Rob Parsons

Campaign Challenge

Kai Nishiki is ready to make a difference

by Rob Parsons

June 05, 2008

The candidate photo: Masako Cordray.

My dad felt he was protecting Maui to be enjoyed for its natural beauty. He instilled that responsibility in us.
-Kai Nishiki

With a mere month and a half before the candidate-filing deadline in the Maui County 2008 election, the campaign season has been uncharacteristically quiet. While we've been witnessing a resounding hubbub on replacing President George W. Bush, there's been barely a murmur on the home front.

Why haven't more local citizens announced their candidacy to challenge incumbent elected leaders? Is the populace satisfied with the incumbents' job performance? Or are they just complacent? Are people assuming it's just too difficult to beat an incumbent, or are they on "Maui Time"-content to do things at the last minute?

Eight of the nine incumbent Maui County Council members are up for re-election (after 10 years, Riki Hokama of Lanai is termed-out), as are all six Maui state House Representatives and two of the three state Senators.

There has been speculation that former Council Member Wayne Nishiki will try to regain a council seat. There's also the possibility that former Mayor Alan Arakawa will try for a council or a state seat.

Still, things look very good for the council incumbents. The last time incumbent council members lost their bids for re-election was back in 2000. That year Arakawa took the Kahului residency seat over Mike Davis; Mike Molina grabbed the Haiku-Paia-Makawao seat away from John Wayne Enriques; and Jo Anne Johnson barely beat West Maui's Dennis Nakamura by 125 votes.

Molina and Johnson had run unsuccessfully in 1998, and Arakawa had previously served on the County Council, before his bid for Mayor fell short that same year.

But to date, just a handful of candidates have announced their intentions. Activist-extraordinaire Lucienne de Naie of Huelo will launch a second campaign for the Hana Council spot. Former state house candidate and Deputy Planning Director Don Couch is running for Michelle Anderson's South Maui council seat. First-timer Susan "Netra" Halpern will run for the Kahului seat currently held by Joe Pontanilla.

In the legislative races, former council candidate Rev. Natalie "Tasha" Kama is challenging Rep. Joe Souki's long tenure in the 8th District, stretching from Waikapu to Waihe'e. Summer Starr has set her sights on the 12th District Upcountry seat occupied by Rep. Kyle Yamashita.

One other declared candidate, though a first-timer, carries a familiar name and legacy. Kai Nishiki is the eldest of six children of veteran council member and watchdog Wayne Nishiki. She is the mother of three children of her own, ages five, seven and nine. She worked in her father's office as a legislative aide in the early 1990's, then moved to Oahu for 10 years for school and work, eventually starting both a business and a family.

Now living in Haiku, she wants to serve on Maui County Council, seeing her role as a gift to her kids and a responsibility to the community. Kai and I talked story on a sunny Sunday afternoon. She brought fresh-baked loaves of banana bread, which she currently provides to the Farmer's Market and health food store run by her dad and brother in West Maui.

MAUI TIME WEEKLY: What prompted you to run for the Paia-Haiku-Makawao County Council seat this year?

KAI NISHIKI: I've been inspired by the presidential race and people's sincere desire for positive change. There's a growing dissatisfaction with the current leadership. Working as council aide to my dad after graduating from Baldwin High [in 1989] sparked my interest. I realized it really matters who's in there.

Driving around Maui after being away for 10 years, I found myself telling my kids about how things used to be-the old dirt road to Makena, Suda Store, when it didn't take 20 minutes to drive Ka'ahumanu Avenue in Kahului. I feel a strong responsibility to preserve and protect Maui. It is our kuleana. Now that my kids are a bit older, I'm ready to pursue my passion and serve the public.

What did you gain as the daughter of a county council member who has been an outspoken advocate for slow growth and protection of our natural resources?

Growing up, people were constantly coming up and talking with my dad about important issues. It made me and my brothers and sisters aware of changes happening throughout Maui. Now I'm finding people talking to me, wanting help with how to address the challenges in our community-affordable housing, education, all kinds of things.

What are your top three election issues this year, and what is your vision for addressing them?

One is affordable housing, especially rentals. A list of applicants could be maintained by the county, rather than by developers. It shouldn't be difficult to manage, and would bring fairness to the system.

Second is water. Obviously we need more storage, but that's an expensive, long-term fix that will take five years or longer. People don't like to be told they need to conserve, but it's essential.

Privatization of water is going on worldwide. It is dangerous for Maui to allow private companies to control our water systems. We need to regain control. Water must be available and equitably distributed.

Third is agriculture. Supporting ag can positively impact our economy, creating a self-sustaining economy. Ag lands provide food, jobs, and a sense of beauty. Our fields could be growing food and creating energy. Instead, they are blowing away in the wind.

We need tax breaks and incentives for growing food, to utilize and protect ag lands. Then we can reach our fullest potential of using that resource as the asset that it is.

What other vital community issues are not being addressed with the urgency needed to help shift our path towards self-sufficiency and sustainability?

Energy, and the needs of our elderly. Our dependence on imports places us in a dangerous situation. And we're not moving fast enough. Look what happened with the second phase of Kaheawa Wind [now in a contested case docket with the Public Utility Commission].

Our elderly are Maui's fastest growing age group. Retirees, too. This is also an affordable housing issue. Not everyone wants to live in Hale Makua. The county could partner with developers for mixed-use communities that accommodate the needs of older populations as well as younger.

What is your vision for the Maui your children will inherit?

We have so many possibilities that are exciting-wind, waves, the sun. That should provide new opportunities to get our economy on track, and get us away from our dependence on imports. With the right choices, we can continue to attract people to Maui for the right reasons, not just for more luxury housing.

Our education system needs a lot of work. I'd also say our government is a bit out of touch with what our communities want. I'm hearing a lot of dissatisfaction with the current leadership. We need the diversification that is provided by home-based businesses. It helps our economy, cuts down on commuting.

Lack of affordable housing and jobs are the two biggest reasons people leave. I want to help plan our future so my kids can live here.

Your dad made it a point to spend very little on campaign finances. How will you approach the issue, as a first-time candidate running for a seat occupied by a four-term councilor?

It's a very dangerous situation when special interest groups and big developers influence our representatives by financing their campaigns. My dad, on principle, refused to spend money on campaigning. He relied on his performance as a county council member representing the public.

A first time candidate doesn't have that advantage. I'll be attending all the community meetings and campaign forums, to meet people and listen to their major concerns. I'll do some door-to-door.

People pay closer attention to the council now that it's on Akaku. Quite a few issues have arisen in the past year, like Wailea 670, and people are unhappy with their voting records.

I support public funding of campaigns. It would be great if every candidate could have the same amount.

What education and experiences do you believe qualify you for this job?

First, I've worked on the eighth floor [of the Kalana O Maui building] and know I can work well with people there. I have good leadership skills, and am good at problem solving. It takes teamwork, not just one person, to be an effective leader and public servant.

People are excited at the prospect of a new president, and that will bring out a lot of voters, especially young people. That's really exciting. My age [37] might be attractive to younger voters. Then, once they get interested, they stay involved.

With the General Plan revision happening, it's an exciting time. We get do plan our future, not just the developers. I'm ready to help serve in planning Maui's future for the betterment of us all.