Different styles, passions for South Maui candidates
Both King, Cook back the environment but differ in their methods
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Maui News will be featuring the profiles and platforms of candidates in the lead-up to the Nov. 3 general election. Today’s story focuses on the race for the Maui County Council South Maui residency seat. Stories on other races will be published in the coming weeks, with a special general election issue to be published on Oct. 24.
Incumbent Kelly Takaya King and political newcomer Tom Cook have the backing of very different groups and are each passionate about their distinct platforms in the race for the South Maui residency seat on the County Council.
King, known for her progressive work and being a founder of Pacific Biodiesel Co., is seeking her third two-year term. As the senior member of a leadership group with four freshman council members, King served as council chairwoman for one year before stepping down late last year. She said she resigned to accept the council climate change chairwoman post and to spend more time with family.
There were reports of dissatisfaction with her leadership in the council. King ended up voting “no” for her successor, Alice Lee.
Cook, who’s new to the political scene but not to Maui, has strong backing from unions but said he won’t swayed by any one group.
Both candidates discussed their appreciation for farming and for the environment. And despite the social, economic and political woes of the pandemic, the two candidates see these challenges as opportunities — not obstacles — to create positive change.
KELLY TAKAYA KING
Ever since being elected to the South Maui residency seat four years ago, King has placed the environment at the forefront of her agenda.
Since stepping down as chairwoman of the council in late December, she has had a chance to give renewed emphasis to her passion as chairwoman of the council Climate Action and Resilience Committee.
“The position has never been about me or my ego or my personal issue,” she said. “I don’t think we missed a beat. We just went on with the climate action committee, and we’ve been able to get so much done because of it.”
King said she’s also been focusing on regenerative agriculture, reducing fossil fuels and rebooting the county’s recycling program — once a source of pride for the county.
Pointing to her and her husband’s company, Pacific Biodiesel, King said diversifying the economy requires looking at recycling, reusing, reclaiming and regenerating — instead of just extracting, making money and leaving a pile of waste.
“Our company, Pacific Biodiesel, is the poster child for the circular economy,” she said. “Talk about taking a waste product and making it into usable, clean energy and then also helping reducing landfill waste and wastewater spills.”
The company recycles used cooking oil from restaurants statewide and turns it into biofuel.
On the hot-button topic of affordable housing, King said she thinks Maui has a lot of affordable housing. She referenced Kaiwahine Village rentals, Liloa Hale Senior Rental Housing Project, Hale Kaiola and Kilohana Makai, for which she said she helped bridge gaps between surrounding communities and developers.
“We’ve got so much affordable housing in the last couple of terms that I’ve been on the council. Now, we need to get these built,” she said.
King said she suspects thousands of rental units may go from short-term to long-term due to the pandemic because tourism will be lacking and less lucrative. Once the pandemic subsides, King wants to see how many rental units have converted to long-term.
“We may not have to build our way out of this problem,” she said. “We may be able to convert our way out of this problem.”
King also wants to see tax credits for landlords who rent at affordable rates.
“Right now, we have a big stick if they do short-term rentals illegally,” she said. “We don’t have any carrot that says if you do the right thing, here is how you get rewarded.”
King’s resignation as council chairwoman came as a surprise to many of her constituents, she acknowledged, and the months leading up to the move still confuse some people. King said she had been making headway to settle the county’s injection wells lawsuit that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in a clash with Mayor Michael Victorino.
(After ruling against the county, the high court sent the case back to the lower courts.)
Then she found herself in the middle of controversies over the use of public funds to defray costs of hotel stays by council members and staffers attending a conference in Wailea, the installation of security cameras in Council Chambers without the knowledge of other members and the departures of key council staffers.
Six Maui County Council members and six executive assistants stayed at the Wailea Beach Resort — Marriott Maui during Hawaii State Association of Counties last summer and were reimbursed about $11,000 in public funds, according to documents obtained from the county Finance Department. At the time, King justified the charges, saying they were working at the event.
“If you’re going to write about hotel spending, let’s look at corporation counsel and how they held a conference a couple of years ago and they all went and stayed at The Ritz and they all lived on island,” she said. “And it happened with the Planning Department. They held that planning conference at the Sheraton and the Fire Department. People stayed there, and they all live on island too.”
The attack felt “very political,” she added.
Covert cameras without audio capabilities were active briefly in Council Chambers in late 2019 and King, who was council chairwoman at the time, was the only council member to know about them. Council members said the cameras should’ve been made known to all of them.
King said people now know that the cameras were a project started previously and that she was on vacation when they were installed. She was following the directives of top council staff, she said.
“It was really more that people were trying to get me out, attacking me by trying to create the barrage of these issues,” she said.
King became chairwoman of the council after winning her second term, leading a faction of first-time council members.
“I really think it was something that it started from the beginning when there was an obvious shift in the majority,” she said. “I knew that we had lost our support.
“I was actually surprised, pleasantly surprised that I lasted a year as chair. I think there were rumors that were flying around . . . I was trying to dispel them, but nobody came to me.”
“That was probably the most disappointing thing,” she said, “that the other council members, other than Shane (Sinenci), didn’t come to me and say, ‘is this true or is that true?’ “
King said the security camera and hotel-reimbursement allegations were media hit pieces with accusations “contrived” by people to remove her from the chair.
King said constituents still ask about events leading up to her resignation but she chooses not to look back. She added that she is happy to be where she is now, because serving the community isn’t about a title.
“I could have . . . curled up in a corner and, you know, cried and soothed my wounds or whatever,” she said. “But I didn’t think that was going to serve anybody, you know? And so I just picked myself up.”
King said she’s taking her time on the council term by term and has never seen herself as a career politician. She believes she will be able to pass the baton to a candidate in the future.
For now, she said, because her competitor doesn’t support the charter amendments and other of her community concerns, she will continue campaigning to serve the will of the people.
“Politicians always ask the community to trust them,” she said. “I hope the biggest takeaway is that I trust the community. That’s why I’m here because I trust that the community knows what’s best for Maui Nui and for our next generations. And so that’s who I’m representing.”
Being the “token haole kid” growing up in Paukukalo and living off the grid, Tom Cook said he learned that relationships were among the most valuable assets.
He looked for ways to bring people together.
The pandemic has divided the community and he’s aiming to bring the sides together — even if that means people won’t always agree.
“I think this is the perfect time for me to serve in office, as challenging as it is,” he said. “My M.O., my style, is to bring people together.”
Case in point: Former Council Member Elle Cochran, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor, was sign-waving with him recently to back his bid for the South Maui residency seat. He said that while they have clear differences, they find agreement on an important platform.
“We don’t agree on a lot of things, I respect her and she respects me,” he said. “Our common denominator is affordable housing.”
Cook, a general contractor, said his main platform issues are affordable housing and the environment. He talks about the importance of generational homes and building homes solely for locals.
“Why is a lot in Kihei $450,000? Because of supply and demand,” he said. “This is Hawaii — 40 million people want to be here. We are never going to be able to overcome the demand.
“We don’t even want them here. The supply is limited. But the government has limited it for us. That’s the challenge. By limiting it for everyone, it includes us.”
He is an advocate of using more local building materials and constructing in ways that guard against the effects of global warming, including severe storms, drought, fire and wind.
“We need to build more environmentally friendly, instead of cutting down trees in the Northwest, milling them, stacking them, shipping them, unloading them, delivering them, using part of it, throwing 20 percent away in the dump,” he said.
Cook said that he does not pick sides, whether it’s one political party over another or unions and construction versus environmentalists. He agrees with Maui Tomorrow and the Sierra Club, but not when they take their issues to court instead of finding other solutions through state and county legislation and governments, he said.
Also, despite unions backing him, Cook said he does not make promises.
“People could say, ‘oh, you made these promises with the unions,’ “ he said. “I tell them unions, ‘I’m very happy and grateful for your endorsement’ and I’m looking forward to working with the union. I’m hopeful the unions can work with government and the private sector to modernize the seniority system.”
“I’m really progressive in how do we accomplish society’s needs in an environmentally friendly way,” he added.
As a newcomer to politics, Cook acknowledged that he doesn’t have the same name recognition as his competitor. Still, “I have nothing bad to say about anyone who is for the environment.”
It’s been challenging meeting people during the pandemic. He’s utilized Zoom, sign-waving and online videos during his campaign.
What sets him apart, he says, is his real-world experience, living off the grid for 30 years on 4 acres with a water catchment system because the county couldn’t supply water. He’s lived nearly 50 years on Maui and raised kids by farming and ranching.
“I had to milk cows when my kid was young,” he said.
As someone who moved to Hawaii in his teens, Cook learned quickly that finding mentors was important. He looked to role models in construction, landscaping and his children’s grandfather, who worked as an irrigation foreman at Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.
Mentoring youths is important to him.
“I’m very grateful to have been accepted here, to live my life here,” he said. “It saddens me to see us, because it is us, in conflict about things that we really want the same objectives on.”
Cook said the pandemic woes — socially, politically, environmentally and economically — are opportunities to make “great headway.” He is an advocate of managed tourism — but not Disneyland. He wants homeownership — but Maui isn’t a Monopoly board.
Despite these difficult times, Cook says that he is more optimistic than ever and that unity and collaboration can be found.
“I get chicken skin, I want to hopefully be a unifier,” he said. “I don’t have all the answers, but I am the token haole kid who came to Hawaii and gets along with everybody.”
* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Current occupation: Construction consultant
Volunteer/community organization experience: Maui General Plan Advisory Committee, Salvation Army Advisory Board, Maui Contractors Association past president, Soil Conservation, Haleakala Waldorf School PTA past president, Construction Industry of Maui Trade Group past chair, Maui Nui Affordable Housing Task Force, high school internship and mentoring programs, affordable housing advocate for 20 years
Military service: None
Political experience: None
Family: Married, five children, four grandchildren
Kelly Takaya King
Current occupation: County Council member
Volunteer/community organization experience: Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance, co-founder; Maui Hui Malama Learning Center; School/Community-based Management, Maui High School; Hawaii Renewable Energy Alliance; Hawaii Energy Policy Forum; Girl Scout Leader, Maui; Akaku Board of Directors; UH Maui College Sustainable Sciences Management Advisory Council; Maui Farmers Union Board of Directors; Hawaii Technology Development Corporation; Hawaii State Association of Counties Executive Board; Maui Nui Food Alliance Steering Committee; National Association of Counties Western Interstate Region Board; Climate Reality Project-Hawaii Chapter, co-founder
Military service: None
Political experience: Maui County Council, 2016-present; Maui representative to the Hawaii State Board of Education; Appointed to Hawaii Technology Development Corporation board by previous governor
Family: Married for 37 years, two children, both born and raised on Maui and now in their 30s