When Derek and Monica Kawakami woke up Wednesday morning, they looked at each other and knew they had just completed one amazing journey.
They also knew they were about to embark on another.
“Our hearts are overflowing with gratitude, humility, happiness and gratefulness,” Derek said. “From 2006 and being selected to the KIUC board and now being elected to this mayor’s office, it feels like a dream. It feels like a dream and I’m still waiting to wake up. But this is it. This is reality.”
The reality is that Kauai voters wanted this man as their next mayor to replace outgoing Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr.
Kawakami, a Kauai county councilman, was elected decisively, 16,797 votes, 65.1 percent, to 7,969, 30.9 percent for Council Chair Mel Rapozo.
He was elected to a four-year term and will take office Dec. 3.
The people spoke, loud and clear, earning what Kawakami said was his biggest career accomplishment.
The son of the late Charles and Arlene Kawakami has deep roots on Kauai and his family has a history of public service.
“Of course, I owe a lot to my family,” he said as he sat in his campaign headquarters on Rice Street Wednesday afternoon, relaxing the day after the general election. “My family has been established here on Kauai, they’ve done a lot of good things for this island. I’ve been able to follow in those footsteps and continue on. I think our track record speaks for itself as far as accomplishments, whether it was on KIUC, the council or at the Legislature.”
Kawakami’s resume is long and distinguished. He served in the Legislature as District 14 representative from 2011 to 2016. Then he ran for county council and received the most votes.
He’s served on many community organizations and government committees. He was the operations manager of Menehue Food Mart and is today president of Eleele Associates (Eleele Shopping Center).
But while this 1995 Kauai High graduate and 2001 Chaminade University grad is recognized for his string of achievements and contributions, it’s his friendly demeanor, engaging smile and calming spirit that seem to attract a legion of followers.
He credits his family, friends and campaign team for much of his success.
“Our ability to bring people together, to be positive, that’s what people are wanting as far as leadership. They want people who will inspire and develop people to exceed what they thought they could perform,” the 40-year-old said. “That’s what a good coach is. A coach will bring out the very best in people. And the ability to assemble a good team.”
“Our campaign is a family,” he continued. “It is rare to have a campaign of this magnitude and not have any friction. If you were able to be at our campaign meetings, they were overflowing with energy and positivity. Every campaign meeting was about getting our word out, getting our message out. That’s what got us to where we are today.”
On election night, when the third and final printout of all 16 precincts came in, Kawakami looked at the numbers and said for some strange reason, he felt a little empty.
“The reason why, at that point, at that time, I was just focused on how my parents would be happy. I wanted them to be there. But in the end, it all came back to the people that helped shape me and get me to where I am today. That’s this island,” he said. “I’m indebted to this island because of everything that the people have offered me. I didn’t get here alone.”
Already, he’s preparing for his role as mayor of the island he loves.
He spent a few hours Wednesday morning on the side of the Kuhio Highway, waving and thanking people for their support. Then, he returned to his campaign office, met with some of his team and went over what worked in the campaign, and what didn’t.
“This is a beautiful thing. We never stopped. We’re always striving for excellence,” Kawakami said. “We’re always taking a look at where we were strong, where did we fall short, where are our weaknesses, how can we develop strength in those weaknesses, what’s the upcoming opportunities and where do we move from here.”
The brainstorming for when he becomes mayor is underway.
His plan for the first 100 days in office starts with assembling a great cabinet, being sure the right people are put in the right places.
The budget is another key concern.
There are many considerations, including affordable housing, traffic, parks, and quality of life. As well, Kawakami points out the island is still recovering from the April flooding and the aftermath of Hurricane Lane.
He plans to deploy an affordable housing task force to identify shovel-ready projects and projects that can be moved quickly.
As a former legislator, he knows the importance of the next legislative session.
“We have to identify a number of policies and appropriations that we’re going to be presenting to our state legislators and our delegation to see where we can partner up with the county and state,” he said.
While the campaign was trying at times, he said his wife, Monica, was a source of strength, his best friend, his safety net. They have two young children.
“Monica is Monica. Nothing changes her,” he said. “She’s been the rock. She’s been the constant whisper in my ear, ‘Get up there and get that work done. I know you’re tired but there’s work to be done.’”
“When we have to drop things and I have to do something, she is there to pick up the pieces. She’s been my partner in all of this.”
Kawakami had high praise for his mayoral opponent, Mel Rapozo.
“This island is better because of the service he’s given this county. He ran a great campaign. He did everything that I expected him to do. He worked hard all the way to the finish line. That’s what I expect for somebody that’s going to compete against me.
“Mel Rapozo was the very best opponent that I could ask for. And I’m honored to be able to walk this journey with him,” he said.
“We share something special now. I don’t think anybody can understand, in a weird way, how this sort of conflict can bring us together. That’s where we’re at today. I left a message for him. I told him I want to sit down, have a cup of coffee, figure out what’s next for Mel Rapozo and really take a look at where he wants to consider to serve this island. He has so much to offer.,” he said.
“We’re fighting for the same thing. We’re fighting for a good Kauai and Niihau for our children, for everybody’s children.”
Kawakami said he hadn’t given being Kauai’s mayor a lot of thought, really, until people kept telling him, ‘Hey, you’re the next mayor.’”
He initially said no way, but when he made the decision to leave the state’s House of Representatives and run for county council in 2016 so he could stay close to home, the mayor’s office became a goal — with one catch.
He recalls saying if Monica was still on board, if he came in first in the council race, resoundingly, he would run for mayor in 2018.
“But I said we have to come in first by a margin that’s unquestionable and leaves no doubt,” he said. “Because I’m not going to drag my family, friends, a team through a long campaign if we’re not going to win.”
There was no doubt.
He received 15,990 votes, 3,000 more than the next finisher.
“Once we pulled the trigger on that we were 100 percent committed,” he said.
Tuesday night, that commitment paid off and again, there was absolutely no doubt.
As is his style, Kawakami deflects praise for his victory and points it elsewhere and offers encouragement.
“I would like to thank the people of Kauai and Niihau. They inspire me every day. I can’t wait to work with that new council. I want to congratulate the candidates, especially the ones that didn’t make it. They got to keep their chin up. I expect them to run again, I expect them to work really hard.”
As far as working with the new council, Kawakami believes a new age is dawning.
“I think this county is going to see a mayor, council relationship that we haven’t seen before,” he said. “We’re going to focus on moving the needle and improving the quality of life. We’re going to stay focused, we’re going to have an openness. I want to be a part of their team and I want them to know they’re a part of our team as well.”
He paused, and added:
“We’re one team. We’re one island.”
Bill Buley, editor-in-chief, can be reached at 245-0457 or firstname.lastname@example.org.