Arakawa seeks old council seat
Challenger Kama questions his ability to work with council he calls ‘dysfunctional’
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story examining the race for the County Council’s Kahului residency seat is part of The Maui News’ coverage of key Maui County races in the Nov. 6 general election. The stories will run periodically through Nov. 4. The Maui News election guide is in today’s newspaper.
The biggest surprise of the primary election has set the stage for one of the most intriguing Maui County Council races this election year — the contest between Mayor Alan Arakawa and social justice advocate Natalie “Tasha” Kama for the Kahului residency seat.
Kama upset Arakawa in the Aug. 11 primary by 922 votes, garnering 12,712 ballots to Arakawa’s 11,790. The two will go head to head in the Nov. 6 general election after eliminating Deb Kaiwi, who finished with 4,519 votes.
“People were calling us David and Goliath,” Kama said. “I don’t know who they thought David was, but I didn’t see it that way. Maybe it’s just me and my perception in my own head but they’re just men. They’re not gods, and if you put them on a pedestal like that then they’re going to be viewed that way.”
Arakawa is attempting to return to the County Council seat he held from 1995 to 1998 and from 2001 to 2002. His first term as mayor was from 2003 to 2006. Now, he’s been mayor since 2011, with his two consecutive four-year terms making him ineligible to run for mayor because of term limits.
Arakawa was not surprised by the primary upset, saying he has done no campaigning and been busy helping “literally thousands of people in the community.” He said he recently began ramping up campaign efforts and hopes to continue serving the county.
“I actually have a day job,” he said. “I signed on to be mayor of Maui and be responsible for that. We did absolutely no campaigning prior to the primary. Quite frankly, a lot of people didn’t even know I was running for the office. I’m doing the job I was elected for.”
NATALIE ‘TASHA’ KAMA
Kama has had no problem facing powerful lawmakers as she now makes her third bid for elected office. In 2008, she challenged then-Speaker of the House and Wailuku state Rep. Joe Souki and, in 2002, ran against longtime Council Member Dain Kane.
The mother of 11 and grandmother of 30 said she was compelled to run for office again because of the rising cost of living, which has forced some of her family to move to the Mainland. She said residents depend on legislators and policymakers to take care of longtime residents, but “it isn’t happening, and more people are leaving.”
“I think the message I want to send to people is: ‘If you feel you’re life hasn’t improved in the last 20 years, do you think now is the time for change?’ “ she said. “My whole campaign has been about change.”
Kama said her biggest priority is affordable housing, which she has worked on since the 1980s and believes has gotten worse. She spent time working for Ka Hale A Ke Ola Homeless Resource Center and more recently as lead organizer of Faith Action for Community Equity.
One of her proposals is for the county to build its own rental housing and partner with the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to provide the land, though the unit availability would not be limited to Native Hawaiians. She said the county would then find a developer and build vertically to provide the 13,500 new units the county needs within the next decade.
“I’ve always heard that we can’t have affordable housing because it doesn’t pencil out, which means developers can’t make it profitable so that’s why it’s a mixed project with market homes,” she said. “Well, if it doesn’t pencil out, we need a new pencil. My mantra has always been, ‘If no can, then show me why.’ You can’t just tell me no can, knowing we do have developers on island who want to do affordable housing.”
The housing shortage has exacerbated homelessness on the island, and Kama hopes to increase government funding to address the problem. As a pastor, Kama said she would bring her faith in God to the council and advocate for the poor.
“We have a lot of homeless around here, and people make these grand assumptions,” she said. “You know why they’re homeless? Because they can’t afford the rent. They can’t see themselves working so hard and paying most of it to rent, when they could just save it and put gas in their car and eat.
“My dad always told me that our job as Christians is to help bear other people’s burdens. It doesn’t mean we’re going to be everything to all people, but each day we can brighten up the life of one person.”
Kama also plans to further assist undocumented immigrants, who she believes are growing in numbers with more Hispanics moving to the island. Last year, Kama assisted “Dreamers” with application fees and gathering paperwork after President Donald Trump put an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that provided temporary work permits and shields recipients from deportation.
