In the Honolulu City Council election for the area surrounding Pearl City, Republican state Rep. Val Aquino Okimoto is pitching herself as the fresh face voters want while longtime Democratic politician Ron Menor says his decades as a city and state lawmaker will allow him to be effective.
The District 8 candidates will compete for the nonpartisan council seat on the general election ballot following a close primary: Okimoto came out on top with about 39% of votes compared to Menor’s 37%.
In such a tight race, the more than 10,000 voters who either voted for other primary candidates or didn’t vote in the race at all could swing the race either way.
In a debate hosted by the Kokua Council on Monday, the candidates made their case to voters.
“At this moment, I feel that I have the right experience and the right passion and drive to offer a new type of leadership, a new generation of fresh thinking and ideas and collaboration,” Okimoto said.
The district is currently represented by Brandon Elefante, who is barred from running again because of term limits and is instead seeking a state Senate seat. However, the political map has changed since Elefante was elected.
The district still includes communities Elefante has represented — including Pearl City, Waimalu, Newtown, Seaview, Crestview and Waipio Gentry — but the redrawing of political boundaries last year added Koa Ridge, Mililani Town and Mililani Mauka.
Okimoto, a single mom of two, was first elected to the Legislature in 2018 and represents Mililani, where she has lived for some 20 years. During the debate, she described herself as an “everyday” resident who is in touch with the community’s needs.
Originally from Kauai, Okimoto is a former special education teacher. She holds an accounting degree from Brigham Young University and is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon church.
Menor, who has three grown sons, has extensive experience in Honolulu politics, including on the City Council where he previously represented District 9 for eight years.
While he was on the council, Menor held several leadership positions, including council chair and chair of the powerful zoning committee. Previously, he was a state senator and representative in the Hawaii Legislature.
“Our city faces significant challenges requiring effective and experienced leadership,” he said during the debate. “I have established my track record as a former city council member. I would be able to hit the ground running at the City Council and not have to learn about city government while on the job.”
Term limits on the council prohibit members from serving more than two consecutive four-year terms but allow politicians to leave and come back later, which is what Menor seeks to do.
During the debate, Okimoto called attention to Menor’s long tenure.
“If someone has been in office for decades and decades, and yet we still have the same problems, if not worse, what are people left with?” she said. “They’ve lost hope, and I’m here to give them that hope. I’m not here as a career politician.”
Menor said his experience is an asset, adding that he has made meaningful progress on the island’s biggest issues.
“As one council member, I did what I could,” he said.
However, if he wins the council seat, he pledged not to run for another political office again.
You can watch the full debate below:
Both candidates said they support the Honolulu rail project and would take steps to ensure it’s well utilized once it’s operational.
Okimoto said development along the rail line will be key as well as integrating bus routes.
Menor said he was disappointed that the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation abandoned plans to build a Pearl Highlands parking structure that would’ve benefited passengers who live in central Oahu. He said one of his top priorities would be finding an alternative parking facility.
Okimoto noted that the park-and-ride facility was a victim of poor planning as officials chose a location with unstable soil. She said she would seek to avoid those kinds of mistakes at the onset.
While the plan is to build the rail only to Kakaako for now, Menor said he would like to see it continue to Ala Moana.
“If we eventually extend to Ala Moana, if it’s financially feasible, it will allow us to continue to the kind of ridership that was projected when the City Council approved the rail project many years ago,” he said.
During the debate, the candidates spoke about homelessness in different ways.
Menor talked about the need for more Housing First, which gives housing to people in need while also providing wraparound services to tackle some of the causes of homelessness, including mental illness and addiction.
He said he supported the concept of the city’s CORE program, which pairs police officers with social workers who can connect homeless people to services.
Okimoto, while also expressing support for CORE, spoke about homelessness through the lens of crime and public safety. She said there “has to be a balance” between being compassionate and using the power of law enforcement.
“We can’t continue to allow people who have committed crimes back on the street, unfortunately,” she said.
She also alleged that while not everyone who is homeless has a mental illness or drug addiction, “the majority of them” do. However, that’s not true, according to the annual homeless survey conducted on Oahu by the nonprofit Partners in Care.
The most recent “point in time” count found that about 20% of the homeless population on the island suffers from a mental illness while about 18% struggle with addiction. Those percentages are higher for the unsheltered population but still represent less than 50%.
Nevertheless, she said residents feel that it’s “not safe for, you know, for the keiki, for others who are law-abiding taxpayers, to be able to walk freely in the community.”
Asked more generally about helping low-income people, Okimoto said she would focus on job creation so that struggling people can become “contributing members of society.”
“Government can’t continue to just overburden our taxpayers by thinking of new fees and taxes to cover government expenses,” she said. “What I see is we create jobs and that gives a person self-worth and they have a position in life where they can earn their own money and go to work. That gives them value.”
On Fighting Corruption
Corruption has been a common topic of questioning during Kokua Council debates following the pay-to-play scandal in the city’s permitting department and the convictions of state lawmakers for bribery.
Okimoto said residents “deserve better” and that elected officials have to hold themselves to the highest standards.
“I have never been beholden to any special interests,” she said. “Those unions or corporations or anybody who has a relationship with me, they know that I’m not a rubber stamp. They know that I am not going to hold a vote over their heads to get money from them.”
Menor said he’d support stronger ethics laws, although he didn’t offer specifics, and said government officials should speak out against corruption as he has.
He noted that as a council member, he voted against the city paying for former police chief Louis Kealoha’s criminal defense attorneys. Kealoha was embroiled in a corruption scandal with his wife, former deputy prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, and both are now in federal prison.
Menor also proposed charter amendments to strengthen the Honolulu Ethics Commission. And those measures passed.
“I’m on record as standing against corruption and I will continue to do so if elected to the City Council,” he said.
Voters should begin to receive mail-in ballots after Oct. 17. Mail-in ballots must be received by the county election’s office by 7 p.m. on Nov. 8 to be counted. People can cast their ballot in person as long as they are in line at a voting center by 7 on Election Day.
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