A global pandemic would have tested any leader. But Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami’s aggressive handling of the coronavirus crisis helped keep disease counts relatively low for more than a year, endearing him to thousands of voters at a time of immense uncertainty and fear over health risks.

kauai locator badgeAs he imposed the harshest Covid-19 restrictions in the state — a nightly curfew, highway checkpoints, electric monitoring bracelets to track the movement of tourists — he won statewide praise and even garnered some positive national press for entertaining residents during lockdown with his TikTok-style dance moves.

Now, as he campaigns to keep his job, Kawakami is presenting his track record of pandemic leadership as proof that he could guide the county through any type of disaster.

But the same public health policies that made Kawakami popular during his first mayoral term also serve as ammunition for a crop of first-time political candidates vying to oust him from office, appealing to a more conservative base who thought the mayor went too far with his Covid crackdown.

And, in a place as diverse as Kauai, voters who oppose heavy-handed government are making the pandemic a central election issue.

Kauai mayoral candidates Derek Kawakami, who is seeking reelection, and first-time contenders Mitch McPeek, center, and Megeso-William Denis, right, faced off in a debate last week at the Kilauea Theatre. Michael Roven Poai, another first-time candidate, did not attend the event. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022

Mitch McPeek, a 61-year-old self-employed handyman and contractor, and Megeso-William Denis, a 71-year-old spiritual counselor and retired business operations manager, said they decided to dive into the mayoral race with no previous political experience partly because they disagree with Kawakami’s stringent Covid-19 restrictions.

Rounding out the candidate field is another political newcomer, longtime county employee Michael Roven Poai, 47, who said he’s driven to make unsexy but valuable improvements to sorely neglected infrastructure, such as roads and sewers.

“Derek is doing a good job and, like my father always used to tell me, good is a step above average and good is a step below excellence,” said Poai, a Kapaa High School graduate who has worked for the county Parks and Recreation Department for 24 years, most recently as an operator at the Wailua Golf Course. “I keep stressing to the people that I want to be the excellent mayor that Kauai has always been waiting for.”

Michael Roven Poai, 47, of Kapaa is running for mayor on a campaign to improve the island’s neglected infrastructure. 

The top two vote-getters in the Aug. 13 primary will move on to the general election.

Kawakami’s incumbency could make it difficult for a first-time candidate to beat him. A third-generation Kauai resident who became mayor in December 2018 following a landslide victory, he benefits from circumstances the other contenders lack — name recognition, institutional support, a proven track record and a greased fundraising machine.

But while Kawakami’s perceived popularity, coupled with a massive campaign war chest, may have discouraged more seasoned challengers from joining the race, he has not been able to ward off newcomers to politics who say they represent a break from the traditional mold. In 2018, Kawakami faced opposition from former Kauai Mayor JoAnn Yukimura and former County Councilman Mel Rapozo.

Kawakami had $85,000 in campaign cash on hand as of April 25 after spending nearly $20,000 on his re-election bid since the beginning of the year.

Megeso-William Denis, 71, of Kapaa, has pledged to help local businesses recover from the pandemic. 

It’s not yet clear how the rest of the field is faring with fundraising. Poai, Denis and McPeek won’t have to file their first campaign spending report until Thursday because they registered their campaign after April 25.

Fundraising aside, untried candidates can have an advantage among voters who say they don’t want a mayor who’s a career politician, according to longtime political analyst Neal Milner. But being a fresh face in politics can just as easily work against a candidate.

First-time candidates often don’t have a long list of donors or a robust roster of supporters eager to wave campaign signs for hours on the side of the road. They also tend to lack formidable campaigning skills, an art that may come naturally but often must be learned.

“Many people want change, for sure, but candidates often underestimate how hard it is to get voters who claim they want change to actually vote in a different way,” Milner said.

Covid Politics Loom Large Over Debate

It’s unclear how Kawakami’s challengers might influence voting behavior. But they’re already influencing campaign dialogue.

At a mayoral debate hosted by North Shore community members at the Kilauea Theatre on Friday, a small audience overwhelmingly critical of Kawakami’s strict public health rules roared with applause for McPeek, who said “nobody was dying from Covid,” and Denis, who claimed that lockdowns and face masks don’t work. State health regulators report that the coronavirus caused 31 deaths on Kauai, and 1,485 deaths statewide.

