First-time hopefuls reflect

For first time runners, the campaign for a County Council seat was a learning experience rich with insight on government, appreciation for community and most importantly, the role of ‘ohana on the campaign trail.

First thing election day morning Derek Kawakami’s wife put the day in perspective for the council seat hopeful.

“Monica told me no matter what happens today she will always be proud,” he said.

Months of walking door-to-door, hosting fundraisers, holding signs and attending forums kept the pace brisk for first-timers Kawakami, Lani Kawahara and KipuKai Kualii. With the election hours from being over, they were able to reflect on some of the challenges and elations of the past months.

While there were moments of pride shared among the three, Kawahara’s brightest moment arrived early.

“One of my proudest moments was filing my papers with my dad,” she said. “To have him there with me.”

Another gratifying part of her campaign was meeting other first-time runners.

“It was a pleasure running with all of them and getting to know them,” she said. “We need new faces in (the council) and I want to thank them for stepping up.”

Kawakami commented on the presence of both young and old on his team.

“I am most proud that we were able to get a whole bunch of the older generation involved with the younger voters,” he said.

Both Kualii and Kawahara took pride also in the reception they received from the community.

 “As a candidate, to know there are people out there who care about the government — it’s heart warming to feel the support,” she said.

“I was grateful people were kind to my volunteers,” Kualii added.

This may have been Kualii’s first shot at running for office, but it was by no means his first brush with government.

“I love campaigning,” said the Kaua‘i native. “I’ve worked on other campaigns in California and Washington and on Shaylene Iseri-Cavalho’s here.”

The decade of helping others run for office prepared him for some aspects of running, but the organization required for managing his own campaign brought to light other challenges, one of which was not only running for office but also acting as campaign manager with a volunteer base made of family members.

“Family love is unconditional,” he said. “This was a really good experience for all of us — we had people come up and thank us for running.”

He may not have had a core group of seasoned campaigners, but Kualii said the flip side to that was how committed everyone was.

“Campaigning is mostly about human beings speaking from the heart,” he said. “I am proud of representing my family and the Hawaiian people.”

The one thing he’d do differently in the future would be to start canvassing earlier.

“Knowing now how much time it takes to go house to house, in the future I’d give more time for walking,” he said. “People want the face to face, they don’t want the mailings.”

A common challenge between Kualii and Kawakami was asking for help.

“I don’t know if it’s cultural, but it’s hard to ask for help,” Kualii said.

For Kawakami his reluctance stems from being in the business of service his whole life.

“Coming from Big Save where I’m used to people coming to us for help with fundraisers — it was really hard to ask,” he said.

While there was an enormous commitment of time involved, Kawakami made note of his renewed appreciation of sacrifices made by all office holders. What made it worthwhile was being able to witness the cross-generational support of his team.

“My oldest has to be in his eighties and the youngest is my four-year-old daughter,” he said.

Kawakami recommends first-time runners get organized.

“The reason for our successful campaign this time is the scheduling. We had a lot of experienced people working with us,” he said. “I recommend (running for office) to anybody. It’s a good process. Be confident and get out there walking house to house, fundraising and doing the forums.”

Ultimately Kawakami leaned into the strength of his family throughout the campaign.

“My mom told me to ‘keep your head up no matter what the outcome,’” Kawakami said.  “‘Be proud. You ran a clean campaign. Remain humble and never forget where you came from.’” 

As results rolled in it became clear Kawakami would have a seat on the council. With a sigh of relief all he could say was, “Yes. Yes. Yes.”

Likewise, Kawahara was a flurry of enthusiasm.

“It’s really amazing,” she said. “I think what’s happening is everybody wanting to see something new. That there can be a bigger balance with new people.”

• Pam Woolway, lifestyle writer, can be reached at 245-3681, ext. 257 or


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