At a time when Kauai is reeling from an affordable housing crisis, a lack of good-paying jobs and the symptoms of a warming climate, voters face a robust and diverse field of County Council candidates. 

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A third of the candidates are women. But, in stark contrast to other counties, Kauai voters have never given women more than two council seats at a time, and in many years women have held only one. Voters did not elect any women to the council in the 1998 and 2000 elections.

Kauai’s historically male-dominated council is a political outlier. 

Honolulu, Maui and Hawaii counties each have a nine-member council with a female majority. There are currently six women seated on the Maui County Council and five women on the Honolulu and Big Island councils.  

Kauai’s current seven-member council has just one female representative.

“Anybody who serves on a council who is sincere would want diversity, and that includes gender diversity,” said Maui council member Alice Lee, who was first elected to the council in 1989. “There’s no benefit of having a group of people who all think the same way.”

Kauai’s Historic County Building is the venue for council meetings. Courtesy: Léo Azambuja

With the authority to enact zoning rules, set a budget, investigate county agencies and guide future development, the council is one of the most powerful Kauai institutions whose membership voters determine every two years. 

On Aug. 13, Kauai voters in the primary election will choose up to seven candidates from a field of 21 council hopefuls that they want to advance to the general election. The top 14 will move on to the Nov. 8 contest.

Two council seats are open due to term limits. Council Chair Arryl Kaneshiro and Council Vice Chair Mason Chock are not eligible for reelection due to a rule that forbids council members from serving more than four consecutive two-year terms. 

Five council incumbents are in the race. Those seeking another two-year term are former Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr., Felicia Cowden, Billy DeCosta, Luke Evslin and KipuKai Kualii. 

The other 16 candidates are Addison Bulosan, Fern Anuenue Holland, Rosemarie Jauch, Ross Kagawa, James Robert Langtad, Jeffrey Lidner, Lila Balmores Metzger, Nelson Mukai, Jakki Nelson, Benjamin Nihi, Mel Rapozo, Roy Saito, Rachel Secretario, Shirley Simbre-Medeiros, Kapana Thronas-Kahoonei and Clint Yago Sr.

‘It’s Tradition And Habit Driving This’

A lack of parity in the number of women and men serving on the Kauai council doesn’t appear to be due to a shortage of female candidates.

While it was uncommon for women to run for council a decade ago, women now campaign for council with much greater frequency. In the 2018 primary election, women made up half the candidate field. But only one woman, Felicia Cowden, won a council seat. Cowden is currently campaigning to stay on the council for a third term.

JoAnn Yukimura was the only woman on the Kauai County Council for four consecutive years starting in 2016. The 2016-2018 council is pictured above. Courtesy: Kauai County Council

Former council member Lani Kawahara said there wasn’t a network of women supporting female candidates when she was elected in 2008. That’s still the case, she said, yet establishing such a network is something she thinks could be useful to boost female representation on future councils.

“Kauai hasn’t had its renaissance yet and I don’t know when it will happen,” Kawahara said. “It’s tradition and habit that’s driving this.”

There’s a perception that Kauai politics continues to be dominated by an outmoded old boys network. It’s a sentiment underscored by decades of election results, and even seemingly minor things like the sign that reserves a parking spot at the Historic County Building for the “council chairman,” rather than “chairwoman” or “chairperson.” 

If gender barriers reinforced by old school social and business networks do exist, they can’t be blamed on voter bias, longtime political analyst Colin Moore said.

Kauai voters elected the second female mayor in the state with JoAnn Yukimura’s 1988 win. The first woman to serve as mayor in Hawaii was Eileen Anderson, who was elected in 1981 in Honolulu.

Yukimura, who also earned the distinction of being the first Japanese-American woman mayor in the nation, served until December 1994, when Maryanne Kusaka was elected and served until 2002.