Mitch McPeek, 61, of Kilauea wants to help local families afford to stay on the island. 

This led Kawakami to make an unusual apology.

“I’m here to … ask for forgiveness,” he said. “I hope you realize I was dealt a bad card.”

Kawakami told the debate audience that he, too, represents change. Yet in this election, he’s more closely aligned with the political establishment. He’s the third Kawakami to have occupied a seat in the state House representing the Garden Isle and he also previously served on the Kauai County Council.

If reelected, Kawakami said he would focus on upgrading Kauai’s aging infrastructure, developing more affordable housing projects, improving parks and playgrounds, repaving roads and working to ease overtourism with new visitor parking and transportation models.

“We’re going to be in recovery mode,” Kawakami said. “The best thing that government can do is stay focused on … the bread and butter of local government, which is making sure that we have a safe community, investing in the police department, making sure that our first responders are equipped and focusing our efforts on infrastructure needs and getting people back to work.”

Poai did not attend the debate.

Mayor Derek Kawakami is seeking reelection. Derek Kawakami

Beyond Covid politics, Denis, a former national operations manager of the Pennsylvania-based electronics manufacturer General Instrument Corp., said if he’s elected mayor he would establish a vocational learning center to help feed the island’s small business workforce.

“With my background, I can make a difference,” the Kapaa resident said. “I worked for a Fortune 500 company, one of the largest in the country at the time, and when I look at the damage that was done to small businesses during Covid, I just know that we have to restore that.”

McPeek, a former general manager at the Hanalei Dolphin restaurant, pledged to do more to improve the quality of life of longtime residents amid an influx of tourists and “mega-wealthy” new and part-time residents.

“I’m a normal joe and I’m not out to play politics,” the Kilauea resident said. “I care about the people of Kauai and I care that their kids are able to have a home. I care that they are able to go to work. I care that they’re not locked down. And I’m not too confident, if things remain the same, that that will be the case.”

As Mayor, Kawakami Avoided Scandal

Hallmarks of Kawakami’s first term include his championing of county department performance audits and efforts to expand the amount of affordable housing options for residents.

His administration implemented a no-wait system at the DMV and new vehicle registration kiosks installed at four grocery stores across the island. It’s also working to create the county’s first climate change adaptation plan to help assess risk and build resiliency.

When a group of local residents broke the windows of a Wainiha rental home occupied by a religious cult, Kawakami won praise for assuming a role as mediator. He told protestors he sympathized with them and ultimately convinced the cult members, who relocated to Kauai from Colorado in September 2020, to leave the island in exchange for a police escort to the airport.

Kauai's adolescent treatment center facility is overgrown with weeds.
The lawn is overgrown at Kauai’s $7 million Adolescent Treatment and Healing Center, a county facility built on land donated by Grove Farm. First proposed in 2003, the building was constructed in 2019 and has since largely stood vacant. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022

But his administration accomplished little to avoid the potential environmental disaster that could take shape if the island runs out of space to dump its trash. As things stand today, the Kekaha landfill is expected to reach capacity in June 2027.

It takes about 10 years to develop a new landfill, county officials say. But the island still lacks a site on which to begin the process.

Another scar on Kawakami’s track record is the failure of his administration to open ​​Kauai’s inpatient addiction and psychiatric treatment center, which has stood mostly empty since officials celebrated its grand opening in December 2019.

Built on donated land with more than $7 million in state and county taxpayer funds, the eight-bedroom facility was intended to offer youth in the community struggling with drug dependency and mental illness a way to get help without having to leave the island.

Now overgrown with hip-high weeds, the site has become to some local leaders a reminder of the island’s dire need for more resources to deal with a rise in fentanyl abuse, a suicide problem and a longstanding lack of mental health and drug addiction programs.

The land donor, Grove Farm Co., is now seeking approval from a 5th Circuit Court judge to take back the six-acre gift on the grounds that the county has violated its agreement to use the property for its intended purpose of rehabilitating local adolescents.

Voters are expected to receive mail-in ballots for the primary election by July 26. Ballots must be received by the county elections division by 7 p.m. on election day, Aug. 13.

A voter service center at the Historic County Annex Building Basement in Lihue will provide in-person voting and same-day voter registration starting Aug. 1.

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