County Councilmember Derek Kawakami sat back a couple weeks ago in an easy chair in the Rice Street storefront campaign headquarters he’s using as he runs for mayor. He seemed to welcome an opportunity to get off his feet for an hour or so.
He knows he’s in a historic race. Kauai will be electing a new mayor after Bernard Carvalho Jr. has served in that office for a decade. At least three new county councilmembers will be chosen. In all, it may be the most important local election on Kauai in at least a generation.
It’s fitting the headquarters is on Rice Street, because, Kawakami says, he strongly favors initiatives to revitalize the Lihue town core, upping densities and encouraging people to get out of their cars and onto their feet, or on bicycles or public transit.
There are clear differences between Kawakami and his opponent, Council Chair Mel Rapozo. While neither identify themselves politically, the two candidates present a clear choice for voters on Nov. 6.
Kawakami likes to say there are just 27 days between when a new mayor is elected on Nov. 6 and when he takes office.
In his first 100 days in office Kawakami says he would:
• Focus on appointing a new cabinet and top staff roster “of skilled individuals.”
• Convene an affordable housing summit to speed construction projects.
• Begin work on a 2019 budget for use both with the County Council and the Legislature in Honolulu.
• Create “a conservative fiscal approach” to cut wasteful spending, and make “strategic investments” in affordable housing, reducing traffic congestion and protecting the environment.
• Develop statutory proposals concerning economic development and illegal vacation rentals.
Fair to say that Kawakami’s approach to the mayor’s race appears to look to the future, while Rapozo’s focuses on returning the county to a time when functions were less ambitious and budgets far lower.
If there is one issue that underscores the differences between them, it’s roads.
Kawakami said he understands the real limitations on how the road network on Kauai can be treated. Money is the key issue, despite the council decision to increase the general excise tax by half a percent to pay for transportation improvements. Ironically, when the proposal passed 6-1, Rapozo was the only “no” vote.
Even with that money flowing into the system, Kawakami’s view is that the county has such a backlog of deferred maintenance that the focus must be on repairing and rehabilitating what we have. As an example, he supports a state transportation plan for Kapaa. It includes modest improvements like adding a lane to Kuhio Highway in front of the remains of the Coco Palms resort.
“Our focus,” Kawakami said, “is taking a look at where the future job growth is and being a partner with the private sector.”
Improvements in the traffic signal system and adding a lane to the Kapaa bypass road would be part of the same plan. With the state and county splitting the cost, Kawakami says, the package of projects is affordable.
Rapozo, on the other hand, favors a bold project to convert a cane-haul road that runs from near the Wailua Municipal Golf Course all the way to Koloa. He has also talked about other cane road conversion projects.
To Kawakami, though, projects like those sound good to an electorate, but are unaffordable in terms of their true cost. They would consume all funds available for road maintenance for years to come, he said.
“That’s what gets us into this mess in the first place,” Kawakami said. “We keep throwing out ideas that are not going to be tangible and we lose focus on the things that we can actually do to make things better.”
Massive expansion or recycling of cane-haul roads and other road-centric construction projects, he said, could cost $500 million. And even if that money is spent, he said, “it will eventually get congested again unless we address the real problem, which is land use.”
Kawakami quipped that one of the causes of Kauai’s traffic congestion may even be that drivers are too nice.
“One of the things that causes traffic congestion,” he said, “is the practice of stopping and coming to a screeching halt in the middle of the road to let your friends in.” In other words, the Kapaa Crawl may be partly caused by too much driver aloha.
Like his opponent, Kawakami, 40, is a Kauai native and product of Hawaii schools and college. Married with two young children, he’s from a prominent business family. The family’s former holdings include Big Save Markets. Current holdings include at least three shopping centers and other assets.
Kawakami sees the shopping centers as one of many elements to a solution for Kauai’s chronic housing shortage.
He favors adding housing to shopping centers and vacant publicly owned land and devising a system in which families could purchase an ownership stake in a house built on state- or county-owned land under a 65-year lease. The lease interest could be sold, but the home would remain public property.
He has a particular interest in how vacant property at the Mahelona Medical Center in Kapaa could be developed for both family housing and assisted living quarters for older people. The hospital could provide health care services.
While Rapozo has expressed interest in a broad shakeup of leadership of county departments — particularly Parks — and supports trying to reduce the county budget by as much as 10 percent by eliminating “waste,” Kawakami’s approach is more measured.
“We are not going to be an administration that’s gonna come in and wipe the slate clean,” he said. “A good leader comes in and builds upon the foundation that already exists.”
He is a believer in prioritizing education in science, technology, engineering and math — often known as STEM — even though the county government has no direct role in operating the school system.
“We’re investing tremendous resources in getting our kids STEM-ready,” he said.
But so far, in the state, and on Kauai in particular, “we don’t have the jobs ready for them to come back home to. Two industries that are always going to need the human touch are early childhood education and geriatric care.”
Where Rapozo has clashed with members of the Legislature, Kawakami said he believes his “immediate advantage is all of the great relationships I’ve been able to build.”
Kawakami is also not reluctant to provide a perspective on the related issues of GMO agriculture and pesticides — the source of division on island for more than six years. “I’ve always maintained my focus on agriculture,” he said.
“My track record in supporting agriculture has been head and shoulders above (Rapozo) and appropriating money for all different forms of agriculture. I can tell you that these are some of the best-trained people when it comes to applying pesticides.
“When you take a look at many of the cases that have been cited, oftentimes it’s the homeowner who hasn’t followed instructions or sprayed on a windy day. Those are the facts of the matter. I know it’s an emotional issue because a lot of fear and divisiveness has been inserted,” he said.
“Unfortunately, there are people who will use fear and divisiveness to split the community.”
Allan Parachini is a Kilauea resident and retired public relations executive who writes periodically for The Garden Island.