Primary to whittle down packed field for Kahului seat on council
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Maui News will continue to feature the profiles and platforms of candidates in the lead-up to the Aug. 13 primary election. Today’s story focuses on the race for the Maui County Council Kahului residency seat. Final stories on other Maui County Council and state legislative races will be published in the coming weeks.
In the second-most crowded race of the Maui County primary election, seven individuals compete for the Kahului residency seat: Cara Flores, incumbent Council Member Tasha Kama, Carol Lee Kamekona, Buddy James Nobriga, Tina Pedro, Jason “Jack” Schwartz and Keoni Watanabe.
Kama has the advantage of two terms to her name, but she’ll have to keep an eye on her competition — Kamekona came within fewer than 3,000 votes of her in the 2020 general election, and Nobriga has raised nearly double what Kama has in recent months.
Only two of the seven candidates will advance, and each hopes to use their personal experiences to tackle top Maui County issues and earn residents’ vote in the primary on Aug. 13.
Cara Flores faced many obstacles growing up that led to her living independently since she was only 16 years old, taking custody of one of her younger siblings at 18, and then inspiring her to buy her first home that same year.
“I have a lot of compassion and mercy for people and I empathize with the obstacles and barriers people face. I have been through a lot of struggles and recognize the opportunities I had that hard working people no longer have available to them here,” Flores said. “I see the impact that helping one person get a hand up has and I truly believe people are capable of so much more than the world gives credit for if they are given opportunities, equal access and can meet their basic needs.”
People often lose hope when the obstacles in life seem overwhelming, she added, such as gaining access to affordable housing, transportation, food and health care.
“One job should be enough to keep a roof overhead and food on the table, but unfortunately, it is not,” said the 40-year-old community activist, real estate worker and substitute teacher. “Someone working multiple jobs should not have to struggle with meeting these basic needs.”
If elected, Flores would like to see a county-led initiative similar to a social housing model, which has been successfully done in other places and could “work really well here,” she said.
“We currently treat housing as a commodity to be bought and sold,” she said. “If we approach it as a human right and adopt more of a land trust model then we can provide affordable housing at a much lower cost and it would stay affordable potentially forever.”
In addition to housing costs, residents are facing higher utility bills, gas prices and grocery costs nationwide. As a mitigation strategy, Flores would like to see more efforts in electrification, such as reducing dependence on foreign oil, increasing the use of renewable energy, growing and producing food locally, and seeking out federal grants and subsidies to support these efforts.
The Kahului resident, who has three children, is also passionate about improving local parks, having more community outdoor spaces and sports facilities, as well as increasing connectivity with “better walking and biking access,” especially for keiki going to and from school.
“I felt compelled to run because I care about our community and the people in it. I see so many families and hard-working people struggling,” Flores said. “We do not have enough opportunity for young people and our housing crisis is worse than it has ever been. I have a depth of knowledge on housing and feel that is very needed at this moment in time.”
While the past term in office has been challenging for incumbent Tasha Kama with the passing of both her husband and eldest daughter, she believes it’s God’s plan for her to continue serving Maui County.
“As a Christian I look to God for direction in my life,” said Kama, who, for nearly 40 years before retiring, served as pastor at the Christian Ministry Church. “It is up to the voters as to whether I will provide that service as an elected official or in another capacity. I believe that there is much to be done and that I offer a perspective that is valuable to the development of public policy.”
The most valuable lesson that Kama has learned so far in office, including as chairperson for the Affordable Housing and vice chairperson for the former Environment, Agriculture and Cultural Preservation committees, is that developing public policy is “a team sport.”
Both the County Council and the administration need to communicate effectively and work together as one unit when tackling issues like affordable housing, economic diversity and climate change or sea level rise — Kama’s top priorities for the Kahului district if reelected.
“To truly be a leader, you must be willing to make the decisions that result in good policy regardless of whether that decision is popular,” she added. “When I have listened to all sides on a contentious policy decision, I cast my vote for the policy that I believe benefits our community.”
As a mom, grandmother and great-grandmother, Kama knows the importance of having access to a place to call home. Kama said she’s been actively working with community members to try to find effective solutions to provide temporary housing as a “stop-gap measure.”
