Kelly King’s resignation as chair came as a shock
But political observers don’t expect council’s dynamic to change
Longtime observers of Maui County politics and heads of community associations expressed shock over the weekend after the sudden announcement that Council Chairwoman Kelly King would be resigning her post — but said they didn’t think the dynamic of the council would change much in the coming year.
“I certainly wasn’t aware at all that anything was happening,” said Mike Moran, president of the Kihei Community Association, which is in King’s residency district. “I happened to be watching on Akaku. I almost fell over.”
King announced Friday that she would be stepping down as chair to lead a new committee on climate change and to spend more time with her family. She said that Council Member Alice Lee had been tapped to take her place. The council will hold a special meeting at 1:30 p.m. Friday to reorganize their leadership for the remainder of the two-year term.
The Maui News reached out to several political observers and community activists Sunday; those who responded or agreed to comment said they didn’t see it coming.
“I was frankly shocked,” said Tom Blackburn-Rodriguez, a housing advocate with Go Maui who spoke as an individual. “I had never known about this kind of a change in leadership in the council, so I was very surprised when it happened.
“I am hopeful that the council will be able to stay on their agenda of supporting affordable housing and also a strong economy,” he added. “I would not want any political instability to affect the goals that are so necessary for our community, and I don’t expect that to happen.”
Moran said that the Kihei Community Association does not endorse political candidates, but that so far South Maui in general has been satisfied with King as its representative.
“When she became the chair, you kind of think, ‘Oh, this will be good for our district,’ “ Moran said.
He said that “in a sense,” it would impact South Maui for King to no longer be the chair. While council members aim to serve the county, it’s only human nature to lean more toward the issues and projects in one’s own district, Moran said. However, he emphasized that South Maui hasn’t gotten special treatment.
“Kelly told me that many times — ‘I believe in the process. I can’t give any favors to South Maui,’ “ Moran said. “I don’t think that she did. I don’t see that we came out any better in budgets. It’s only one year (with her as chair), I get that. But we haven’t seen any drastic change.”
Moran also didn’t foresee the direction of the council changing very much, pointing out that Council Members Mike Molina and Tasha Kama seem to be the “wild cards,” while the other seven vote more or less consistently.
“What will happen with the change in chair? In theory, it’s still the number of votes. It’s always going to be, no matter who’s the chair,” Moran said. “When it comes down to it, each council member has an equal vote, and it’s the same nine people who will be there for another year. So we don’t perceive there’s going to be a change.”
Moran said he hadn’t heard of anybody planning to run against King in next year’s election, though Blackburn-Rodriguez said he had.
“The real question now is, what is Kelly King’s political future?” Blackburn-Rodriguez said. “I’m hearing there are a number of people who are deciding that they may now want to run for that seat, which looked fairly secure until this change in leadership. I think that’s an open question as to whether she’ll be seriously challenged, and whether or not those challenges will even be successful.”
When asked how the midterm resignation as chair could affect her chances, Blackburn-Rodriguez said, “I’m not sure how it will directly affect those chances, but I do know that she has lost a very powerful position where she could be very helpful to her own district and the people of Maui County. That will have some impact on any race, I’m sure.”
“What was odd to me,” Blackburn-Rodriguez added, “is here I am watching the impeachment of President Trump, and all of a sudden I’m hearing that we’re losing our council chair. Is everybody leaving? Who’s going to turn out the lights?”
He emphasized that “in no way am I striking comparisons” between King and Trump, but that it’s been “an odd juxtaposition in the news” as of late.
Dick Mayer, a retired economics and geography professor and coordinator for the Alliance of Maui Community Associations, has been close with King for 30 years after working with her to establish a playground in Kula, but said he was also surprised by the news. He said he thought she’d been doing “a fantastic job” in reorganizing the council’s committees and mentoring the four new members.
“They all made considerable progress in their abilities to serve the community, and I think a lot of that is due to (King’s) leadership,” Mayer said. “I was very sad to see that she stepped down.”
Like Moran and Blackburn-Rodriguez, Mayer didn’t foresee any major political shifts in the council, pointing out that most of the members tend to vote similarly anyway, while Kama and Molina “have sort of traded places” in terms of what people had thought they would do. Molina had been perceived as “the old guard” and Kama as “a newcomer,” but both have taken up positions that countered those perceptions, Mayer said.
While Blackburn-Rodriguez expressed optimism for the experienced Lee to be a “unifier” as the new chairwoman, Mayer said that he was concerned that Lee was once part of Go Maui, and “they seemed to be pushing for any development.”
However, Mayer said he was “very pleased” to see the tax reform proposals that Lee helped put together as part of a four-member temporary investigative group, and that “a good test to see where their leadership is” will be how Lee responds to Mayor Michael Victorino’s veto of one of the recently passed tax bills that came out of that group.
Mayer hopes that King will run again and get reelected despite resigning her position as chairwoman, but acknowledged that it will all depend on the challenger and the funding.
“The four newcomers will have their own battles. I think that’s the more interesting race,” Mayer said, pointing out that they’ll now have to prove their first-term records to the public.
When asked if he might run again in light of recent events, former South Maui Council Member Don Couch said, “It’s all too new to me, so I have no comment at this time, because I don’t know. I’m perfectly satisfied in the mayor’s office.”
Couch has an open campaign on the Campaign Spending Commission’s website; he said he had to close it or reorganize it by August, or risk losing his campaign funds and assets. He chose to keep it open because “I wasn’t sure I was finished.”
“At that time, it was exploratory to see if there’s any legs to running again,” Couch said. “I haven’t committed at all. I haven’t even thought of it. I don’t have a campaign coordinator or anything like that. I actually wasn’t thinking about it until people were calling me this weekend.”
King unseated the incumbent Couch for the council seat in 2016. Couch then ran for the District 11 House seat but lost in the 2018 primary to Tina Wildberger. He’s now a community liaison in Victorino’s office.
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.