Upcoming mayoral race will be historic

Next June 5 and Aug. 11 are just around the corner. Hint: Those are, respectively, the dates of the filing deadline for candidates in Hawaii elections and the 2018 primary.

Why on Earth, you may ask, do I bring this up now? Because, in the midst of the intense scrutiny the 2018 elections are already receiving at the federal level — not to mention the clear uncertainty that Donald Trump will still be president then — this will be a genuinely historic vote on Kauai.

We will elect a new mayor and at least three new people will join the County Council because Chair Mel Rapozo and Councilmembers JoAnn Yukimura and Ross Kagawa are term limited off. Who will run to replace them is not yet clear. Nevertheless, who chairs the council and serves on it in and of itself is enormously important.

But it is the mayor’s race that should — today — start to attract all of our attention. I don’t use the word “historic” lightly. Consider: In 2001 — 15 years ago — Bryan Baptiste won election, taking over from Maryanne Kusaka, who had supported Baptiste.

Then, suddenly, in 2008, Baptiste died in office.

An interregnum ensued during which Mayor Bernard Carvalho — a Baptiste protege — won a special election to complete Baptiste’s term and subsequently won two full terms of his own. He is the longest-serving mayor in the brief history of Kauai County.

In ways, Kauai has been on a single course since 2002. I’m not an old-timer, but I’m told that, often, the outgoing mayor has designated his or her successor. At least for now, Carvalho has not done so.

So whoever wins the office will start with a blank slate. I have never hidden the fact that when I first moved here in 2012, I was not a fan of Carvalho. My initial impression of him was consistent with my experience with Mainland politicians — phony and overblown.

I had completely misread the guy. He has a big heart and he loves Kauai. He has tried to do many of the right things and succeeded in some of them. He has exhibited great political courage, most notably by vetoing the ill-considered Bill 2491, which attacked GMO agriculture and pesticide use without bothering to show evidence of why its powers were legal or necessary.

He has stuck to his guns on building the multi-use path, neutralizing enormous opposition from those who see Kauai’s transportation and congestion future as an issue of road construction and maintenance. He has led some gains in affordable housing. He pursued a federal TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant, which focuses on road and other improvements in Lihue and was savagely attacked for supposedly ignoring the rest of the island. But today, the very first, tiny steps appear to be occurring in what could result in revival of the moribund town core.

So the question of who replaces Carvalho is a major one. Right now, four people have either announced their candidacies or are rumored credibly to be considering it. They are Mel Rapozo, Councilmember Derek Kawakami, former Councilmember Gary Hooser and Parks and Recreation Director Lenny Rapozo. Don’t forget that running Parks and Rec was the job Carvalho had under Baptiste. There has been speculation that Councilmember JoAnn Yukimura is contemplating a run, but on Friday she denied it unequivocally.

Because there are two Rapozos, I will continue the island habit of referring to our elected leaders by their first names only.

Last week, I emailed all four posing two questions: Are they considering running (superfluous in Mel’s case, since he already announced)? And: “What do you expect will be the two most significant challenges to face our next mayor in 2018?”

Probably not surprisingly, no one, except JoAnn, who says she’s not running, answered my emails because confirming candidacy might box them in and identifying critical issues might concede campaign strategy. OK, I get it. I had hoped to find things like congestion and traffic, affordable housing, assessing the practical limitations on Kauai’s tourism capacity, encouraging more local agriculture and expanding our chronically short-staffed police and fire departments among the answers. But it was not to be.

Though JoAnn said she isn’t considering a run, she did have some thoughts that reflect, I think, the views of many: “So far none of the potential mayoral candidates has presented a clear and coherent vision for the future. Nor have they advocated for the plans and actions that I consider critical to the present and future of this island.”

Whatever there is to conventional wisdom, it seems the mayor’s race is Derek’s to lose. He left the Hawaii House of Representatives to return to Kauai to deal with family issues. He has young children. He is sharp and politically smart. Were he to win, by the way, there would then be at least four new County Council members, not three. On the downside, he may be playing his hand too cautiously.

Mel has made no secret of his ambition to be mayor. He has been a strong chair. He is a tireless advocate for fiscal restraint and public safety. However, he has clashed unnecessarily with JoAnn and Bernard and rammed through questionable rules for the council, including a prohibition on asking public testifiers questions.

Gary has created for himself a reputation as a progressive and is dogged in pursuit of his objectives, though mostly for political — not policy — reasons. He has a range of experience, having served as majority leader of the Hawaii Senate and director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He also lost a run for lieutenant governor and was voted off the council in 2016 by an electorate weary of his monotone anti-GMO/pesticide railings.

Lenny has been rumored for months to be contemplating a run. Of the five potential candidates, he has the advantage of running a department near and dear to Bernard’s priorities. He may be seen, however, as a go along-get along public official somewhat lacking in original ideas.

Remember, too, that the mayor of Kauai is one of the most powerless elected offices in the state. Our mayor can’t hire or fire the police chief, fire chief, planning director or chief water engineer. He or she appoints the commissions that do, but has no vote on them. The mayor has no say in operation of our schools, our harbors, airport and major highways. In many ways, it is a ceremonial office, though Bernard has certainly proved that it can be a powerful bully pulpit.

Next year will be a watershed for Kauai. Unfortunately, we have a deplorable voter turnout record. Yet in our system, voting is paying the price of admission to the game of policy discourse. If you’re eligible to vote, but don’t, you haven’t bought your ticket and you don’t get in.

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Allan Parachini is a former journalist and PR executive. He is a Kilauea resident.

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