“By meeting the crisis on a temporary basis first, we can buy some time to provide a better system to deliver the permanent affordable housing that we need,” she said. “I believe that selectively increasing density in some areas where there are the services to support that population is needed to fully address our housing needs. I can see more density along the major transit corridors of Central Maui as part of both our housing and climate adaptation solution.”
To reduce greenhouse gases, Kama proposed a charter amendment to require the county to pursue remote work and alternative work schedules to reduce transportation demand. It will be placed on the general election ballot in November.
“Transportation is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Hawaii,” she said.
Investing in water storage capacities will also help buffer drought conditions, Kama said, suggesting the creation of an extensive distribution system in Central Maui for treated wastewater, which can be used for irrigation of commercial property landscaping and parks. She also said the county needs to invest in better stormwater management facilities near major flood zones, plan for the loss of shoreline property and consider where some development can be moved.
“We will be challenged to do all that we can do to address climate impacts and we will need to determine how best to pay for the infrastructure improvements that we need,” she said. “I am confident that we will rise to that challenge.”
Carol Lee Kamekona
Carol Lee Kamekona’s mother, who recently passed away about four months ago, influenced her to join the U.S. Navy after high school, which she later retired from after 22 years of service.
“The discipline and accountability, the respect that you garner from that, makes you a better and stronger person,” Kamekona said. “You learn to deal with obstacles that come your way in life.”
These same qualities also make a good government leader, she noted.
“Having the integrity and to be able to stand up for what you believe in and follow through in what you say. Don’t make promises that you can’t keep and give people false hope,” she said.
“They have to be able to believe that what you say, your word, is true and that your word is something they can count on.”
Six of Kamekona’s seven children are also veterans, one of her “proudest accomplishments” as a single mom.
However, none of them and their families live in Hawaii.
“There are a lot of reasons why my kids aren’t home, education especially, for my grandchildren. I think our education system needs a major revamping, the curriculum needs to be updated and changed. The types of housing, the types of food, just all of that,” she said. “I decided to run because I wanted better for our people, I want better for our future generations.”
As a longtime advocate for the preservation and protection of cultural, historical and natural resources in Maui County, Kamekona wants to tackle issues with food security through supporting local farmers and distribution, as well as resolving drought conditions and preserving water through reforestation.
“Let’s think outside the box, let’s be innovative, let’s be creative and start thinking that tourism isn’t the best economic engine for us. We’ve seen that,” she said. “In the two years that we were closed down because of the pandemic, our aina flourished, our reefs flourished, our waters became so much cleaner and our residents’ quality of life was so much better.”
Maui County also needs to “catch up to the 21st century” with modern technology to create better and higher-paying jobs, Kamekona said, so that local residents and their children can live in the islands rather than the “transplants that come and work remotely and take up our resources.”
“I think the biggest issue is seeing our local businesses, seeing all our local residents losing what they’ve had, worked so hard for — whether it was a job, whether it was a business — during the pandemic time frame and not seeing much movement from our local government to try and assist in keeping our resident and our businesses afloat,” she said.
In addition to residents being priced out of homes, she said she’s frustrated with the many empty storefronts in shopping centers and the vacant mom-and-pop shops around Kahului.
“Why can’t we remodel, rezone, repurpose all those empty buildings into another shelter, rent-to-own, lease-to-own, apartments, whatever the space may be, to help our houseless community?” she added. “So many more of our people have become houseless. I just want something to be done for our residents.”
Buddy James Nobriga
In local government, business, community and most importantly, in family, being patient and having an open mind, heart and spirit is a recipe for success, said Maui native Buddy James Nobriga.
“Together, these three give balance to all decisions,” Nobriga said Thursday. “The foundation for good leadership in my life is further based on hard work, due diligence, integrity and honor.”
Born into a “hard-working, business-minded and faith-based ohana” that has continued the legacy of Maui Soda & Ice Works Ltd. and Maui’s own Roselani Ice Cream, Nobriga hopes to carry those same values into his role as a council member.
The 36-year-old was born and raised in the Valley Isle, graduated from St. Anthony School and then pursued a collegiate football career on the Mainland, where he eventually moved to Las Vegas to work in the tourism/ hospitality and security industries.
