Within three hours of the polls closing on election night, the results were clear: Richard Bissen held a commanding lead over Mayor Michael Victorino in the race to become Maui County’s next chief executive.

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At Bissen’s campaign party, the scene was lively. Hundreds of his closest friends and volunteers celebrated at the spacious Maui Arts & Cultural Center, whooping and whistling each time his lead widened throughout the night. Children giggled and chased each other across the pavilion. Kupuna watched live music on the giant stage. Current and former government leaders from across the political spectrum attended, ranging from former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle to South Maui’s outgoing progressive state Rep. Tina Wildberger.

Later in the night, however, the crowd went quiet. The screen towering above the stage was broadcasting Hawaii News Now, where Victorino spoke from his campaign party in the parking lot outside of the Kahului Shopping Center. The mayor accepted defeat, thanked his volunteers and, in a rare move for a politician, apologized.

“It’s not just about me; it’s about the people of Maui County,” Victorino told the TV crew. “Unfortunately, they didn’t like the job I did.”

Mayor Michael Victorino speaks at his campaign party on election night. He apologized to voters after losing his reelection bid Nov. 8. Ryan Siphers/Civil Beat/2022

As the mayor spoke, some of Bissen’s supporters in the crowd let out audible gasps. It was the longtime politician’s first — and only — election loss since he won a seat on the Maui County Council in 2006, a role that he held until he reached term limits and was elected mayor in 2018. This time, he’d fallen at least 11,600 votes short.

Political analysts say it was a perfect storm that led to his downfall. It was in part the pandemic, and the challenge it brought political leaders who were forced to make divisive decisions on everything from masks to restrictions on business operations. It was the way Victorino handled certain county crises, such as the expensive legal fight over injection wells.

Still, those who’ve been long following Maui politics say Victorino may have survived a second term had he not had such a strong challenger.

Bissen launched one of the most active campaigns in Maui County, which in just 10 months participated in hundreds of community events and raised more than $600,000 — roughly $100,000 more than Victorino raised over the last four years.

Amid a dire housing crisis and an exodus of longtime families, Bissen promised to bring “Kama‘aina Prosperity.” And when people called his campaign and had questions, they heard back — which helped win him a broad base of support from both sides of the political aisle.

Mayor-elect Richard Bissen speaks to supporters at his campaign party. He ran a highly effective campaign over 10 months. Ryan Siphers/Civil Beat/2022

Others say there might be something less tangible at play. In some places, incumbent mayors have easier paths to reelection, but that’s not necessarily the case in Maui County.

Starting in 1998, three mayors in a row failed to survive more than a first term. Alan Arawaka is the only exception, who after losing his first reelection bid came back again in 2010 to win two terms as mayor.

“It’s tough to be mayor of Maui; there’s going to be a target on your back immediately,” said Colin Moore, director of the University of Hawaii’s Public Policy Center. “And in four years, you’re going to have to fight for reelection.”

People who’ve worked in county government and have watched power structures shift over the years have some ideas as to why local voters are so scrutinizing.

Rod Antone, who provides political analysis and previously ran communications for the Arakawa administration, said he fielded calls for years at the mayor’s office from Maui residents who were fed up with state and federal issues that the county was powerless to help.

“People would call about their schools,” he said. “That’s a state issue; the county of Maui doesn’t run the schools.”

Maui County residents were waiting in line to vote as the polls prepared to close at 7 p.m., Tuesday.
Maui County residents were waiting in line to vote as the polls prepared to close on Nov. 8. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Dick Mayer, a retired Maui Community College professor, said he thinks the rapid changes that have occurred on Maui that made it harder for families to make ends meet may have something to do with the turnover in the mayor’s office.

A recent report by the Maui Economic Development Board, for example, found that when accounting for inflation, Maui’s median household income has “stayed basically constant” since 2005. Yet in recent years, housing costs have soared. Since the last mayoral election in 2018, the typical price of a Maui home jumped to $1.15 million, a nearly $440,000 increase, according to real estate data.

Often, it’s the mayor who ends up shouldering the blame of not exercising enough control to curb the changes that have hurt residents’ quality of life, Mayer said.

“The big question is, ‘Are the people angry at the way the mayor is doing things, or just unhappy with what’s happening within the county and want to take it out on somebody?’” he said.

‘A Crisis Of Leadership’

Throughout the election season, seven people launched bids to unseat Victorino, three of whom were accomplished government leaders — Bissen and longtime Maui County Council members Kelly King and Mike Molina. Many of those running argued the community needed a different leader to navigate its growing list of challenges. On election night, for example, Bissen told Hawaii News Now that he didn’t question Victorino’s love for the county, but he entered the race because of a “crisis of leadership.”

Victorino was unavailable for an interview for this story.

Over the course of the campaign, Victorino often spoke about how his first term was defined by the pandemic and subsequent economic disaster that rippled through Maui County. When tourism came to a halt, Maui’s unemployment rate shot up to 35%, according to federal data. Victorino steered the county through the worst of it.

