Since narrowly winning the House seat for the North Shore and Koolauloa in 2016, Democratic Rep. Sean Quinlan has faced a variety of challengers. 

His latest is the creator of the popular Instagram account @meanhawaii, Mark Talaeai.

Talaeai, the Republican nominee, is an unconventional opponent. But Quinlan is also an unconventional incumbent – he proudly bucks a lot of mainstream Hawaii Democrat positions, arguing that too many politicians fall in love with the office and are afraid of losing an election.

Hawaii’s expensive housing and overreliance on tourism – the usual issues – won’t be going away anytime soon, say the candidates. In District 47, it almost feels pointless to even worry about them.

Talaeai says he realizes he can’t solve all the overarching problems, but “at least I can be a voice and help take care of people in the communities with the little stuff.”

Another theme in many Oahu districts is inadequate infrastructure. Overrun by tourists who’ve ventured beyond Waikiki and the ripple of where that pushes local populations, these districts plead for better schools, better roads and better short-term rental regulations. 

Pedestrians walk along Kamehameha Highway in Haleiwa town.
Kamehameha Highway cuts through Haleiwa town and has only one lane traveling each direction through District 47. Traffic abounds. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

District 47 isn’t immune from these concerns, but its candidates say they’re interested in tackling local fixes rather than focusing on lofty statewide initiatives. Often, this manifests in their ideas for handling roads, Kamehameha Highway in particular.

Roads And Erosion

Hawaii’s House District 47 is a large district. Its size and character is more at home with rural neighbor islands than with Oahu’s denser urban districts, and many of its residents like it that way – just check out their T-shirts, which broadcast a message to “keep the country country.”

Geographically, said Quinlan, “the easiest way to think of it is that my district is kind of bifurcated.”

Generally, one side – from Waialua to Turtle Bay – is more transplant-heavy, while the other side – from Turtle Bay down to Kahana – tends to have residents with longer family histories, said Quinlan. 

Both sides are far from urban Honolulu’s amenities. And while that’s a perk in some ways, it’s an existential problem in others.

Kamehameha Highway encapsulates some of the district’s biggest issues. 

Similar to Farrington Highway on the Leeward side, Kamehameha Highway is narrow and important, acting as the only road in or out of Oahu’s northeastern side. Running along the coast, it’s prone to storms and erosion, as well as to the emergency closures that come with both. 

“All of that is very worrisome,” said Dotty Kelly-Paddock, who has lived in Hauula since 1991. 

Kelly-Paddock sits on the Koolauloa neighborhood board and is executive director of Hui o Hauula, an organization she started in 2014 to help provide services to this isolated and low-lying area. She worries whether her town will be resilient in the event of a disaster – and she was discouraged by the answer during flooding and mudslides in March 2021. 

Quinlan is ultimately responsive to her concerns, she said, but she wishes she wouldn’t have to chase him down as much. 

Candidate Sean Quinlan.
Sean Quinlan is the incumbent Democrat in one of the state’s most conservative House districts. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Quinlan was born in Hong Kong and grew up on Long Island. After finishing his junior year at George Mason University, he took time off to live and work in China, later moving to the North Shore on Oahu to be close to his parents after they moved there. 

His father used to badger him about finishing school, he said, until he was elected state representative in 2016 after interning for now state Sen. Gil Riviere.

Quinlan is aware of the road situation, and of his district’s coastal erosion problem in general. He introduced and pushed a bill this year to fund a University of Hawaii study on using sandbags to combat coastal erosion, set to last for two years. 

Traffic Jams

But erosion is not Kamehameha Highway’s only problem.

“It should take me 15 minutes to get to my parents’ house. Sometimes it takes me more than an hour,” said Quinlan.

This is part of the perils of depending on a road with only one lane in each direction. 

Many people commute to urban Honolulu for work, similar to the Leeward side. But up here, residents also have to share the road with tourists, especially during the winter’s world-famous big wave swells

Laniakea Beach, for example, is famous for its sea turtles. Many tourists would pull off to the mauka side of Kamehameha Highway and jaywalk across the street, halting traffic.

“I can’t even tell you how long that’s been a problem,” said Kathleen Pahinui, who is the North Shore’s neighborhood board chair but spoke in a personal capacity. She’s lived in the area for about 30 years, and estimates that jaywalking tourists have been a concern for at least 15 of them. 