“Diversity is what makes us who we are today,” she said. “When I think about immigration and what happens, it’s devastating and how we treat children in that manner. Here in Maui, we have a huge migrant population who are undocumented. They don’t have the right paperwork to be participants in our electoral system. They can work, buy property, pay taxes, get taxes back, but they cannot be a whole member of society.”
ALAN M. ARAKAWA
Arakawa originally mulled a run for governor or lieutenant governor before ultimately deciding to seek his old council seat.
With his daughter battling cancer for a third time, he planned on retiring but was encouraged by others to run for council, which he called “the most dysfunctional council we’ve ever had.” He said infighting among members has split the community in half and slowed actions by the county.
“We have council members squabbling with each other, and they’re so into themselves that they can’t work for the community,” he said. “The very attitude they have where they’re demeaning each other or don’t show up to the meetings, it works counter to the community’s needs. There needs to be a reinsertion of respect and decorum.”
Arakawa said his department directors and other staff are “being abused tremendously” to the point where they do not want to reappear before the council. He said council members such as Elle Cochran and Alika Atay have accused his staff of being “cheaters” and “crooks,” which is deceiving the public.
“None of it is true,” he said. “Our people are professionals. We cannot have a community torn apart by people who want to create adversity. We as a community became as strong as we are because we looked past our differences and are able to collaborate and get things done. I strongly believe unless we have a complete shift in the attitude, the county is going to go in a very dangerous direction.”
Among his goals as a candidate for council, Arakawa plans to continue to push for affordable housing and aid for homeless people — two of his biggest priorities in his final years as mayor.
When the mayor delivered his last State of the County address in February, more than 1,000 units were under construction across seven housing projects in West, South, Central and Upcountry regions. About half of those were for affordable housing, while another 3,200 housing units were in the works, with about 61 percent of them designated affordable.
Arakawa also pushed to renovate the Old Maui High School into a homeless housing and resource center. Earlier this year, he sent the council plans for Project Aloha, which called for $2.5 million for the first phase.
The funding would have housed homeless and near-homeless individuals and families in modular homes and the necessary funding to prep vacant lands for the housing units. However, Project Aloha, as well as a re-proposed $9 million a year to the budget to purchase land for housing projects, was cut by the council this year.
Arakawa said some council members and candidates say they want affordable housing or to help the homeless, but they have not followed through on their promises.
“Even when I propose things to help the homeless, the council doesn’t pass the budget,” he said. “When I put in $9 million the past two years to develop property close to infrastructure, they’ve taken it out and yet they say they want workforce housing. The candidates coming out say they want to create this and that, but they’re not saying how we’re going to do it and who we have to work with.”
Among his accomplishments, Arakawa said, are paving, rebuilding or slurry-sealing about 40 percent of the county’s roads; buying shoreline property to protect public access to beaches; increasing active park space from under 190 acres to more than 600; and completing the 56-unit Kulamalu Affordable Homes project Upcountry.
Despite his achievements, the mayor has taken heat for several issues over his tenure from lawsuits to community backlash over public comments.
The county paid nearly $157,000 in legal fees and settlement costs last year to resolve a federal court lawsuit filed in 2016 by former county Film Commissioner Harry Donenfeld. The county settled another lawsuit filed by former Water Supply Director Dave Taylor against the mayor this year. In that case, the county paid $90,000 in Taylor’s attorneys’ fees.
In both cases, the mayor has justified the removal of both employees, though he had hoped for quicker resolutions to save the county money.
Kama said the mayor has a record for doing some good, but also “a lot of bad that has cost taxpayers a huge amount of dollars.” She wondered what the fallout of the lawsuits and other issues would be for the county.
“I want to take a good look at the budget because if we have to pay out some of these lawsuits, where does the money come from?” she asked. “Who’s not getting funded? What programs are going to get cut? Who’s going to suffer? Ultimately, it’s always the poor who suffers. That’s not the way to run a county.”
