Underlying any election results— even those with very small electorates like Kauai’s that exhibit a remarkable indifference to voting — is the question: “What does it all mean?”
In the case of the Nov. 6 election this year, the most consequential local races in at least a generation, one answer is that some results are so clear as to offer no opportunity for controversy or disagreement. Numbers are numbers and what they say is undeniable.
First, the mayor’s race: Voters were presented with two very different choices. Derek Kawakami offered a future-focused platform. Mel Rapozo believed Kauai County spends beyond it means, can cut as much as 10 percent of its budget yet still afford to pave dozens of miles of former cane haul roads.
In the end, Kawakami’s vote totals can only be interpreted as mandate quality.
The incoming mayor:
• Captured more than 60 percent of the vote in all but one of the 16 precincts.
• Got 65 percent or more of the vote in six precincts and polled at 69 percent in four.
• Smoked Rapozo, who couldn’t muster 40 percent or more of the vote anywhere and received less than 30 percent in four precincts.
• Had a margin substantially higher than outgoing Mayor Bernard Carvalho’s 2014 victory over martial arts fighter and surfer Dustin Barca, who built his campaign around opposition to genetically modified agriculture and pesticide use. Not only did Barca do better than Rapozo in percentage terms — 34.1 percent to 30.9 percent — he received about 1,200 more actual votes than Rapozo.
In Kawakami’s case, the straight numbers tell us that this new mayor will take office with great confidence that he has the support of the entire county. Even more persuasive is that his victory was over a truly worthy opponent — an experienced and well-known County Council chair with nearly two decades of public service.
Then there’s Luke Evslin. Running for elective office for the first time in his life, the 30-something Evslin finished in the top five (of 14 candidates running) in eight precincts and in the top three in 11. He got more actual votes than two of the four incumbents running for reelection for an office for which incumbency is an even stronger credential than usual. He won three precincts outright — two in Kapaa and one in Koloa.
Some think it was Evslin’s reputation as a cerebral thinker whose personality borders on that of a policy wonk that worked for him. There is no denying that by choosing to focus the entire election on issues of housing and growth, Evslin correctly perceived what is most on the minds of voters.
But it did not hurt Evslin that his personal story made his candidacy come alive. His wife was pregnant with the couple’s second child and her due date was Election Day. The baby — a boy — waited a few days after the votes were counted before arriving, and is doing very well, Evslin said. He is himself a descendant of Holocaust survivors and his wife, Sokchea Eng Evslin, was born in a refugee camp after her family fled Cambodia.
Not only that, but the Evslins were living in a yurt through most of the campaign while the renovations on a newly purchased home in Lihue took backseat to the campaign.
And, several years ago, Evslin almost died when he was struck and grievously injured by a boat propeller. The episode — and the relationship to Evslin’s well-known role as a committed paddler — received (deservedly) enormous media coverage at the time and the connection people felt with him may well have helped carry him over the top in the election.
Money may be the mother’s milk of politics, but name recognition is also an important ingredient to a successful campaign. So Evslin started the campaign season in an enviable position. But his thoughtful campaign style capitalized on his preexisting notoriety.
I asked him what he thought accounted for his impressive first election victory.
“I can’t say I expected to do as well as I did,” he said, “I went into it expecting the worst, but I did try to run an islandwide campaign. I knew that in theory I would do well on the North Shore (where he’s from), so I put a lot of effort into other parts of the island.
“I thought I could take one message — on housing and growth — and talk to every single component of the electorate about that. I wasn’t trying to segment a message so different objectives were stressed with each group of voters. It was all one issue. I felt that resonated.
“It seems like there are certain types of campaigns built on divisiveness or pitting one segment against the other. I did my best to do the opposite. I think there’s a whole lot more that brings us together than divides us.”
If Kawakami and Evslin presented the clearest evidence of what victory is and how to achieve it, other candidates were also impressive.
Kilauea’s Felicia Cowden, for example, who ran and lost in 2014, was able to nudge her support up out of the confines of the North Shore enough to do better than respectably in places like Kapaa, Koloa, Kalaheo and Kekaha. She was clearly helped by not being trapped in the clutches of a one-issue candidacy that bedeviled her four years ago.
Her victory also achieved one other worthwhile goal — creating, at least for the next two years, County Council representation of the North Shore, which has been elusive for years.
But the election was not all good news necessarily. County Councilmember Ross Kagawa established that you can be reelected even if you don’t show up for a single community candidate forum and despite the fact that you introduced an unfortunately self-serving charter amendment to end term limits. Thankfully, it lost.
As this is being written, it appears that, even though Councilmember Mason Chock received more votes — 12,931 — than any other County Council candidate, he is being denied the role of chair because of political maneuvering by Councilmembers Arryl Kaneshiro and Kagawa, who will be chair and vice chair, respectively, as things seem to stand now.
That can’t take away from the reality that this was, indeed, a historic election. It needs to be followed by a historic period of political focus and public will for Kauai County. The new County Council convenes for the first time on Dec. 3, and Kawakami is inaugurated then, too. Hold on for the ride.
Allan Parachini is a Kilauea-based freelance writer and furniture maker. He has more than 45 years’ experience in journalism.