Council veteran Hokama faces coalition-backed opponent
Maui Pono Network support for challenger figures in Lanai council race
As he seeks re-election to his fifth consecutive term on the Maui County Council, Riki Hokama said he hopes to spend the next two years working on some priority projects for his home island of Lanai.
The chairman of the council Budget and Finance Committee also hopes to continue the fiscal responsibility that he has become known for.
“I’m going to make sure taxpayer money is spent and protected well,” Hokama said.
For the second election in a row, he faces a challenge for the Lanai residency seat from Gabe Johnson.
Johnson, an invasive species technician for Pulama Lana’i and island resident since 2005, received 19,091 votes to Hokama’s 23,270 in the 2016 general election.
Two years ago, Johnson said he was “humbled” to receive the votes after filing nomination papers days before the deadline and raising less than $2,000 for his campaign. “This time I’m a little more seasoned at it,” he said. “Since 2016, all I have been doing is learning what goes on in the Council Chambers.
“There’s winds of change in the air.”
Hokama, who also previously served on the council from 1999 to 2009, said he has heard similar themes in previous elections.
“Everybody’s agreeing we’re all angry,” he said.
He said maybe the question asked by the media and others should be “how do we bring civility back to our society, how do we make people come to reasonable solutions other than yelling and being angry and nothing gets done?”
On Lanai, where there is one major landowner, Hokama said recent hurricane threats and a three-day islandwide blackout in January 2017 highlighted the need for dry and cold storage facilities so businesses can take advantage of bulk rate discounts and not be as dependent on weekly barge service.
“That is now top priority,” Hokama said.
He said Lanai also needs to do its part toward food sustainability and security through an agricultural park.
While he supports Pulama Lana’i’s development of its indoor hydroponic growing project and a commercial kitchen, Hokama said a county ag park would provide another option for farmers whose crops may not be compatible with hydroponics.
The county is trying to finalize plans for a commercial kitchen, larger than the one by Pulama Lana’i, that could be used by vendors for food preparation for events such as Fifth Friday and farmers markets, Hokama said.
He said county funding already has gone into the commercial kitchen, which is an authorized project in the county budget.
The projects go toward “making Lanai a little more resilient,” Hokama said.
Johnson also said there are needs for a commercial kitchen and agricultural park, which he said was promised in 1980. “That never happened,” Johnson said. “We went from pineapple to hotel.”
Johnson said the county could do more to help Lanai residents with interisland transportation.
“The ferry should be owned by the county,” Johnson said, referring to the Expeditions Maui-Lanai Ferry. “If the county would own some public transportation such as the ferry, we could really give the money back to the community. Public transportation should be in the hands of the public.”
He said Lanai also needs a Boys & Girls club that the county could fund.
“I’m big in funding nonprofits and programs that help the working folk,” Johnson said.
Johnson, a single father, said he thinks about his 15-year-old daughter. “She loves Lanai, but is there a future for her? Will she ever own a home?” he asked. “I see with my own two eyes the struggle that young and old, all of us on Lanai, face unless you’re a millionaire.
“My focus is going to be on the working class, the seniors, the community.”
To address the need for affordable housing, “I want to have the county step in with the federal credit unions” to loan funds through the credit unions for mortgages, Johnson said.
“Where is the county going to get money? I get that question a lot,” he said. “It’s a concern. But you got to understand that we have such a huge budget. We’re a very rich county.”
He suggested that the county “just pivot the focus.”
“Right now, our focus is infrastructure for tourists,” he said.
He cited the construction of a Kahului Airport rental car structure, which is a state project paid for by user fees.
“I’ll just say the money is there,” Johnson said. “We just have to say we’re not going to focus on tourism infrastructure. There’s a long list of tourism-based focus that our county does. The county can spend some of its money on its people, not just tourism infrastructure.”
Hokama said the county already has a mortgage assistance program, as well as a housing down payment program and solar energy incentives, for those who qualify.
He said affordable housing has been an issue while he has been in office, as well as in the days of his late father, Goro Hokama, who was a council member for 41 years.
“We need to help those that want help first,” Hokama said. “At times, the clientele targeted may not be ready for receiving that type of assistance.”
He said he knows a few full-time county employees who may be providing the sole income for a household and cannot afford rent or a mortgage.
He has suggested using the former Maui Community College dorm site in Kahului to create a “mobile tenancy” center where working homeless people could drive up and use shower, kitchen and bathroom facilities as well as hook up to power to charge cellphones.
“We have water. We have power. We have sewer there,” Hokama said. “Let’s knock it down, make use of the infrastructure and temporarily put up areas.
“They’ll be in a safe place. We can work something out with police and others to assure sufficient protection.”
Along with people living on the streets or in vehicles, Hokama said there are “hidden homeless” living in houses that are over capacity.
“They’re not always visible, but we have a level of homeless because there’s too many people in a house,” he said. “It’s not healthy to have 13 people in a house that was only meant for six.”
Referring to his reputation for carefully scrutinizing expenditures in the county budget, Hokama said, “At the end of the day, as my father taught me, you cannot give what you don’t have.”
“One thing I would tell you, in my years of experience, nothing is free,” he said. “Somebody is paying the bill. How do you propose solutions when you don’t understand how you’re going to provide or pay for it?”
With the Ohana Coalition and groups like Maui Pono Network backing a slate of nine candidates, including Johnson, for council seats, Hokama said some people have asked him, “Are you running against one person or nine people?”
“This year, my opponent is a coalition,” Hokama said. “I don’t know who I’m campaigning against. I’m not sure if it’s the D.C. entity that’s funding this PAC or is it the guy running against me.”
Johnson, who lists endorsements from Maui Pono Network, Sierra Club and Pono Hawaii Initiative on his website, said, “I’m running my own race, but yes, they support me.”
“Democracy can be messy,” Johnson said. “It’s OK to disagree on certain things. You should have that back and forth, that give and take. I don’t think it’s smart for council members to have teams, but I’m not afraid to disagree with people. I don’t think the other side should be putting me in a category.”
In asking voters to return him to office for his last term, Hokama said, “I run on my record. I run on my experience. I run on what I did or didn’t do. I’ll let that stand and let the people decide.”
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at email@example.com.
Birthplace: Waimea, Kauai
Residence: Lanai City
Occupation: Maui County Council member
Political experience: Delegate to the 1978 Hawaii State Constitutional Convention; Maui County Council 1999-2008, 2011-present
Education: Bachelor of Arts in sociology, with minor in Hawaiian studies from University of Hawaii at Manoa Community service: Coordinated fundraising drives for Lana’i Intermediate Band to attend Maui District Band Festival; coordinated fundraising drives for Lana’i Physical Fitness Team to attend national competition; Maui Lana’i Pono Softball sponsor
Residence: Lanai City
Occupation: Invasive species technician
Political experience: Ran for County Council seat in 2016
Education: Bachelor of Arts, English major; Kent State University, Ohio
Community service: Lanai Heritage Subsistence Fishing Practices, member, 2014-present; Maui County Commission for Americans with Disabilities Act, member
Family: Single, one child
* EDITOR’S NOTE: This story examining the race for the County Council’s Lanai 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 will be published Sunday.