He ended up winning the endorsement of several big names in Maui politics, including the Maui Hotel & Lodging Association and the Hawaii State Teachers Association. But there was also turmoil within his administration.

His first year in office was marked by a legal battle over the county’s injection wells that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, after his administration refused to follow County Council direction to settle the lawsuit. Then there was trouble within county departments, such as the allegations of wrongdoing that paved the way for the “monster house” to be built in Napili.

Maui Monster house
The “monster house” in Napili was built during the Victorino administration. Ryan Siphers/Civil Beat/2022

Others took issue with things that unfolded less publicly. Victorino has been described as a hands-off manager, which some say is a benefit because it allows departments to operate largely autonomously. Others, however, saw it as a flaw, one that sometimes meant he appeared disconnected from his own department heads.

In recent months, for example, Victorino took different positions from his own department leaders on a number of issues, ranging from a proposal to create community water authorities to a measure to change how the prices of affordable housing are set.

Arakawa said, on a personal level, Victorino’s “heart is in the right place,” but that he didn’t take enough of an active role to support the people running his departments. When he was mayor, Arakawa said, he took his staff’s guidance in the vast majority of cases and dealt with any disagreements in county offices.

“People that don’t like what you’re doing will vote for whoever the new person is,” Arakawa said. “It’s the incumbent that has the burden of proof to be able to establish whether or not they deserve a second term — and that’s basically what happened with this mayor’s race.”

For others, it was the way the administration interacted with certain members of the public that created conflict. In recent decades, the presence of people living in tents and on Maui’s streets has become increasingly visible, a phenomena that began years before Victorino took office. But throughout his term, the county’s handling of the issue came into sharp focus.

A photograph of shelters on Maui.
Rents have soared in recent years, putting more Maui families at risk of losing their homes. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

In 2021, the county cleared an area where dozens of people had been living in tents and vehicles near Kanaha Beach Park, which had served as a last resort for many residents who’d been priced out of housing or struggled with mental health issues.  Although the county argued it was clearing the camp in the interest of public safety, the action came despite the U.S. Centers for Disease Control advising governments to avoid razing camps during the pandemic.

Some of the people who lost their belongings in that sweep are now suing the county, a fight that has been pushed to the Hawaii Supreme Court.

“Every single thing — even down to an email and a call — has been a fight,” said Lisa Darcy, who runs the nonprofit Share Your Mana, which advocates for unsheltered people. “There has not been partnership.”

Darcy is among those who hope a new administration might usher in a new era of collaboration within county government. In recent months, for example, Darcy said she and her nonprofit’s advisory committee — a group of people with experience living without housing on Maui – were able to meet with and share their concerns with Bissen. Victorino, on the other hand, wasn’t available.

Jessica Lau lost her Harbor Lights apartment when she came up short on rent in February 2020 and has been mostly living in her car since then. She’s one of the women suing the county over how it handled the 2021 sweep. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

That’s how the campaign was able to win over some people who’d initially been skeptical of the political newcomer.

“People have been conditioned to believe that politics is awful; that nobody is trustworthy,” said Bissen campaign manager Charlene Schulenburg.

She has known Bissen since they attended St. Anthony High School together. This was the first political campaign that either of them had worked on, she said, which meant they were able to recognize early on that they needed to do things differently to win voters’ trust.

“One thing we wanted to do is to meet people where they were really at — in other words, don’t walk in and try to get their minds changed,” Schulenburg said. “Go in with an open mind and an open heart, and just say, ‘I am here to learn about what is important to you.’”

Schulenburg said that’s how “Bissen Listens” came to be – a type of event that the campaign put on many times throughout the election season to hear from residents.

When campaign staff would hold those events and participate in others across the county, they’d check their inboxes and actively scan social media to respond to questions and address concerns, ranging from questions over how massive amounts of donations might sway Bissen’s decisions in office to calls for him to be more specific when talking about policy.

“We responded to absolutely everyone that we believed tried to reach out to us,” said Schulenburg. “There was no one that we said, ‘Oh, well, we’re not talking to them.’”

Housing was the No. 1 issue for most Maui County campaigns. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

For some Maui community leaders, that was a big factor in deciding which candidate to back.

Wildberger, a progressive state lawmaker from South Maui who chose not to seek another term this election, said her biggest hope is that the new administration brings with it more accountability and responsiveness. Over the years, whenever she had an issue within the Judiciary, she was able to get Bissen on the phone; the same wasn’t true with the mayor.

Her hope, however, is that Bissen follows through with his promises – ranging from creating a collaborative and transparent government to prioritizing housing for local families, which was one of his biggest campaign promises but an area where the county government has lagged for decades.

“Except for the several cool affordable housing projects that had gone in recently in Kihei, the decade before that we had nothing but luxury development go in here — acres and acres and acres of luxury development, and nothing for people that live and work here,” Wildberger said.

“He had the right message,” she said. “It’s all about what transpires upon delivery.”

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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