State Rep. Lauren Cheape Matsumoto and former Rep. Marilyn Lee are vying to represent the central Oahu district of Mililani in the House, setting up a race between one of the Legislature’s few current Republican members and the Democrat who served for years before her.

While Matsumoto is technically an incumbent, redistricting has considerably changed the borders at stake in the Nov. 8 election.

Since her first election win 10 years ago, she has represented an area stretching from the western side of Mililani up through Schofield Barracks and Waialua as part of House District 45.

Now – as part of District 38 – the western half of Mililani Town and a large chunk of Mililani Mauka occupy what’s essentially a district of their own. 

“The new district does keep Mililani consolidated,” said Matsumoto, 35. “It makes sense.” 

Mililani High School sign and parking lot
Marilyn Lee pointed to Covid-driven learning loss as one of the concerns she’d like to address, if elected to the Legislature. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

What remains to be seen is how this change will affect the election, especially when combined with the differences between each candidate’s set of priorities. Here’s what the candidates have to say about how they would approach the job.

Housing Woes

Mililani was Oahu’s first planned community, a project undertaken by one of the “Big Five” landowners Castle & Cooke, which had previously used the area’s fertile red soil for pineapple fields. 

The company began planning for Mililani Town in 1958, a year before statehood, and the first homes of this new idyllic neighborhood were sold a decade later. But its agricultural past had reverberations – in the early 1980s, pesticides were found in the drinking water, prompting then-chair of the neighborhood board Sam Lee to push for solutions to this problem.

High-tech filters were soon added, and Mililani Town was designated an All-American City in 1986 for its local problem-solving. Sam Lee was elected state representative, a post he kept for about a decade before being succeeded by his wife, Marilyn. 

“At the end of about 10 years, he wasn’t doing very well,” said Lee, referring to her late-husband’s health at the time. “And one day, really close to the filing deadline, he decided not to run.” Marilyn ran instead and won.

Democratic nominee for House District 38 Marilyn Lee smiles at the camera.
Democratic nominee Marilyn Lee is running once again to reclaim her old House seat in Mililani. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

Marilyn Lee, 82, hails from Schenectady, New York, where she drew political inspiration from the town’s Democratic mayor-turned-congressman Samuel Stratton. She became a nurse and met her husband in Washington, D.C.

Sam Lee worked in the foreign service at the time, and after marrying and a career living abroad, the Lees moved to Sam’s home state of Hawaii. Mililani Town was in its early days as a community at that point, and unlike Manoa, “we could afford it at that time,” said Lee. 

Mililani Town has become pricier since then. 

Lee said her house cost $75,000 when they bought it decades ago; now, she said, it’s been assessed at $1.5 million. 

Like most other Hawaii candidates, affordable housing is a priority for both Matsumoto and Lee. But their approaches differ — Matsumoto embraced ideas to help promote traditional home ownership, while Lee suggested new ways to approach the rapidly worsening housing market.

“A lot of time when we talk about affordable housing, there’s talk about affordable rentals,” said Matsumoto. She prefers to think about home ownership.

Instead of worrying about how a rent increase will eat into somebody’s pay raise at work, she said, “if we can get people into homes, you then have a set mortgage.” 

Matsumoto referred to a bill she introduced last legislative session that sought to help people save enough money for a down payment, the idea being that they could set aside pre-tax income for this specific purpose. The bill received support from over a dozen other lawmakers across the aisle but was ultimately deferred. 

She sees the housing market’s ails as largely coming from offshore investors, who buy up houses but mostly leave them empty and watch their values rise. Sectioning off a local housing market would be key, she said, while acknowledging that it’s not constitutional to explicitly restrict the market to residents.

“You can do it through a fee structure, where if you are the homeowner, then you get that fee back,” she said.” Versus if you don’t live here and it’s just your vacation home, then you’re going to be paying more in taxes.”

Lee supports a rent-to-own scheme, endorsing former gubernatorial candidate Vicky Cayetano’s plan to offer renters ownership of their respective homes once their monthly rent payments totaled the cost.

“We have to think of new ways to house people,” she said, including “different ways to own homes, like rent-to-own.” 

And it’s prudent to consider other living situations – maybe homes with shared cooking or laundry facilities, she said.

Diversifying The Economy

Both candidates support investment in agriculture, particularly with waning interest in farming among young people.

Matsumoto said she’s seen the effects of this personally through her family’s century-old egg farm. She’s eager to explore partnerships with the University of Hawaii to figure out ways to invest in more automated ag-tech, she said. 

Lee thinks encouraging more students through community colleges and Future Farmers of America would be worth an effort.

Another industry to invest in, said Matsumoto, is film.

Matsumoto majored in film in college and made a documentary on beauty pageants that she said inspired her to enter beauty pageants. That, in turn, paved the way for her interest in community issues and eventual run for office. 

While Hawaii’s lush and dramatic scenery has been the site of the filming of popular productions like “Lost” and “Jurassic Park,” computer-generated imaging has made it easier to film elsewhere.

Now, tax credit offerings matter a lot more, and Hawaii’s tax credit limit is hurting its appeal, said Matsumoto.

Rep. Lauren Cheape Matsumoto, who's the Republican nominee for House District 38, smiles at the camera.
Rep. Lauren Cheape Matsumoto is the Republican nominee for House District 38. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

Matsumoto also is a proponent of cutting the general excise tax for food, medical services and feminine hygiene products. The lost state revenue could be balanced by modernizing state databases and financial systems, making it easier to find and eliminate wasted funds, she said.

Lee supports investing in the aerospace and astronomy industry, saying that she supports building the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea.

Beyond the economy, Lee is concerned with how residents at each end of the age spectrum are faring. She brought up the closure of Wahiawa’s long-term care facility as a detriment to central Oahu.

“I was kind of surprised that people didn’t get more excited about that,” she said.

It can be difficult caring for aging kupuna or other loved ones, especially if the caregiver needs to maintain a job at the same time. Facilities like Wahiawa’s are able to help by providing full-time professional care.

And because many of Wahiawa’s patients were from the area, it was a good location for their nearby relatives to visit. Lee sees the facility’s closure as a loss for both the patients and their nearby relatives.

Without this ease of visitation, “people get so isolated just lying in a bed all day long,” she said. 

She would put a focus on improving long-term care if she wins, though she admits she’s not exactly sure what the solution is at this point. 

Lee is similarly concerned about children, especially Covid’s effect on education. The first step for addressing this, she said, is identifying the students who are falling behind or have even stopped showing up entirely, so educators can focus extra effort onto them.

Lee was a state representative for 16 years before Republican Beth Fukomoto defeated her in 2012, and she has been trying to get back to the statehouse ever since.

But it will be difficult to overcome Matsumoto, who has held her own as a Republican in blue Hawaii for 10 years and has a financial advantage.

Lee, who supports abortion rights, has received support from the Patsy T. Mink PAC as well as United Public Workers PAC. Each contributed the legal limit of $2,000 to Lee’s campaign, and as of Sept. 26, she has about $6,400 on hand.

Matsumoto has about $41,700 on hand, also as of Sept. 26. Her campaign’s largest contributions this cycle have included $1,000 from former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle and $2,000 from the Republican State Leadership Committee.

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