* EDITOR'S NOTE - This is the fifth in a series of stories covering contested legislative and County Council seats and County Charter and state constitutional amendments leading up to Tuesday's general election.
Council Member Mike Victorino has much in common with Joseph Blackburn, the challenger working to deny him a fourth consecutive term in the council's Wailuku-Waihee-Waikapu residency seat.
The 60-year-old Wailuku residents and longtime friends were born just 24 days apart - Blackburn on July 31, 1952, in Honolulu, and Victorino on Aug. 24, 1952, in Hilo. In 1988, Blackburn hired Victorino as a security officer at the Kaanapali resort. Their wives worked together, and the Blackburns did some baby sitting for the Victorinos.
They are both businessmen - Victorino in insurance and Blackburn in real estate and property management. And both men said they hold each other in high regard.
"I like Mike," Blackburn said recently. And, Victorino said he has much respect for Blackburn. "There's a long history with us," he said.
So what happened to turn these longtime friends into amiable political adversaries?
Maui County Council
(Wailuku-Waihee-Waikapu residency seat)
Joseph G. Blackburn II
Born: July 31, 1952; Honolulu
Education: Master's degree in higher education, University of Hawaii, 1999; bachelor of science in fire services administration, Western Oregon State College, 1990; bachelor of science in business administration, California State University at Chico, 1974
Community involvement: Head coach Wailuku Wolfpack Menehune Basketball Team; member county Board of Variances and Appeals; past chairman Maui Local Emergency Planning Committee; member of the Realtors Association of Maui; and member of the former Disaster Medical Assistance Team, Pacific Regional Response Team
Family: Married, three children
Michael P. Victorino
Born: Aug. 24, 1952; Hilo
Education: Hawaii Community College, 1970-1973; Maui Community College 1973 -1975
Community involvement: Maui Fair, chairman, 1997-2005, currently serving as adviser; state deputy for the Knights of Columbus, 2007 to present; Maui Economic Development Board, 2009 to present; Maui Economic Concerns of the Community (Homeless Resource Center), 2008 to present; State Commission of Gender Equity, 2000 to present
Family: Married, two children
Blackburn said it was the economy and his general dissatisfaction with the fiscal management of Maui County government.
As an example, Blackburn, a former firefighter, said a fire station is being built on Molokai for $12 million.
"It's shocking to me that we spend that kind of money, and nobody has a second thought about it," he said. "And that's probably $7 million too much."
Blackburn and his wife, Shirley, own Maui Land Broker and Property Management Inc., which he describes as a full-service real estate company that manages homeowners' associations and rentals and sells real estate.
As part of his work with community associations, Blackburn said he has seen how the hard realities of the Great Recession hit many residents.
"We get every foreclosure letter. We get every bankruptcy letter, and we get the owners' hardship letters," he said. "And what we found is that a lot of people just weren't doing well."
The last straw came when a longtime, 77-year-old businessman told Blackburn: "I have a choice, either pay my bills or cancel my health insurance."
Blackburn worked many years with the county in the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Police and Fire departments, and he said the county could do more to help residents during tough economic times.
"It's like the county didn't go into recession mode," he said. Instead, it was "business as usual. We raised some taxes here, raised some fees there. Do a little bit of a cut here, a little more of a cut there. But it didn't seem like there was an overwhelming desire to cut down costs. . . . We're still not being judicious in how we spend our money."
While Victorino acknowledged that "we can always do a better job," he defended the County Council's record of overseeing frugal spending for the county in austere times.
Victorino said that while he has been in office, "every mayor's budget that has been sent down . . . we have cut that budget."
"We have taken what we thought was fat, what we thought was not appropriate, what we thought was expansion, what wasn't needed, and we cut it," he said. "So that's our responsibility, to trim the budget."
Except for its last budget deliberations, the council has reduced property tax rates proposed by the mayor's administration, Victorino said.
Council members have set property taxes, water, sewer and refuse rates at what they believe is fair, he said.
"The problem that we had is that in many cases we were behind the eight ball," Victorino said.
Fees for services such as water service, which had not had a rate increase for five years, have not been keeping up with rising costs, he said.
And, "do you know how bad it is now to catch up?" he said. "The catch-up is the killer."
Nevertheless, the council continues to try to keep rising fees under control and within the means of residents, Victorino said. To accomplish that, council members strive to approve projects that are needed urgently while putting off other, lower-priority projects.
