Tulsi Gabbard might be saving taxpayers money with her resignation, but her vacancy on the Honolulu City Council raises many more questions about the future of the government body, the mayoral race and, of course, the $5.26 billion Honolulu rail project.
Gabbard, who is the favorite in the race to take over Mazie Hirono’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, has about two years left on her council term. She needed to resign Thursday in order to make sure her District 6 council seat is on the Nov. 6 General Election ballot.
This means the city won’t need to spend money on a special election, which could cost upwards of $150,000.
There’s a lot of interest in Gabbard’s position on the council. In fact, State Sen. Carol Fukunaga who recently lost in the Aug. 11 primary, expressed interest in Gabbard’s seat, sending out a press release just hours after the councilwoman’s resignation. Former Councilman Jon Yoshimura also announced his candidacy Thursday.
And according to Gabbard, many more people are expected to enter the race over the next couple weeks. The filing window for candidates is Aug. 22 to Aug. 31. The winner will be sworn-in 20 days after the election. Other names in the mix include former Hawaii Republican Party chair Sam Aiona, Honolulu’s Customer Service Department Director Gail Haraguchi and Reps. John Mizuno and Karl Rhoads.
“I expect it to be a very crowded race and a very lively one,” Gabbard said. “That’s a good reason why this election should be held in conjunction with the general election because with a special, not only is there the added cost, but it’s an absentee (ballot) only, so this way there will be added participation (and) higher voter turnout.”
The last time the Honolulu City Council filled a vacancy was in 2010, when Todd Apo resigned from the District 1 seat. A special election was held in which there were 14 candidates and votes were submitted via mail in ballot.
Not even 25 percent of the nearly 54,000 registered voters in that district cast ballots in that election, and current Council Member Tom Berg won by capturing 18.5 percent of the vote. That breaks down to 2,326 individuals who voted for Berg. The next closest candidate, Jason Espero, received 1,950 votes, or 15.5 percent.
With Gabbard’s seat now open, that means that six positions on the nine member council will have been up for election this year. It also means there will be some new blood on the council come January when five of the newly elected members are sworn in.
In the primary, former State Sen. Ron Menor and current Vice Speaker of the State House of Representatives Joey Manahan already won seats on the council by getting more than 50 percent of the vote in their respective races. Both will be City Council newcomers.
With Council Member Ikaika Anderson retaining his seat, that means there’s a possibility the council could have five new members when all is said and done.
How this affects council dynamics remains to be seen. But one area where there isn’t likely to be a drastic change is with rail.
The council strongly supports the project, with Kobayashi and Berg the only consistent anti-rail votes. And with Menor and Manahan both saying they like the $5.26 billion project, it means Gabbard’s seat even if it went to an anti-rail candidate wouldn’t sway enough votes on the council to change the course of the project.
This is particularly important considering former Gov. Ben Cayetano is running for mayor on an anti-rail platform. If he’s elected and decides to veto the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation budget, for instance, the council would still have six pro-rail votes to overturn that action.
This potential 6-3 split is also important when considering the council’s approval of a possible Full Funding Grant Agreement with the Federal Transit Administration that would bring $1.55 billion to Honolulu for the rail project.
City Council Chair Ernie Martin said he’s aware of this tally. He also said the council needs to reconsider its position on rail after the mayoral race.
“It’s really hard to say what issues will come to the council after the governor is sworn in if he’s successful to be elected,” Martin said of Cayetano. “But on the other side of the coin you have the other candidate, former (acting) mayor (Kirk) Caldwell who said he’s also looking to revisit the project, so we have to take that into consideration as well.”
Caldwell supports the rail project. To help distinguish himself from Mayor Peter Carlisle in the primary election, however, he unveiled his plan to “build rail better,” which includes the possibility of making minor adjustments to improve aesthetics.
But with Cayetano, Martin said the council must grapple with a much larger issue. If the former governor is elected, does that mean a majority of citizens no longer want rail? It’s a question the council can’t avoid, Martin said.
“In politics you can never speculate what’s going to happen. We take it as it comes,” he said. “It really depends on who’s elected to the council. We still have a few contested races, so the dynamics may change. They may look at the mayor’s race as a referendum on this issue.”