When Quinlan first campaigned, this was one of the two concerns that residents brought up most often, he said.

“On the North Shore side of my district, all they said was ‘fix Laniakea,’” said Quinlan. 

Quinlan pushed for capital improvement project money to construct a bypass. Now, a mauka parking lot has been created as a temporary solution, and a more permanent bypass road solution is in the works to improve pedestrian safety. 

Flooding is a problem throughout his district, and on the Koolauloa side, water would seep up through the grass in underserved Kahuku’s high and intermediate school football field — the other major concern that he heard from constituents, he said.

It’s tempting to see this as being just about football, said Quinlan, who pushed for the capital improvement funds that paid for the field’s flood-mitigating renovation this summer.

Really, he said, “it’s about pride in the community.”

Iwi Kupuna Erosion Kaaawa Kamehameha Highway
Erosion is a constant threat along Kamehameha Highway’s coastal stretches, cutting off vulnerable communities from the rest of the island when closures happen due to construction and bad weather. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2021

Talaeai thinks he can do better than Quinlan on these hyperlocal issues.

Growing up in a military family, Talaeai spent most of his childhood in Whitmore Village near Wahiawa. He moved to Waialua to be with his wife, whom he married about a decade ago, he said.

His full-time job is doing HVAC work at Schofield Barracks. His popular Instagram account – which now has over 250,000 followers, including Justin Bieber – started as something he did just to goof around with his kids. 

Talaeai still posts the fun content he started with – including Twitter memes and references to the 1987 cult classic movie “North Shore” – but as the account gained popularity, he also started using its platform to promote local businesses and relay the news.

“I’ve been that voice for the small person for years,” he said. 

He wasn’t very political before and had to do some research on each party, eventually choosing to run as a Republican for the party’s faith and family values, he said. The pandemic’s restrictions also helped with that decision.

He has no problem with Quinlan, he said. But when it comes to paying attention to smaller concerns, like speed bumps, “I think I can do better for the people.”

And the bigger things?

Candidate Mark Talaeai.
Mark Talaeai, most notable for his popular Instagram account, is the Republican nominee for House District 47. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“I don’t think I can do anything about it. Brah, I’m like one little fish in one giant fricking pond,” he said.

Talaeai did, however, pitch a few bigger solutions, like legalizing recreational marijuana and cultivating its tax revenue, as well as enacting tougher laws against bullying.

A Democratic Incumbent In A Conservative District

Kamehameha Highway’s issues don’t arise in a vacuum. 

“We’re paying for our addiction to cars,” said Quinlan, lamenting a setup of isolated communities and middling public transportation. But this doesn’t mean he’s a supporter of Honolulu’s rail project – far from it. 

“Our rail system is about giving incentives to developers around rail stations,” he said, disapproving of the city’s transit-oriented development plan. “The rail is sort of secondary to all this.” Quinlan would prefer more investment in TheBus.

It’s one of his positions that puts him at odds with fellow Democrats, along with his aversion to certain bills that he called “performative nonsense.”

As an example, he cited a 2021 bill that sought to ban firearms capable of shooting 50-caliber rounds, which only four state senators — including the chamber’s only Republican, Kurt Fevella — voted against. The bill died in the House. 

These stances against Hawaii’s dominant Democratic Party serve him well in District 47, which had Hawaii’s highest percentage of Republican voters during this year’s primary

The presence of Brigham Young University-Hawaii — along with Koolauloa’s Mormon history in general — likely plays a role in the district’s elevated levels of conservatism, said Colin Moore, director of the University of Hawaii Manoa’s Public Policy Center.

After all, Feki Pouha, the incumbent whom Quinlan barely ousted in 2016, was a Republican member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But Quinlan has had a comfortable lead in the elections since then — showing, said Moore, “the power of incumbency.”

Financially, Talaeai has raised about $3,500 this election cycle, all of it coming from a few individual donors outside the district. He had about $1,100 of available campaign funds as of Sept. 26.

Quinlan has raised over $20,000 and had a little over $18,000 on hand. His top donors included Charter Communications and Operating Engineers Local 3, each of which contributed the maximum of $2,000 this cycle.

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