Race In Big Island Mayoral Race

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - May 28, 2008
| Del.icio.us

When I first set foot on the Big Island of Hawaii - oh, so many years ago - its mayor was a young attorney named Shunichi Kimura. Hawaii County politics in the mid-1960s was still rooted in the sugar plantations and dominated by Japanese-American surnames - and would be for decades to come.

In 2008, 11 candidates are vying to replace outgoing Mayor Harry Kim. One, County Councilman Stacy Higa, sports a Japanese surname. But Higa is a graduate of the Kamehameha Schools and proudly claims Hawaiian ancestry as well as the named Okinawan.

Leading in the early polling on the race is state Sen. Lorraine Rodero Inouye. A 20-year political veteran, it’s the Rodero in Inouye’s name that counts ethnically. She’s Filipino, married to Vernon Inouye, a Big Island flower grower and exporter.

Also in the running is a young Hawaiian lawyer and former Harry Kim aide named Billy Kenoi. The surname’s Hawaiian, but Kenoi’s mother doesn’t have a drop of Hawaiian in her. She made her way to the Big Island from Kalamazoo, Mich.

Then there’s the West Hawaii candidate, Councilman Angel Pilago. The name’s Filipino, of course; but Pilago is quick to emphasize that on his mother’s side he’s Hawaiian. In his campaign, he emphasizes legal cases he’s initiated to protect Hawaiian access rights.

The diverse ethnic identities of Hawaii County’s four leading mayoral candidates mirror the Island’s changing demographic. Hawaii county isn’t pure anything anymore. Where residents of Japanese ancestry once carried the greatest weight in the population, today Hawaii County is a hopelessly complicated mélange of ethnicities.

But the issues remain the same - and, as is commonly the case with county government, so very, very everyday: waste management and the condition of the parks, traffic and economic development, affordable housing for the common and land for the farmers.

If the issues are the same, the personalities differ. Both Pilago and Inouye have seen their 60th birthdays. Pilago is a Farrington High School dropout who earned his GED in the Army and won both Bronze and Silver stars as an airborne sergeant in Vietnam.

Back in Hawaii, Pilago found employment with various therapy and prevention programs on Oahu’s Waianae Coast. There he also developed an interest in Hawaiian culture sufficient to lead him back to the Big Island from whence his family traces its roots. Pilago is in only his second two-year term on the Council.

Lorraine Rodero Inouye boasts the longest career in public service. After a 20-year career in the hotel business, Inouye won a seat on the Hawaii County Council in 1984. Six years later, she won the mayoralty. She would have only one two-year term before being defeated by Steve Yamashiro. In 1998 Inouye defeated incumbent David Matsuura for a seat in the Hawaii state Senate. Facing a primary challenge from state Rep. Dwight Takamine this year, Inouye has chosen to leave the Senate and make another run for mayor.

Billy Kenoi boasts the best “kolohe kid” story of the bunch. Reared in a family of seven, he played Pop Warner and high school football for a coach named Harry Kim. But he lost interest in school, flunked out of Tacoma Community College and moved back to Hawaii to work in a papaya plant, surf, work as a carpenter and get arrested for growing commercial marijuana.

Then Kenoi had an epiphany. He went back to college, made the dean’s list and - after detours working in politics - went to law school at William S. Richardson, graduating with the class of 1996. After four years as a public defender, he harkened to Coach Kim’s call to come work for him in the Mayor’s Office. Kenoi’s candidacy for mayor constitutes his first run for public office.

Hawaii Island-born, Stacy Higa is finishing his second two-year term on the Council. After high school, Higa attended the University of Colorado. He returned to Hawaii and found work as the vice president and branch manager of industrial supply companies. He spent nine years on Kauai in that capacity before returning to the Big Island. At 45, Higa admits that he “loves politics” and talks excitedly about how he would deal with the county’s waste management and infrastructure problems.

The appeal of the four cuts several ways: Kenoi and Higa are young, Pilago and Inouye a generation older. Kenoi, Higa and Pilago can claim only eight years of elective experience among them; Inouye can boast 18. Pilago represents the beleaguered West Side of the island; Kenoi, Higa and Inoue the traditional political center in the east. And ethnically - oh my. The 2008 Big Island mayoralty may well be the most interesting race in the state.

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