Richard Borreca
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Two Garden Island political heavyweights, County Council Chairman Mel Rapozo and Councilman Derek Kawakami, are in the final weeks of campaigning to succeed termed-out Mayor Bernard Carvalho as chief executive of Kaua‘i County, which also includes the privately owned island of Ni‘ihau. Voters will decide in the Nov. 6 general election.

Rapozo just barely made it into the run-off, netting 4,147 votes to Kawakami’s 9,073 in the primary election. It was enough, however, to prevent Kawakami from getting the 50 percent plus one vote he needed for an outright win.

Kawakami is likely to have a large advantage in the general election. He reports raising $156,757, while Rapozo has picked up just $16,203.

“Rapozo’s biggest task facing the primary election was to just make it to the general election,” said longtime Kaua‘i journalist/photographer Dennis Fujimoto. “Derek was going to win, but not by such a great margin,” Fujimoto added.

“Derek built on his family’s legacy — including political, where his uncle, Richard Kawakami, and Bertha Kawakami (Richard’s wife, who succeeded him in the state House of Representatives when Richard died unexpectedly), were both politically well-known, connected and popular at levels beyond the county level. His family, including father Charles, had stepped into his grandfather’s shoes in continuing to nourish the family business, the Big Save Stores chain that was eventually sold to Times Supermarkets,” Fujimoto explains.

Rapozo, a former Kaua‘i police sergeant, has served nearly two decades on the County Council.

“Mel had reached the end of his Kaua‘i County Council road, currently serving his final term, but reaching the level of Council chair and not turning over too many stones or stepping on toes to get there,” Fujimoto said.

Kawakami’s father, Charles Kawakami, served as president and CEO of Big Save before it was sold to Times Supermarket in 2011. He died in 2016.

Derick Kawakami served on the Kaua‘i County Council from 2008 to 2011 before former Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed him to fill the legislative seat of Rep. Hermina Morita, who had been appointed to the Public Utilities Commission. Kawakami, who resides in Lihue served in the state House from 2011 to 2015 before deciding to return to Kaua‘i and run for the Kaua‘i County Council in 2016.

“I first thought about running for mayor while I was still at the Legislature; people reached out to me during Bernard’s (Carvalho) second run. I told them ‘absolutely not,’ but later, thinking about [it], I thought there was a lot I could bring to the county, and business leaders were asking me to run,” the-41-year-old Kawakami said in an interview.

“I try to have a strong presence in the community. We try to have a strong presence all year, not just showing up at election time,” Kawakami said.

He says people describe him as “being balanced and even-keeled.”

“I am more progressive than my father, but just as business-oriented,” said Kawakami, who attended Kaua‘i Community College and graduated from Chaminade University in Honolulu with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. “I am willing to try creative things, but I am fiscally responsible.

“I come with vast experience in business that I learned from the grocery business,” Kawakami said.

Rapozo, likewise, considers himself a fiscal conservative, saying Kaua‘i doesn’t need tax increases. He instead preaches a “tighten that belt” economic doctrine.

“I say no increase in funding sources. Instead, we need to create efficiencies, reassess and restructure,” Rapozo, a 54-year-old Wailua resident, said in an interview. Rapozo graduated from Kaua‘i High School, and attended college at Florida Metropolitan University and Everest University in Florida.

“The government organization can do more with less employees. With attrition, we can reduce employees; that is a saving reduction.”

Kawakami, who helped steer a property tax increase on vacation rental properties through the County Council, says there is only so much you can do by promising increased government efficiency.

“Everybody can say we can do more with less, and sure, there are areas where we can increase efficiencies. But time and time again, it is popular to say do more with less, and I haven’t seen it happen. As elected officials, we are responsible to speak to the truth of these matters.”

In April of this year, a staggering 28 inches of rain poured on Kaua‘i during a 24-hour period. Landslides cut off access to the North Shore’s narrow roads and tourism came to a near standstill. Since April, the scenic Princeville-Wainiha area of Kaua‘i has been trying to recover. The state stepped in with a $25 million emergency appropriation, but more help is expected.

Both Rapozo and Kawakami agree that as mayor, they would stress rebuilding the flood-damaged areas.

“For Kaua‘i, the main issues are quality of life issues — the roads and parks, and there is an expectation of a level of service that must be maintained,” Kawakami said.

“Prior to the flooding, the issues were traffic and housing. Now the most-complained-about issues are, obviously, the flooding, and traffic,” said Rapozo.

Kaua‘i is a small island with a high profile as a vacation destination and a hideaway for the rich and famous, so it can quickly show the signs of overdevelopment and worn-out roads, parks, bridges and other infrastructure.

The Garden Island’s Dennis Fujimoto covered Rapozo and Kawakami at a Kauai Chamber of Commerce political forum and said the pair’s differences show up in thinking about how to handle development.

“Both have agreement on infrastructure (to support the already-crowded visitor market), the big difference being Rapozo wanting to move ahead to open up existing networks of plantation-era cane haul truck routes, while Kawakami wants a more patient “work with partners” approach to find funding for a solution to the growing traffic problem,” Fujimoto said.

“We need to get Kaua‘i back on track,” concludes Rapozo, adding, “It is a matter of funding necessities and not luxuries.”

Kawakami’s final pitch is to understand that “Kaua‘i is going to continue to grow.”

“We are going to be a community of families. We will have children and we will manage it in a holistic manner.”

Richard Borreca is a veteran Honolulu journalist. He has worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, KHVH News Radio, KHON-TV, Honolulu Magazine and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, for whom he now writes a Sunday column.


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