A New Generation of Kawakamis is Leading the Garden Island
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
The Kawakamis are Kaua‘i’s first family of politics. The political and retail power of the Garden Island courses through the Kawakami name. Three members of the clan — Richard, Bertha and Derek — have served in the state House of Representatives.
Richard was the first. After serving the Garden Island in the House for two decades, Richard was elected Speaker of the House at the start of the 1987 legislative session, only to die of a massive heart attack two months later. His widow Bertha succeeded him in the House and was vice chair of the Finance Committee for 14 years. And now nephew Derek, also a Democrat, who served on the Kaua‘i County Council (2008-2011, 2016) and in the state House (2011-2015), is completing the first year of his inaugural term as mayor of Kaua‘i County, which also includes the privately owned island of Ni‘ihau.
The 42-year-old mayor is the former operations manager of Kaua‘i’s Menehune Food Mart and Big Save, Inc. and has served on the boards of the ‘Ele‘ele, Rice and Kapa‘a shopping centers.
In spite of his extensive business experience, Kawakami said in a recent interview that it is in his new job as mayor that he has found “a sense of purpose.”
“There is no shortage of challenges, but everything I love about Kaua‘i is right here. I am focused and satisfied,” the surfer and jujitsu practitioner said. “I am as happy as a clam.”
Although Kaua‘i, the Hawaiian Island chain’s northwest anchor, is relatively unpopulated with just 72,100 residents compared to urbanized Honolulu County’s more than 953,200, the civic problems are largely the same: roads, parks and affordable housing.
Kawakami said he is setting his county government about the task of first redoing its roads and then tackling the many parks.
“I am very pleased with some of the movement we have been able to accomplish,” Kawakami said.
“We have been able to address more and more roads; we have shifted our priority to that.”
In an earlier interview in The Garden Island newspaper, Kawakami repeated the same priority — to fix the roads.
“We are going to be addressing the condition of our roads and so we should be seeing much better conditions of our roads because we have an infusion of new revenue coming in through the GE surcharge. So we’ll have more resources to address some of the potholes and everything else that we’ve been dealing with,” the mayor said.
Work is also continuing on Kaua‘i’s north shore from the massive flooding and landslides that occurred during an April 2018 storm that dumped 28 inches of rain in the area over a 24-hour period. Landslides severely damaged the narrow roads leading to the scenic Princeville and Wainiha area and cut off access to the already relatively isolated area. Tourism in the scenic area came to a near standstill.
Kawakami, who holds a business degree from Chaminade University, predicts the economic repercussions of that situation will be felt for a long time.
“The economic damage was very localized, but there is still economic hardship in the area. We are supporting the North Shore shuttle and encouraging people to visit the area,” Kawakami said.
Kaua‘i County Council Chair Arryl Kaneshiro said Kawakami’s past experience as both a county councilmember and a state legislator has been a plus in his communications with his former colleagues in both legislative bodies.
“Mayor Kawakami and I personally have an excellent relationship and we continue to work well together. He has given me and the other councilmembers the flexibility to communicate with him and his administrative team on various issues and really has tried to be inclusive of the Council whenever possible,” Kaneshiro said in an interview.
“The mayor’s ability to engage the entire community is also admirable. He is able to effectively interact with everyone, from major political leaders all the way down to our youngest keiki. His engaging and approachable personality especially helps to provide a calm, even in the most contentious situations.”
One issue that all government leaders in Hawai‘i are realizing that they will have to face is the rise in native Hawaiian issues, with demands for both representation and control of specific areas.
On the Big Island, protests related to the planned building of the Thirty Meter Telescope, the world’s biggest telescope, on Mauna Kea, have escalated into demands for native Hawaiians to control access to government roads and lands. So far, county and state officials have not been able to take back control.
Kawakami says he understands the protests, but warns that the violation of laws will not be tolerated on Kaua‘i.
“I took an oath to uphold the constitution, the charter and the law,” Kawakami said.
“Kaua‘i has had demonstrations that have been very peaceful. People made sure that they are not breaking laws.
“I have a police department that is under-resourced,” he said. “I can’t afford any erosion of people not abiding by the laws.
“People see what government allows. People have to abide by the laws and I am going to uphold the laws.” Kawakami said.
“I encourage democracy and free expression, but if it reaches a level — I am going to do my job.”
At the same time, Kawakami is politically smart enough to know that protest that amounts to simple criticism of his administration is something that comes with the job. He gives a good example of “political jujitsu” in a Garden Island newspaper interview when asked about his critics.
“I want to thank them. I want to thank them for keeping us on our toes. We’re working as hard as we possibly can. And we are always open to constructive criticism. It’s really what builds us up and, quite frankly, our critics give us the fuel that we need to work harder. They drive us to be better.
“They drive me to stay up later and they are the best motivator for the type of person that I am. So I want to thank them for being critics,” Kawakami said.
Richard Borreca is a 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.