Victorino said the county has been recognized for its prudent fiscal management by being rewarded with the best bond rating in the state, an accomplishment that means the county can borrow money at low interest rates for projects, reducing its costs over the long term.
The council also is supporting administration efforts to streamline planning, building permit and other processes "to be more efficient for the consumer."
However, Blackburn said the trend has been that "everything has gone up," including water and sewer fees.
"I think it's hard for business to make money when everything that you do there's a cost," he said.
Blackburn said he could use his experience within county government to ask the right questions and find ways to reduce costs.
"County government could be more efficient, more effective," he said. "Property taxes could be less or not keep going up."
Blackburn points to the ongoing Maui Island Plan revision as an example of a county government process that "makes no sense" and is "incredibly difficult."
"You have the GPAC (General Plan Advisory Committee). Then you have the planning commission. Then you have the Planning Department. Then you have the planning director, and now you have the council," he said.
Blackburn said he's not pro- or anti-development, "but if you own a piece of property, and your goal was to do this or that, how do you know what's going to happen? You don't.
"Why can't we do the process one time with the parties that are concerned?" he said. "The processes we put in place just don't make sense."
Victorino said he has been working with the council on revising the General Plan for four years, and he agrees that the process should be improved.
"It's been a long process," he said. "And we've made changes. We try to be fair. We try to look for reasons why we should do this, why we shouldn't do that."
Then, when the community plans come up for revision, communities will have the right to say, "we want this; we don't want that; add this; take that out," Victorino said.
"It's not done," he said of the current planning revisions. "We're just giving the blueprint to the community and saying, 'Here.' ''
Victorino said he believes the process should begin with communities, not an advisory committee.
"Communities tell us what they want," he said. "We take their plans and put it forward - not we tell them, they tell us."
If the process were reversed, with communities getting the initial buy-in to the process, then at the end, "it should be pretty much a done deal," he said.
Blackburn said this, his first campaign as a candidate, has been difficult, particularly because he's up against a veteran council member with a high degree of name recognition and because a council campaign needs to be waged throughout the county on all three islands.
Victorino enjoys the advantages of being an incumbent, including endorsements from more than a dozen groups, mostly labor unions, including the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association Local 1463, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, the AFL-CIO, the Carpenters & Joiners Union Local 745, the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the Maui Contractors Association, the Maui Hotel & Lodging Association and the Realtors Association of Maui.
Blackburn has the endorsement of the Maui Chamber of Commerce.
The challenger said he gives himself a slim chance of around 5 percent or a little better of unseating Victorino, who, in the primary, won every precinct with more than 50 percent of the vote.
"I would say I'm an extreme underdog," he said. But, "I'm in this campaign to win."
Blackburn said he pledged to run a positive campaign with "no B.S."
He said he was asked during a candidate forum how to address the pension fund shortfall, and the first words out of his mouth were to reduce government employee overtime. He added that he's certain that he lost the votes of employees who count on overtime as part of their income.
"But, it has to be said," Blackburn said, adding that he's undaunted about continuing to work hard on his campaign.
"We're not going to say, 'We're going to try,' '' he said. "We're going to go for the win, and that's what we've done."
Blackburn said he's giving voters a choice and that he has the education, experience and common sense to "go above and beyond, think outside the box and get the job done."
"I think the county needs people who have a little bit of a different perspective on things," he added.
Victorino said he brings his own experience, his ability to listen to constituents' needs and love for community to the office.
"I've been here in this community for nearly 40 years, and in public service at some capacity for well over 35 years," he said. "My whole life is an ongoing education," Victorino said. "Every day I learn something new. I come from the school of hard knocks.
"I've shown that through the years that I work hard for the people. My slogan is working for you and your family. That is something that is paramount in my mind.
"That's what I'm here for," Victorino said. "Not to make money, not to get glory or name recognition, I don't need that. I need to know your daughters and your sons and my sons, all of our children, when they choose their careers, they're going to have opportunities here."
Victorino acknowledged he has aspirations beyond being a council member.
"I will run for mayor one day," he said. "Two years, six years, I don't know. Many factors will come into play. . . . It's a long-term goal."
And Victorino wasn't willing to say he's a front-runner in his council race.
"I don't ever want to say anybody's an underdog," he said. "The people of Maui County will decide."
* Brian Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.