to do it when she learned who else was running.

Traci Toguchi, an aide to Carol Fukunaga, thinks she can do the job of representing District 6 better than the other candidates. 

“I was a reluctant candidate but when I looked at the other candidates, I knew no one else knew the issues and history of District 6 like I do, and that’s why I decided to run,” she said, calling herself the one person with “institutional knowledge” and “current city experience.”

Learning all the issues in a district that bridges six neighborhood boards and such a diverse population would involve a “steep learning curve,” said Toguchi, a graduate of Kaiser High School.

She said she also was frequently the person Fukunaga asked to try to unravel thorny problems such as traffic, bus transit, road capacity and obstacles for pedestrians.

Toguchi said she also attended many neighborhood board meetings, often on behalf of Fukunaga, allowing her to hear firsthand from many constituents.

The biggest concern she heard was a sense that crime was on the rise. Many residents reported what she called a “blatant disregard for private property,” with people smashing windows, stealing tools and engaging in vandalism.

She said the most “heartbreaking” were thefts at mortuaries in the district, where criminals smashed and stole urns and photos of people’s dead relatives.

“I see the complaints that came into our office on a daily basis,” she said. “If you don’t feel safe, how can you go on in your life?”

She said it is frequently difficult to get city officials to take action to solve problems, not because they don’t want to but because there are so many job vacancies. The point people who formerly handled these kinds of problems have quit or retired and have not yet been replaced, she said.

“Because of the loss of institutional knowledge, it’s hard to find vetted solutions,” she said.

When that happens, she said, she buttonholes Mayor Rick Blangiardi when she sees him at Honolulu Hale and asks him to find someone else in those departments who can help.

She has proposed establishing a pilot program that would make it easier for recently retired workers to return as contractors in the departments where they worked.

“We need turn-key proposals to address the vacancy issue,” she said.

She thinks board members and the communities they represent will remember what she has done for them.

“They know I’m behind the scenes working on the issues,” Toguchi said.

Chad Wolke

Wolke, a World War II history buff and an Eagle Scout, also has had direct and recent experience working on behalf of district residents as a constituent services representative for Case.

Eagle Scout Chad Toshiro Wolke plans to ask the tough questions he thinks are needed by the City Council. 

Born and raised in upper Liliha, the son of a father and grandfather who both served in the military, Wolke attended McKinley High School and the University of Hawaii Manoa. He served on the Liliha Neighborhood Board in 2017 and 2018.

Wolke, 29, enjoyed working with the board but started to realize that the scope of what it could achieve was limited.

“Right now neighborhood boards don’t have much of a say,” he said. “They can be ignored.”

He volunteered for Case’s congressional campaign in 2018 and was happy to accept a local job after Case won.

Wolke said he feels comfortable with Case’s politics, which he describes as fiscally conservative, strong on defense and liberal on social issues. Case was “a champion for gay marriage” when others were reluctant to support gay couples, he said.

Wolke said he dealt with a wide range of issues over the past three years, including helping veterans get benefits they were owed, handling census issues and even trying to find solutions for city problems, like helping Hawaii residents get abandoned cars removed from their streets. All kinds of things fell on Case’s local office because many city and state offices were shuttered during the pandemic, leaving many people with problems reaching out to congressional offices when there was no place else to go.

“We had thousands of unemployment insurance cases where people were not getting answers,” Wolke recalled.

He needed a good network of city and state officials to help even if their front offices were closed to the public. That meant frequent contact with Fukunaga’s office, he said.

He said many city projects take way too long to complete. The bus pads at Nuuanu were torn out, for example, and left that way for days, and the work on the Pali Highway seems endless.

The continuing construction of monster homes, including one across from his mother’s house, is inexcusable, he said, calling himself “fairly passionate” on the subject.

Residents in the Mayor Wright public housing complex are District 6 constituents. Civil Beat/2010

He said the City Council frequently seems to abdicate its authority and is not forceful enough in getting direct answers.

“We have the power of the purse,” he said. “If we want a signaled crosswalk, and we appropriate money for it, then we expect to have it built.”

“The council’s intent is often not fully recognized. I just disagree with that. The council should be defending its own power,” he added. “It’s definitely asking the questions that are not being asked, and making sure we get the answers we need.”

He also would seek to block the state effort to rename McKinley High School, which he believes has a proud association of alumni who went on to high political office, including former Sens. Hiram Fong and Daniel Inouye, and Gov. George Ariyoshi. People who want the school’s name changed believe the association with the former president is a painful reminder of the subjugation of the monarchy and are asking that the school return to its original name, Honolulu High School.

Wolke strongly disagrees.

“The name is what connects current people with the past,” he said.

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