County Council candidate: KipuKai Kuali‘i

  • Contributed photo

    Kipukai Kuali‘i

w Editor’s note: This is the 11th in a series of profiles on those running for Kauai County Council. Fourteen candidates are running for seven two-year seats. Councilman Ross Kagawa declined to be interviewed, as did candidate Kanoe Ahuna. Councilman Arthur Brun did not respond to several TGI requests for an interview.

One thing is clear about KipuKai Kuali‘i: He does not let disappointing defeats keep him from trying again.

“I know what it’s like to miss,” he said.

Consider that when he first ran for Kauai County Council in 2008, he finished ninth, two spots away from being elected.

He ran again in 2010 and this time, moved up to eighth.

In 2011, he was appointed to the council to fill the post left by Derek Kawakami, who was appointed to the Legislature.

In 2012, Kuali‘i finished eighth, again, falling short by 500 votes.

In 2013, Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. appointed Councilwoman Nadine Nakamura as his managing director, again opening a council seat. The appointment via council vote went to Mason Chock.

Kuali‘i was disappointed.

“I thought what everybody thought, that that wasn’t right and not fair,” Kuali‘i said.

He heard a consistent message from people after that: “I hope you’re not giving up.”

He wasn’t.

In 2014, Kuali‘i came in fourth and won his coveted council seat.

“That was unheard of,” he said, smiling. “I was used to being in that seventh and eighth area.”

In 2016, Kuali‘i placed eighth once more, missing out by 498 votes.

And now, in 2018, he is back, just as determined, optimistic and affable as ever.

“I feel pretty good, like usual,” the 56-year-old said. “I’m not overconfident, but I feel like I have a good shot.”

Kuali‘i considers himself less a politician and more a community organizer and advocate.

“Community starts with family and you build on that,” he said.

Kuali‘i, who has served as director of operations for the YWCA for seven years, is the son of Wilfred and Patricia Kuali‘i. He was born and raised on the Westside and comes from a working-class family. His father worked on a ranch and later for sugar plantations.

Wilfred Kuali‘i was also a hunter, fisherman and gardener. It was often how he provided for the family, and it was then KipuKai realized how important it was to care for the aina and ocean.

“Without all of that, we would have really struggled,” he said.

Kuali‘i graduated from Kamehameha Schools and attended college at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., where he earned a business degree. He lived in Washington, D.C., for a time, and there he began social work and took a closer look at politics.

“I could see our elected leaders were making policy and affecting what was happening in the community,” he said.

He returned to Kauai in 2001.

He said while he didn’t have wealth or a big family name, and he knew it would be a battle, he wanted to seek office.

“I want to prove that even someone like me can do this so other people can follow,” he said. “I was more driven to just prove it can be done.”

“I felt like that was a good example to young people, wherever you start in life you can move up and achieve if you don’t give up.”

Kuali‘i is a hula dancer and performed in Saturday’s Ho‘ike attended by about 1,000 people.

He’s been performing hula since he was a boy. He credits hula and music with helping him better understand his culture.

“I love it, it’s a passion,” he said. “Even to this day I’m learning a lot.”

He considers himself a good listener, thoughtful and level-headed.

“You won’t hear me getting too excited or to negative,” the Anahola resident said. “I work hard. I do my homework. I think things through.”

He said he simply tries to be true to himself and represent the people as best he can.

“If you just be genuine for who you are and your concern for people, people will see that,” he said.

Even in disagreement, people can learn from each other and should respect each other, he said.

“I’m a team player,” Kuali‘i said. “I feel like I can work with anyone.”

Operating a responsible budget and limiting taxes are key issues for Kuali‘i, and since he’s served on the council, he sees fiscal decision-making as one of his strengths.

Lack of affordable housing is another key issue for Kuali‘i.

“Sometimes, what they are calling affordable, it’s still too much for a lot of people,” he said.

He believes his work with the Anahola Hawaiian Homes Association (of which he is vice president) and the Homestead Housing Authority will benefit residents if he is elected to the council.

He has been part of a Tiny Homes Project that he said could create affordable housing options for many in Hawaiian homestead communities and elsewhere.

By partnering with the state, landowners and developers, he said solutions can be found.

“There’s got to be ways,” he said.

He said his motivation in running for county council comes from within.

“I really feel I can make a difference,” he said.

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Bill Buley, editor-in-chief, can be reached at 245-0457 or bbuley@thegardenisland.com.

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