Four years ago, a group of progressive new council members took over the majority of the Maui County Council, promising to shift the government away from the status quo.

Maui County locator map

In the years since, they put forth a number of bold policies that bucked Maui’s long standing political establishment, like enacting a temporary moratorium on the construction of new hotels in hopes of curbing overtourism, raising taxes on second homes to pay for affordable housing and pushing for the county to take back control of water long managed by plantations.

Some have viewed their efforts as a long awaited shift from a system that put corporate interests above the wellbeing of working families and the islands’ delicate natural ecosystems; others see their actions as putting in place burdensome regulations, a direct affront to the businesses and the workers who rely on them for jobs.

But regardless, the political fate of the Maui County Council — and whether the progressive majority continues to hold power — will be shaped by this election season. All nine seats are up for reelection this year, and two longtime council members, Kelly King and Mike Molina, are leaving to run for mayor.

“The split was five for progressives and four more moderate, with Mike Molina being the swing vote,” said Rod Antone, who provides political analysis for Maui’s community television group, Akaku. “So whoever gets that seat I think could be the swing vote again.”

Maui County Bldg
Candidates run to represent the geographic area where they live — for example, Upcountry, Hana or Lanai — but all voters across the county, regardless of where they live, can cast their votes in each of those races. Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2022

Although the council races are nonpartisan, meaning candidates don’t run as Democrats or Republicans, the differences between candidates often align with the classic divide between those who are more progressive or conservative.

As the legislative body, the council controls the purse strings and makes county laws, while the mayor — and the county administration as a whole — is responsible for putting the council’s direction into action and running the government on a day-to-day basis.

In her three terms in office, King, a founder of Maui’s Pacific Biodiesel, is known for championing climate sustainability and economic diversification.

Molina, a career public servant serving his seventh term on the council, is considered by some as slightly more moderate but has nonetheless often sided with his progressive colleagues on decisions ranging from overriding the mayor’s veto of the hotel moratorium to pushing to take back control of Maui’s water from private companies.

“It’s amazing what’s at stake right now and how crucial it is for our future as a community,” said Paul Deslauriers of the Maui Pono Network, a group formed in 2018 that fueled the rise of the county’s progressive movement.

His network of volunteers mobilized to help progressive candidates clinch a majority in 2018, which they held onto in the 2020 election. Now as a political action committee, the Maui Pono Network continues to organize hundreds of volunteers and interviews dozens of candidates before endorsing its slate known as the ‘Ohana Candidates, whom the group says will serve working families and environmental protection, rather than big businesses.

“When you look at systemic change, to me, this is the essence,” Deslauriers said. “On a county level, it’s to have that majority of the County Council that are serving the people and the environment versus corporate interests.”

But some in the business community and on the other side of the political spectrum see things differently. Former Mayor Alan Arakawa said he thinks some of the big changes that council members championed, particularly those to curb the tourism industry and limit certain development, could backfire.

Every council member is facing at least one challenger, which could lead to a shakeup in the power dynamic. In races where more than two people are running, 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.

The outcome, Arakawa said, depends on the public’s perception of what the council has done over the last two years. Take the housing crisis — Arakawa believes that the council has enacted too many restrictions and needs to do more to spur development, which could range from changing zoning in places where only single-family homes are permitted to allow for apartments, or giving property owners the green light to split up single-family homes into multiple units.

“People can’t afford to go to buy groceries anymore. They can’t afford to buy gas for their cars,” Arakawa said. “All of the rhetoric is going to I think disappear, and the council is going to have to deal with reality.”

 

This year’s election season comes as Maui’s government leaders will be tasked with tackling a growing list of worsening crises: soaring housing costs in a place where the typical home price tops $1.2 million, stagnant wages, more frequent drought, shoreline erosion, battles over water rights, traffic, the increased visibility of homelessness.

One Maui County resident who has been watching things unfold is Tehani Kaalekahi, who was born and raised on Molokai and now runs the nonprofit, Sustainable Molokai. The group works on building communities and strengthening the island’s food systems, boosting renewable energy and protecting the island against climate change. She joined the organization last year after living away from home for nearly three decades, and after moving back, she couldn’t help but wonder: “Why is it that not much has changed?”

When she returned home, gas prices and energy were still sky high, access to mental health care was still limited, the community was facing a serious lack of housing for kupuna and there were still few produce options in markets. In California, she could fill up her trunk with a week’s worth of groceries for $100; on Molokai, going to the market twice a week might run as high as $200.

But she’s also seen how things have started to change for the better. Her father is a farmer, and she’s watched as the county has put in place grant programs to help people like him, in hopes of one day producing an abundant supply of local food to stock grocery store shelves. Just this week, for example, the county began accepting applications to pay for farmers and ranchers to build fences to stop deer from destroying their crops and pastures.

She also views the fact that the county is putting funding toward community organizations like hers — in a place once overlooked by government leaders — as a sign of hope.

“When there’s funding out there, Molokai is usually the last to receive or they’re the ones to receive the very least,” Kaalekahi said. “Seeing that we have a considerable amount of funding to address climate change on our island is amazing.”

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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