He felt a calling to return home in 2014 with his wife and two children so they could be around “the mana’o of my kupuna and I could honor my ohana by continuing the legacy of our over 138-year-old locally owned and managed business,” he said.
“I have been home for nearly 10 years and realized it is time to malama my kuleana, as a Maui Nui kane, husband, father, son and grandson,” said Nobriga, who currently serves on the Maui County Board of Water Supply, St. Anthony School Board and Finance Committee, Ka Ipu Kukui Fellows and Maui County Farm Bureau Finance Committee.
His top concerns for the Kahului district revolve around taking care of keiki, kupuna and the homeless populations.
For example, there are not enough healthy recreational options for the current population, he said, such as basketball courts, outdoor walking trails, public pools and updated community centers.
“We also need to grow facilities to take better care of our kupuna generation,” he added. “Hale Makua is overflowing and cannot be held accountable for this growing need in this district and throughout Maui County.”
For homelessness, he aims to better understand why the issue is growing and address it.
“If a mass majority of the homeless population is homeless due to the prices of houses, Maui should utilize the unused areas in Kahului that are vacant, like the former Safeway,” he said.
With a background in hospitality, Nobriga knows that tourism is among the top revenue-producing industries throughout the county; however, he said it’s not the only industry.
“Therefore we need to grow a better balance in order to malama our parks and the caretaking of these natural environmental and cultural resources,” he said. “Diversity, education and collaboration would be the first place to start.”
Tina Pedro came from “humble beginnings,” where she valued basic needs like shelter, food and clothes and experienced hardships while growing up in Wailuku. This inspired Pedro to take a deep-dive into community advocacy since she was young, starting as a teen mom who worked multiple jobs and put herself through college at the University of Hawaii Maui College and UH-Manoa.
“Just from the injustices I saw, whether it was through my own life and experiences, whether it was through my mother’s life,” she added. “How I would find my way through it was just getting involved. Whether it was an organization like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) — I can’t even name all the 50 that I’m a member to — and then it extrapolated to my own life and for the people and where I had come from, and the hardships and struggles, and uplifting those that don’t believe that they can reach their full potential.”
One thing Pedro tells her students at her alma mater Baldwin High School, where she teaches creative writing and English, is to “never box yourself in” and “be the change.”
“My upbringing had a lot to do with me pushing for the underprivileged, the voiceless,” she said. “I’m very proactive. Don’t be reactive. Don’t deal with the issue when it happens; be proactive as best as possible, try to prevent it from happening as best as possible. So that has always been my approach to almost everything in my life.”
Pedro has served on the Maui Police Commission, the Cost of Government Commission, the Maui Planning Commission, Hawaii Government Employees Association and other boards.
She also served as an independent researcher, investigator and data analyst for several organizations and programs on Maui to conduct studies on long-term elderly care, women’s corrections, children dental care, budget, grants and more.
With her experiences, she hopes to work with the community on solutions to local issues such as affordable housing, better wages and mental health services.
Pedro said that one solution would be for the county to purchase land and develop affordable housing.
“The county would need to cut out the developer and take development in totality and making all the homes ‘affordable’ and not ‘workforce affordable,'” she said.
Housing vouchers have also been helpful for residents, Pedro said. She suggested that the county look into federal programs such as the Family Safe Sufficiency Program that helps families increase income and reduce dependency on welfare assistance and rental subsidies.
“Obviously there’s no magic formula, so we have to work collaboratively and cooperatively, and I don’t think it’s only at the county level. I do think some things need to be shaken up at the state,” she said. “For me, I don’t want to see just a better community, but a better world. It’s in my bones. Even if I wanted to stop, something would start and I would be right there, you know, I would be right there.”
Jason ‘Jack’ Schwartz
A longtime television producer and host, Jason “Jack” Schwartz of Kahului is a candidate vying for a seat on the Maui County Council who has interviewed numerous other candidates during the past 14 elections, including some in this year’s Kahului race in which he is a part of.
“Didn’t think I’d be a candidate interviewing candidates,” Schwartz said.
Calling himself a “wealth of knowledge, both personal and accumulated” from the hundreds of television interviews with scientists, environmentalists, people in the film industry, politicians, medical personnel and social pioneers through the Maui Neutral Zone, Akaku and other outlets, Schwartz believes he’s the best person for the Kahului residency seat.
