Two undefeated state representatives are competing against each other for the Pearl City seat in the House this year as a result of redistricting that combined their former districts.

Rep. Roy Takumi, currently of District 35, must now run against his longtime friend, Rep. Gregg Takayama, who currently holds the District 34 seat that comprises Pearl City, which borders the military’s Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

While elections tend to converge into familiar dynamics – the long-serving incumbent versus the energetic newcomer, for example – this one will be different. 

The extensive similarities between them ensure it. The longtime friends vote similarly, come from a working class background and have represented their districts for at least a decade.

“The unfortunate thing is we both are much more alike than different,” said Takayama. 

Representative Roy Takumi is flanked by Representative Belatti during joint House/Senate education committee meeting. 22 april 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Rep. Roy Takumi currently represents District 35 in the House, and emphasized his commitment to working families. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

“People say, ‘Well, what’s the difference between you and Gregg?’ And I don’t focus on the differences so much,” said Takumi.

Both instead plan to emphasize individual accomplishments, a tactic they say has been successful throughout their political careers.

Takumi and Takayama will be on the Democratic ballot in the Aug. 13 primary, after which the winner will face the Republican candidate, Theodene Allen, in the Nov. 8 general election. 

Takayama was first elected to his current seat in 2012. This followed a communications career that took him between journalism and working with the media on behalf of the late Sen. Daniel Inouye and the University of Hawaii Manoa.

Supporting Kupuna And Keiki

He grew up in Kalihi Valley, the grandson of sugar plantation workers like those who had lived and worked in the Pearl City area. The sugar industry helped propel the neighborhood’s growth, and as Hawaii’s economy shifted from agriculture to tourism leading up to the 1970s, the area’s plantations made way for housing developments where workers and their children bought homes. 

Many of them still live in Pearl City, the oldest of whom are now approaching 80 to 90 years of age, said Takayama. This is reflected in the district’s median age of 43.9, with its most populous subsections close to a median age of 50 – significantly higher than 37.9 for all of Oahu.

Takayama’s legislative priorities mesh with the demographics.

“When I was elected 10 years ago, my first decision was to volunteer to be a co-chair of the Kupuna Caucus,” he said, referring to the legislative group focusing on issues that affect older adults.

He also cited watching his brother struggle to care for their father as he suffered from dementia. 

Among the achievements listed on his website, Takayama touts his 2017 introduction of the Kupuna Caregivers program, which provides financial assistance to eligible working caregivers.

While the program’s budget was only $600,000 when launched, it served as an example of what caregiver assistance could look like, prompting national news coverage from outlets like the New York Times. Gov. David Ige recently signed a bill incorporating the Kupuna Caregivers program into the Kupuna Care program, with details still to come.

Takumi’s emphasis is on the state’s keiki.

He extolled the value of investing in early education, arguing its societal benefits include less imprisonment and more employment. He envisions a Hawaii with universal pre-K for 4 year olds but acknowledges the tricky part is persuading the state to fund it. 

“You don’t see the results for a long time,” said Takumi, contrasting it with hotel tax credits. 

But that doesn’t preclude baby steps from being taken. Takumi pointed to a recent $200 million investment by the Legislature to build and refurbish preschool classrooms, allowing an extra 4,000 students to attend, he said. The hope is that these incremental changes show good results and justify more investment in the future.

“We’re going to get there. I want to be a part of making that happen,” he said. 

St. Ann School with masked early learning students during in person class during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rep. Roy Takumi wants universal pre-K to be a reality for all 4 year olds in the state. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Takayama, who was chair of the House Higher Education Committee, supported the recent preschool investment as well, calling it an important component in the state’s overall educational landscape.

He also is focusing on the state’s economy, saying that Hawaii’s heavy reliance on the tourism industry is a problem not only for revenue but also for the labor supply.

“If it’s one thing the pandemic showed us, it’s that we have a severe shortage of nurses, of physicians, and of teachers,” he said. Relying on mainland imports of these jobs is unsustainable, he said, articulating one of Hawaii’s familiar refrains. 

Diversifying The Economy

He pointed to some initial efforts — “expanding our med school graduate program, and expanding teaching, and hiring more nurses” — but said more needed to be done.

Takumi also expressed economic concerns. He supports increasing the minimum wage, and introduced his own measure in the House that would have increased it to $17 an hour by 2029. The Legislature’s final version – co-sponsored by Takayama – was signed last week by Ige, and increases it to $18 by 2028.

Takumi voted against it in March, citing what he said was too large a tip credit, which effectively reduces the minimum wage for tipped workers.

Along with early education, Takumi stated that his other large focus is on working families. When he was growing up in Puunui, he said, his parents’ blue collar jobs at the sewer department and at an elementary school paid enough for them to purchase a home. The economic reality has shifted since then.

“I think top of mind for everybody is cost of living,” he said. 

Besides groceries and housing, gas prices are close to $5.60 per gallon, the third-highest in the nation. Takumi is in favor of enacting a state gas tax holiday to alleviate some of that pressure, a move similarly considered on the national level by the Biden administration. 

But with the current statewide gas tax at 16 cents per gallon, consumers’ savings would be minimal, while the state would need to find highway funding elsewhere. Takumi recognizes this but said the move would at least acknowledge residents’ struggles. 

“It shows that we’re trying our best as a government to try to look for ways so that you can make your dollar stretch,” he said. No silver bullet exists to alleviate all economic pressure, he said, but small measures like this accumulate. 

And while he supports raising the general excise tax, he said a tax credit for residents could exist that would essentially keep the burden on out-of-state tourists. 

All that being said, serving in public office is deeper than just raising and lowering taxes, said Takumi.

“It’s more about coming up with a budget that reflects what the needs of the community are and trying to find the means to pay for it,” he said.

Red Hill Concerns

When asked about District 34’s specific needs and concerns, Takayama referenced a recent survey his team sent out in a newsletter that found the community’s top concern was the water contamination crisis at the Navy’s Red Hill fuel storage facility.

The second worry was crime, which Takayama said surprised him since Hawaii’s violent crime rate is relatively low, in the bottom third of all states. But “property crime is where we have big problems,” he said. He thinks that drug abuse – especially of crystal meth – has a big role to play in this. 

Increased rehabilitation opportunities for drug offenders, he said, could help mitigate this problem. 

“That’s one of the reasons I strongly support building a new jail on Oahu,” he said. The current facility lacks the space for adequate rehabilitation programs, he said, allowing for a “revolving door” of recidivism. 

And unlike rehabilitation programs for the general population, Takayama said – which are mostly full – programs based out of correctional facilities may be able to better take advantage of their participants’ forced attention. 

“Everyone would prefer community alternatives for the nonviolent criminals. But there simply aren’t enough of them,” he said.

Rep Gregg Takayama. chad story. 27 april 2017
Gregg Takayama is active in issues affecting older adults and has represented district 34 for 10 years. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

With all their similarities, the race may come down to one of name recognition.

“This is a district that I’ve represented for 10 years,” said Takayama. Redistricting kept the district’s same basic shape but looped Takumi’s neighborhood into the western side, giving Takayama the stronger incumbency status. 

“All that means,” said Takumi, “is I got to work to convince voters not only in my old district, but in his district, to consider my candidacy as well.”

It’s somewhat familiar territory for him. Having been in office for 30 years, Takumi’s experienced three reapportionments, including a decade in which he represented parts of modern-day District 34. 

“I’d like to win, obviously,” said Takumi. “But if I don’t win, Gregg’s a good legislator as well and the district would be in good hands.”

“Win or lose,” he said, “I’ll have a beer with the guy.”

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