Arakawa also came under fire last year for telling a television news reporter that “there’s no such thing as sacred rocks” after the county removed thousands of tons of rocks that were washed downstream as part of the massive flooding in Iao Valley. In August, West Maui residents criticized the mayor during a public meeting, alleging he abandoned them after three brush fires burned more than 2,000 acres and destroyed dozens of homes — many of them in Kauaula Valley on kuleana lands.
Arakawa did not regret his comments and actions in both incidents, saying much of the criticism was politically motivated. He also criticized The Maui News for its coverage of the Lahaina meeting.
“All the people who had fire damage, we were trying to connect them with the appropriate agencies to be able to help them,” he said. “It wasn’t the valley that was affected. It was Kaanapali, the Launiupoko area. How many thousands of people were affected? The Maui News focused its entire story on a handful of people rather than everyone else because they were the ones screaming and yelling. The emphasis should’ve been on how can we help everybody, including them.”
Arakawa said he was sympathetic to the families who lost their homes, but they refused to have adequate fire protection or a road accessible for fire engines. He defended his firefighters, police officers and public works employees for doing their jobs.
“They isolated themselves very deliberately, yet they try to blame us,” he said. “At some point, they need to take responsibility for the damages caused by their own inaction. There’s a reason why we have fire codes and why we have fire tanks and protections. If you ignore that, what do you expect to happen when you have a disaster?”
With four council seats open without incumbents this election cycle, the ‘Ohana Coalition has sought to upset the current 5-4 majority of so-called “establishment” members of the council.
Kama, who is endorsed by the coalition, refused to view the council in the same way and said she is not beholden to any group, including the Ohana group.
“We’re in this 5-4 thing because for some reason people have chosen sides,” she said. “If I see a great idea, I’m going to vote ‘yes.’ You cannot vote just to stay on the same side. It’s not about the side. It’s about whether this will benefit the people. The power is in the people, and as long as you behave like that, the people will see it.”
Kama said that if she is elected, she hopes to bring the council together and “get rid of whatever animosity” between members before starting. She wondered if Arakawa would be able to do the same, especially after his long tenure as the mayor.
“I think I have a better relationship with the people on the council,” she said. “What’s it going to look like with him as one of the nine? I can see there being a little bit of contention and also see him trying to be a little bit like the mayor on the council.”
Kama admitted that Arakawa has more experience in politics, but she said that he once was a newcomer too. She said she would seek the advice of experts and do her own research if she is elected.
“It’s not rocket science when you want to do policymaking,” she said.
Arakawa rejected the notion that he would not be able to work with council members and does not see the new position as a “demotion.” He said he has been a public servant for most of his adult life and resolved issues in every community in the county.
“This is not about ego,” he said. “Titles don’t mean anything to me. I was a janitor and worked my way up through the county system. No position within our community is demeaning or not important.”
The mayor added that he oversees 2,600 county employees and 16 directors. He said he has formed relationships with countless organizations and thousands of residents, which took years to develop.
“What makes you think I can’t work with nine people?” he asked. “Whether I’m elected in office or not, people are going to ask me for help. I’m going to continue doing that and being on the council gives me the ability to help at a higher level.
“I was one of those who created term limits, so I’m not being kicked out of the mayor’s position. I believe I can be very beneficial to this community with all my years of experience.”
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alan M. Arakawa
Occupation: Mayor of Maui County
Political experience: Maui County Council, three terms
Education: Maui High School, University of Hawaii, Maui Community College
Community service: Chairman of the board of Maui Hui Malama; vice president of the board of the Kahului Town Association; Maui Coastal Land Trust; Maui Filipino Chamber of Commerce; board member and president of the Maui Okinawa Cultural Center
Family: Married, two adult children
Natalie ‘Tasha’ Kama
Occupation: Social justice organizer, Faith Action for Community Equity
Political experience: Ran for Office of Hawaiian Affairs; Maui County Council, Wailuku-Waihee-Waikapu seat; state House of Representatives, District 8
Education: University of Hawaii Maui College graduate
Family: Married, 11 children, 30 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren