Kama, Kamekona face off for Kahului seat
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 Kahului residency seat. Final stories on other races will be published in the coming days with a special general election issue to be published Saturday.
Two years after she sprang to a decisive victory over former Mayor Alan Arakawa, incumbent Maui County Council Member Tasha Kama is defending her Kahului residency seat against challenger and first-time candidate Carol Lee Kamekona.
Kama finished first in the August primary with 15,555 votes, or 35.4 percent, to Kamekona’s 10,812 votes, or 24.6 percent, and Deb Kaiwi’s 8,408 votes, or 19.1 percent.
Now wrapping up her first term in office, Kama hopes to continue her work on the council. Kamekona, a caretaker and retired military veteran, seeks to bring new ideas to the legislative body. In spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, both candidates have managed to connect with voters — virtually or otherwise — and have adapted their campaigns in these unusual times. Here’s where they stand on a few of the issues.
Every Monday morning, Tasha Kama sets aside a half hour to pray.
Kama, a former pastor, prays often, but this weekly devotion has a special place in her heart: the “Mayor’s Prayer Group” convenes on Mondays (virtually since late March) and its members pray for Mayor Mike Victorino and the community as a whole.
Kama formalized the prayer group not long after she was sworn in as a freshman council member in January 2019. She says it is one of her two proudest accomplishments as council member so far. The other? Taking action to approve the conversion of the long-vacant University of Hawaii Maui College dormitories into emergency housing for unsheltered residents. The first phase of the project includes 12 two-bedroom units and is on track to be completed in early 2021.
Now eyeing a second term, Kama, who is the council’s presiding officer pro tempore and chair of its Affordable Housing Committee, has a list of things she’d like to accomplish in the next two years. She says there’s one common denominator.
“I want to help people improve their quality of life, no matter who they are or where they are in life,” she said.
Prior to representing the Kahului residency area on the Maui County Council, Kama had been actively involved in the community for nearly four decades. Among other things, she served as senior pastor of the Christian Ministry Church, was an advocate for Department of Hawaiian Home Lands beneficiaries and worked as a social justice organizer with FACE (Faith Action for Community Equity) Maui, a nonprofit organization that works to address the root causes of social justice challenges.
Kama got a crash course in local politics in 2010 when she unsuccessfully ran for the District 8 State House seat. In 2018, she reentered the political arena as a candidate for the Maui County Council, ultimately defeating her opponent, former Mayor Alan Arakawa, by a margin of 28,546 votes, or 56.4 percent, to 17,640 votes, or 34.8 percent.
“I decided to run because we needed more voices at the table,” she explained.
And now that’s she at the table, Kama says she remains laser-focused on the two issues she’s championed from the start: expanding affordable housing and addressing homelessness. If reelected, she said she will keep affordable housing at the forefront and continue to explore long-term solutions to homelessness.
“We can only shelter those who want to be sheltered,” Kama said.
For those with serious mental illness or substance use issues, she said, “How can we help them help themselves without infringing on their civil rights?” With that in mind, Kama says she’s working with outreach programs like A Cup of Cold Water and Wailuku Clean & Safe to find the best solutions. She’s also exploring ideas like a community outreach court — a specialty court in the same vein as drug court — to offer treatment options and services to homeless individuals who commit minor, nonviolent crimes. Like affordable housing, it’s an issue that can’t be resolved overnight, but efforts are underway, she said.
“You have to take an issue and break it down into small bites,” she said. “If you try to take one big bite, you won’t get anything done.”
As the local economy continues to reel from the COVID-19 pandemic, Kama said she’s working with her fellow council members to get the county back on track.
“We need to figure out how to get people back to work,” she said, citing the importance of career pathway and training programs like the American Job Centers.
She sees the pandemic as a chance to reimagine the tourism industry and find ways to better manage it to protect Maui’s cultural and natural resources. There is a golden opportunity, she said, “for us to help visitors understand the culture to the degree that they respect it.”
Kama says she’s always ready and willing to listen and respond to constituents, regardless if they reside in her district or elsewhere in Maui County.
“It’s part of the job,” she said. “I’m here to serve the people of Maui County and help lighten their burdens.”
And no matter the issue, Kama said, “I always do what I believe is right in my heart.”
CAROL LEE KAMEKONA
Carol Lee Kamekona decided to enter the council race a few days before the candidate filing deadline, but it was far from an impulsive decision. She says friends and family members had long urged her to run for office and the idea had been brewing for some time.
“COVID-19,” she said. “We can’t go back to the way things were before the pandemic. I want us to be a better Maui.”
Kamekona is a political newcomer, but has flexed her leadership muscle over the years. Among other things, she served 22 years in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Naval Reserve, serves on the Maui Ranchers and Farmers Homestead Association for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and is currently serving her sixth term as president of ‘Ahahui Ka’ahumanu Chapter IV, Wailuku, a royal benevolent society of Native Hawaiian women who honor and perpetuate the legacy of Queen Ka’ahumanu.
In the spring, as she watched COVID-19 send Maui County into an economic tailspin, Kamekona said it became crystal clear that something had to change.
“Tourism should not be our only economic engine,” she said.
With so much fallow land on Maui, she says a pivot to sustainable agriculture makes perfect sense — and it would yield dual economic and environmental benefits.
In addition to fruits and vegetables, Kamekona sees the far-reaching and job-creating potential of multipurpose crops like bamboo and hemp, which grow quickly and in abundance. She said industrial hemp could be a boon to Maui County, as the market demand has grown both domestically and abroad, largely due to hemp’s versatility. In addition, she said, both hemp and bamboo can be used to make products that would very likely otherwise be imported, including food, clothing, everyday household items and construction materials.
Kamekona said it’s also time to look at changing the concept of tourism. In the absence of the usual influx of visitors, there have been observable changes: fewer cars on the road, clearer nearshore waters and a resurgence of fish. She said this underscores the rationale for exploring different forms of tourism, such as agritourism and ecotourism, which would not only help safeguard Maui’s precious natural and cultural resources, but also heighten visitors’ experiences.
“We know people want to come to Maui,” she said. “We need to change why they want to come.”
The COVID-19 pandemic remains top of mind for Kamekona, and as Maui County regains its footing, she says the council can help residents recover by providing financial assistance to local small businesses through microloans or grants and offer assistance in cross-training to laid-off job seekers through educational loans. As for the long view, she said it’s absolutely critical to bolster the local economy to ensure more opportunities for future generations.
“The kids who leave after high school . . . we need to make sure they have jobs to come home to,” she said.
If elected, Kamekona said she would also prioritize and address the issues of affordable housing and homelessness. Among other things, she proposes repurposing or rezoning vacant commercial buildings to increase the stock of affordable units or to house unsheltered residents. She also plans to thoroughly examine any approved affordable housing projects that are “stuck” in the process to find out what’s holding them up.
For this and all other issues, Kamekona said she intends to consult, listen to and work alongside the many experts who dedicate their time, knowledge and passion to developing viable solutions. Amid COVID-19, Kamekona’s first campaign experience has been unconventional to say the least, but she’s had an opportunity to meet voters and listen to their concerns. It has opened her eyes to the myriad issues facing Maui County and its residents — many of which existed long before the pandemic began. Kamekona said she’s not afraid to take on tough challenges, and if she’s elected on Nov. 3, will work tirelessly for her constituents and always act with uncompromising honesty and integrity.
“My 22 years in the Navy and Naval Reserves prepared me for leadership,” she said. “I will work to make Maui a better Maui.”