“A good leader can work with others,” he said. “One like me comes with broad input from years of integrated resource planning, accumulated wisdom, and openness to hearing new ideas, and the wisdom of the old and synthesizing a hybrid solution by working no side A versus side B, but a different model for affinity — building transparent discussion and co-operation resulting outputs, serving an even greater good.”
Over the years and across multiple shows, people encouraged him to run for office, he said. He has campaigned during the 1992, ’94 and ’96 election years for council and mayor.
“Now was the right time,” he said.
His top priorities for the Kahului district if elected are issues surrounding homelessness and houseless populations and creating a transportation hub, as well as coordinating with additional hubs in the future through “planned building centers for residential plans and links” as the population grows.
Maui County is currently working on a new bus hub in Kahului to replace the one at the Queen Ka’ahumanu Center.
It’s no secret that Maui County faces a housing crisis, which Schwartz said can be mitigated with special supplemental loan buydowns tied to long-term ownership, with a minimum of 15 years.
Offering assistance with down payments by equity-sharing on new construction, tax incentives to sellers for local sales versus off-island or non-owner-occupied, special construction take-out loans for multifamily conversions and additions, and tax classification for lower tax rates are just some of the ideas he has.
Educating owners and renters on energy-saving ideas and devices is another viable tool to help with financial responsibility, he said.
“Conservation is a key, especially on an island,” he added.
Schwartz said he would also support confining tourism accommodations to certain areas zoned for hotels and vacation rentals, as well as charge visitors for parking at county beach parks to offset maintenance costs, reduce environmental degradation and curb traffic in smaller communities. In its recently approved budget, the county set aside $3.8 million for a project that would require visitors to pay for spots at county-owned parking lots.
For over 40 years, Keoni Watanabe has shown his passion for giving back and inspiring change through volunteer work and philanthropy.
A native Hawaiian born in Lihue, Watanabe said his family has contributed to Maui County nonprofits for generations, such as the Lahaina Cub Scouts, Maui Aids Foundation, Lahaina Hongwanji Martial Arts, the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, Women Helping Woman and local cleanup events, for example.
Though he has served the local community for decades, the University of Hawaii Kapiolani Community College graduate has also been a lifelong volunteer and donor in Washington, which is where he served as a Department of Defense contractor at Naval Station Everett until retiring in 2013.
He also worked in the film and television industry from 1979 to 2012.
With these experiences, Watanabe values leaders who are proactive, genuine and kind, and “listening to our communities’ needs first.”
“Being hands on, cognizant, mindful, strong and yet be empathetic with compassion,” he added. “Our community matters, people in Maui are asking for change. I refuse to be a politician who sits back and delegates.”
Watanabe said he’s going into the Kahului candidacy race with an “open mind and clear heart” and will be someone who will support people of all backgrounds, including the LGBTQ community.
With that mindset, he hopes to tackle big issues such as conservation, tourism and affordable housing, which is a market “saturated by foreign and out-of-state investment.”
He said there should be a higher tax rate for nonresidents who own nonprimary residences in Maui County and that developers themselves should be capped with allocated allowance, ensuring that the next generations have access to affordable homes. In recent years, the council has adjusted tax tiers so that homes that aren’t occupied by the owners are charged a higher rate than owner-occupied homes.
Going green, like utilizing solar energy for cooling and heating can help lower costs all around, too, Watanabe noted.
“(The) average price of a single family home is well over seven figures. That is not affordable,” Watanabe said. “When one is renting out a converted carport for $2,000 per month, that is pure greed.”
Though tourism is vital for Maui County’s economy, he said that higher resort fees and taxes must be implemented. He would also like to see a cap on the number of Airbnb and vacation rentals in residential areas. This has also been a hot topic at the council, which proposed a cap on transient accommodations earlier this year.
As the global temperature warms up, it’s important to encourage the community to be eco-conscious by recycling as much as possible, disposing of waste and conserving “precious water with better aqua-filtration systems in place,” Watanabe said.
“Having water rights kept local versus out of state consortium,” he added. “Everyone should be responsible by cleaning up after themselves. Basic thought, would one throw a cigarette butt on their floor or trash in their yard? Daily cleanup starts now, Maui.”
* Dakota Grossman can be reached at email@example.com