Derek Kawakami looks to the future

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.

  1. kauaiboy October 21, 2018 6:26 am Reply

    After hearing Derek Kawakami’s comments on GMO agriculture and pesticides, I must reconsider my support of his candidacy. To say that ” these are some of the best-trained people when it comes to applying pesticides” ignores the question of why do we need to support pesticide testing facilities at all on our small fragile island home.

    My God. Let us rid ourselves of those who would consistently, continuously poison the aina in the name of corporate profits, and encourage the clean, soil remediating hemp industry to take over the subject lands.

    Hemp is the answer. Not only can we grow it year-round, we can establish it as a value-added industry, producing “Kauai Made” food, pharmaceuticals, fertilizer, clothing, rope, and more, and employing thousands of Kauai residents in well-paid positions. Think about it. Why would you not support a cleaner, healthier option which could employ far more residents and keep the financial proceeds right here on Kauai?

  2. harry oyama October 21, 2018 8:12 am Reply

    Kawakami is just another recycled status quo “old boy network” that has controlled Hawaii’s politics far too long and is just “business as usual”. Repeating the same agenda to this has done nothing in the past or future,

    The entire bureaucracy of the State, County levels should be examined and trimmed of abuse, fraud and waste, it is far to heavy with useless management positions that only suck the life out of taxpayers who do an honest day’s work while these parasites sit in air conditioned rooms spewing out the same propaganda year after year without much progress to show.

    I won’t vote for this politician but rather have his opponent “drain the swamp”.

  3. your truly funny October 21, 2018 8:21 am Reply

    DEREK, I still remember when you co sponsored that bill to float a state backed bond for Pflueger. I still remember how you forgot about all of us who voted you in. I Remember how you choose to work with Pflueger, to promote their interests, while completely avoiding your constituents, by trying to help Pflueger get a 10 million state backed bond float to do an eis to study the validity of rebuilding Kaloko. I feel as though since you were working hand in hand with their Honolulu lawyers it seems fair that the possibility existed that you knew all those affected were silenced by a lawsuit settlement ? As well I feel something is strange because its clear you chose not to contact one single person in the district! My opinion is that you knowingly chose to avoid due diligence in the affected community. Its confusing to me who you serve as clearly you co sponsored that bill with an Oahu politician, but clearly it was your duty to us to reach out and get the communities opinion? I want to reach out to all voters here , If your voting on Kauai just know this politician has a very interesting approach when faced with representing his constituents or forgetting them . Its one thing if he’d have gotten the communities input and chosen the best path for all, but he chose to leave the people he represented out, the same people who would’ve been most affected, and the same people who voted him into office. If you are elected please conduct your business with complete transparency and with input from the district you represent. you have one thousand percent proven beyond any reasonable doubt to me that you do not represent those who voted you in. We should all really consider voting for those who have proven they represent us, the people who voted them in.

  4. Kona October 21, 2018 8:47 am Reply

    First 100 days in office………. sounds an awful lot like Trump! You sure he’s not Republican???

  5. Uncleaina October 21, 2018 10:21 am Reply

    Yeah not a lot of meat on the bone of these answers. $500 million dollars is a lot of money and is a not realistic estimate of building a road to Koloa or improving our recycling. I don’t see many new ideas here.

  6. rk669 October 21, 2018 4:08 pm Reply

    Kawakami lost sight of Kauaians Priorities,when after the sale of Big Save to a Mainland Market Corp. Abercrombie appointed him as a state Representative! I personally feel he will Sell out the People of Kauai! Big outside $$’s support him? Kauai could Now see it’s First Highrise Skyscrapers! Beware Kauaians! Political appointee Kawakami?
    Would he do that to Kauaians?

    1. Sue October 22, 2018 10:58 am Reply

      I agree! He will sell out, in a heartbeat. He is all about build, build, build. He has shown it already, The old style of not building highter than a coconut tree will be gone if Kawakami is elected. He only seems to care about his pockets, that is, making them fatter.

  7. dorothy October 22, 2018 11:29 am Reply

    If Mel wins, Kauai loses and the other islands in the archipelago win.

    Not a team player, will not get us any bucks, even those generated on Kauai. He is regressive and running scared. He wants to build a wall: “let’s not let too many tourists turn around and stay.” OK if he is referring to non US citizens. People coming and staying permanently is a totally different issue than that of a lack of a 21st century viable economy, good, effective schools and attracting STEM companies since we are on the Pacific Ridge. Most new arrivals that cannot support themselves leave before a year is up. Yes, the housing stock is over priced but not really, when compared to California, NY, Florida etc. These are issues we can hopefully work on without the “we” vs. “them” categorizing and demonizing the majority of people here.

    And BTW Mel, this is the 7th state I’ve lived in in the US, and the 1st by choice. Most of us do not get to keep our kids by our side unless they turn a successful professional in mega urban areas like the Bay Area or Metro NYC.

    That’s why there’s Skype and Hawaiian Airlines.

  8. Todd Crawford October 22, 2018 10:52 pm Reply

    Kawakami is a different politician. He cares about Kauai’s future. He wont stick a band-aid on like Mel will. He understands whats best for Kauai. He will handle the issues with aloha and get things done right . Hes a Kauai boy with a big heart and a huge interest in the future of our island. He wants our keiki to not have to move away because they can’t afford to live here. My vote is for Derek Kawakami.

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