Earlier this year, the Maui County Council enacted one of the most controversial measures in recent history: A moratorium on building new hotel rooms and visitor lodgings that would last for the next two years, or until the government set a cap on the number of such places — whichever came first.

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Now, as some council members are looking to make a permanent cap, their actions are once again drawing both celebration and ire. During a meeting that lasted all day Thursday, more than 60 people signed up to testify on the proposal, which has garnered support from the county’s planning department, the Molokai and Lanai planning commissions and many residents who see it as a shift away from an “extractive” industry and a way to remedy Maui’s “tremendous over dependence on tourism.”

The proposal, however, has been met with just as much opposition from business officials, tourism industry representatives and vacation rental owners who warn it could be a taking of vested property rights and a blow to the island’s economy.

Wailea in south Maui
Hotels would be stopped from adding more rooms if a permanent cap is enacted. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

“The rug is being pulled out from under us,” said Sean George, a vacation rental owner in West Maui. “It doesn’t feel fair.”

But in a hotly contested election year, representatives from visitor and construction industries have done more than just pack meetings and spend hours waiting for a turn to testify for three minutes. Campaign finance data shows that tourism industry groups, real estate investment firms and construction unions — especially major players from Oahu — are putting tens of thousands of dollars behind candidates who could disrupt the existing power balance on the Maui County Council.

Voters will decide in the Nov. 8 election who will fill all nine seats on the council, a body that has recently sought to dramatically alter the county’s relationship with tourism.

A screenshot of Thursday’s meeting discussing a permanent hotel cap. Screenshot/2022

Political observers say it’s the industry’s attempt to overthrow the progressive stronghold that held the majority in recent years and has taken actions that some call drastic or even “radical.” This year alone, council members enacted the moratorium and raised taxes on luxury vacation homes to help pay for affordable housing.

“This is what happens when you anger very powerful interests that have a lot of financial resources: They’re going to back your opponents,” said Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii.

Campaign spending data show that in seven out of nine Maui County Council races, the candidates who aren’t backed by Maui progressives are significantly outraising their opponents. Some of those candidates have also attracted financial support from businesses and individuals on Oahu.

Of roughly $670,000 in campaign donations that poured into Maui County Council campaigns through Sept. 26, about $200,000 — almost 30% — came from Oahu, according to campaign spending data. Much of that money has been donated by construction unions, real estate investment groups and representatives with ties to tourism and development.

“These people live in Honolulu, but their firms are deeply invested in Maui,” Moore said.

Those figures don’t include all the cash spent by political groups that don’t give directly to candidates. Be Change Now, a super PAC backed by the carpenters union, for example, spent more than $200,000 through Sept. 26 on advertising and canvassing for three Maui County Council candidates. They include: Nohe U‘u-Hodgins, who works for the construction industry and is up against progressive newcomer Nara Boone for the Makawao-Haiku-Paia seat; Tom Cook, a general contractor who’s facing Robin Knox, an environmental scientist, for the South Maui seat; and John Pele, who’s trying to unseat Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, the Molokai representative who’s championed a permanent hotel cap.

A photo of Polo Beach on Maui.
Tourism industry groups are pouring money to back candidates who might shake up the County Council’s current power structure. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Money helps get candidates name recognition, Moore said, but it doesn’t decide elections — especially on Maui, where local progressive candidates are more organized than anywhere else in the state. Compared to other communities in Hawaii, where the differences between candidates sometimes isn’t as clear, Moore said it’s easier for Maui voters to identify which candidates align with their interests and beliefs.

“Voters have a choice,” he said. “They can see who is part of what coalition, and vote for what future they want for Maui.”

Before the pandemic struck, Maui saw more than 3 million visitor arrivals in 2019, according to Hawaii Tourism Authority data. That same year, at least half of Maui’s jobs were tied to the visitor industry, according to a report by the Maui Economic Development Board. At any given time, over a third of the people on Maui were tourists.

Then the pandemic struck in early 2020, halting visitor arrivals and leading Maui’s unemployment rate to soar to 35%. Maui was thrown into a dire economic crisis, but at the same time, residents saw for the first time in decades what it was like when rental cars cleared off the roads, hiking trails weren’t clogged and residents finally could find parking at their favorite beach parks.

With Maui’s relationship — and dependence — on tourism thrown into sharp focus, the County Council earlier this year enacted the law that paused the construction of new hotels and visitor lodgings for two years, or until the county sets a cap on the number of visitor lodgings.

“I just feel that we’ve bent over and sacrificed our quality for tourists,” Maui resident Cheryl Hendrickson told council members while urging them Thursday to move forward with the permanent cap. “We have other industries that we can promote to make money.”

Some tourism industry representatives, however, argue that the council’s actions are a misplaced attempt to manage the number of tourists on island, which could spur unintended growth of illegal vacation rentals in residential areas. The presence of visitors, they say, can only be controlled by regulating the number of people who come over on flights — a situation that’s under the federal government’s purview.

“I sound like a broken record,” said Lisa Paulson of Maui Hotel & Lodging Association. “But before these damaging pieces of legislation come out, there really needs to be more in-depth research and conversation.”

Paulson’s organization has been among those that have backed the candidates who are vying to shake up the current council. Some council members haven’t been willing to listen or collaborate with industry leaders, she said, and instead have pushed through policies — like the moratorium and now the permanent cap — without knowing the full ramifications for the island’s businesses.

“We literally are asking, ‘Let’s really look at how that helped with tourism management,’ before we start going for the jugular,” Paulson said.

A photo of visitors exiting the Kahului Airport
Visitors and residents cross the street at the Kahului Airport. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

The Maui County Council is still in the process of vetting the permanent halt on new hotel expansion, which is scheduled to be discussed again on Friday. But the future of the policy — and the county’s path forward in the way it decides to deal with tourism — will also be shaped by the upcoming general election and who voters pick to steer the council. Mail-in ballots have already gone out.

In the race for the Molokai seat, for example, there are stark differences between the candidates’ views. Pele, who co-owns a restaurant and works as a condominium manager, has said he doesn’t see capping the number of hotels as a “viable permanent option” because it could impact a major revenue stream.

Through Sept. 26, the political newcomer raised almost $105,000 in his bid to unseat incumbent Rawlins-Fernandez, who’s championed the cap as a way to stop tourism from hurting residents’ quality of life. Her campaign, meanwhile, raised about $18,000, according to campaign spending data.

Pele did not respond to a request for comment.

In an interview, Rawlins-Fernandez said she has never been up against that level of financial backing in previous elections. She views it as a direct affront by real estate investment groups who may have otherwise been poised to make money from hotel expansions — something that might be stopped if the permanent cap is enacted.

“I’ve affected their ability to expand if they want to build more hotel rooms,” Rawlins-Fernandez said. “I’ve just put up a roadblock for them.”

Besides shaping the fate of the council, Maui County voters this year are also responsible for deciding who they think is best qualified to run the $1 billion local government as mayor. And they’ll vote on 13 proposals that could drastically change the way the county operates, including creating a separate housing department, mandating a bilingual government and changing the way certain county officials are hired.

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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