“It’s just particularly strange because, with JoAnn Yukimura and Maryanne Kusaka, women have been mayor on Kauai longer than any other county, so why haven’t they had more success on the council?” said Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

The scarcity of women on the Kauai council is also puzzling because voters elect council members at large, selecting their top seven candidates islandwide rather than a single candidate to represent their district.

Political research shows at-large elections tend to produce more diverse public servants when it comes to gender, race and age groups, Moore said.

Gary Hooser, executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative and a former state senator who helps train first-time progressive candidates statewide to run for office, said he’d like to see Kauai’s female candidates run more competitive campaigns.

“I’m disappointed more women haven’t run strong campaigns and gotten elected to the council,” Hooser said. “But you have to look beyond just the list of names running to see who’s holding signs on the highway, who’s active on social media, who’s showing up for debates. For some of them, it doesn’t appear that they’re running serious campaigns and willing to lose and run again until they win.”

A parking spot at Kauai’s Historic County Building, where county council meetings are held, is reserved for the “council chairman.” Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022

Name recognition, or lack thereof, is also cited as a cause of female Kauai council candidates’ comparatively poor election performance. 

Carvalho played in the NFL for the Miami Dolphins for two seasons before he started working in local government, ultimately serving as mayor and on the council. Former council member Ross Kagawa was a standout University of Hawaii baseball player before he entered a career in politics. Council member Arryl Kaneshiro is the son of Daryl Kaneshiro, who served five terms and one appointment on the council between 1998 and 2010.

Whether through sports, business, community service, family ties or merely an abundance of campaign yard signs, studies show that candidates with names that are familiar to voters sometimes perform better based on name recognition alone.

“When I first saw the list of candidates (for Kauai County Council) I did a count and it was so refreshing to see the names of so many women,” said Edith Ignacio Neumiller, who is the Kauai representative on the Hawaii State Commission On The Status of Women. “If one or two or three get on the council, that’s great. But they have to prove themselves also. They really have to campaign hard and find the right people to back them and make themselves known to people. It’s not easy, for men or women.”

Reflecting on her earliest years as a council candidate, Yukimura said she benefited from growing up on Kauai and having a last name that was familiar to voters. When she married, she decided against assuming the surname of her husband partly because she didn’t want to part with the political capital she’d built on her maiden name.

But Yukimura said she also pounded the pavement, exhausting herself to get her face and name in front of people in the months leading to an election.

“I was relentless,” she said. “I was up early in the morning. I stood in front of Big Save and passed out my fliers, and they didn’t stop me. I walked every neighborhood. It was every minute campaigning.”

Winners Often Determined By Slim Margins

A few hundred votes can make or break the fate of a Kauai council candidate.

In the 2018 general election, Cowden won a council seat by 352 votes. As one of the top seven vote-getters, she became the only female council member that term.

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State Rep. Nadine Nakamura, who was first elected to the Kauai County Council in 2010, said roles traditionally held by women — caretaking, childrearing, taking care of the house — can sometimes complicate a woman’s political ambitions.

“It’s tough for women to get involved in political office because they’re juggling so many things — we’re caring for our children, often we’re caring for our parents and then we’re juggling a full-time job on Kauai to make ends meet and then maybe we’re involved in the church or some kind of service,” Nakamura said. “I know that I was juggling raising two young children and I waited until they were older, a little more independent, before I started my political career.”

Then there’s the issue of pay. Kauai’s council members earn $67,956 ($76,452 for the chairperson), which is the lowest rate in the state

Nakamura, who previously ran her own consulting business, said she took a two-thirds cut in pay to serve when she was first elected to the council.

“We all had to take a financial sacrifice for me to do public service,” she said of her family.

As mayor, Yukimura said she considered proposing a charter amendment that would have required three of the seven council seats to be held by women and another three seats to be held by men. The seventh seat would be a wild card that could be held by a person of either gender.

Yukimura ultimately decided against attaching gender rules to council elections. But she said she hopes the escalating number of female candidates will someday help the council achieve gender parity without such regulations.

Voters are expected to receive a mail-in ballot 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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