1. Mayor Charmaine Tavares – Maui faces a tough road ahead. The global recession drags on, the tourism industry remains in a gut-wrenching freefall and everyone is bracing for the impact when we finally hit bottom. At the same time, the need to protect and preserve the island’s environment has never been greater. Those competing issues are set to the backdrop of a swelling population, ongoing battles over Native Hawaiian rights and the painful, lumbering death of the sugar cane operations that have simultaneously exploited and sustained Maui for generations. What’s required is bold leadership, the kind that bridges divides, opens lines of communication between long-stalemated groups and works to transform the present and future with imagination and acumen. Instead of this—or even something approximating this—what we have is Mayor Tavares. Since her election in 2006 and her abrupt, unexpected decision to put the brakes on transient vacation rentals, Tavares has governed with the classic “plantation mindset”: an unyielding belief that water, land and political power should be left in the hands of ruling business interests, while visitors are shuttled off to resource-sucking mega-resorts and government acts mostly as an intermediary, maintaining the delicately balanced status quo. On various issues—ocean activity permits, Halloween in Lahaina, racially motivated violence—the Mayor has been MIA. And, in the vacuum created by her inaction, bickering and confusion have ruled. Meanwhile, County officials and those close to the situation grumble behind the scenes that Tavares has insulated herself at a time when communication is paramount and has embraced the divisive nepotism that infects Hawaii politics at all levels. Maui’s problems can’t all be pinned on one person—they’re the result of an unsustainable economic model and years of head-in-the-sand denial. But being at the top means that, when change is needed, you’re the first to go. Maui faces a tough road ahead. We need a leader we can trust in the driver’s seat.
2. Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona – As he steamrolls virtually unopposed toward his party’s gubernatorial nomination, the scariest thing about Lt. Gov. Aiona is summed up in a blurb on his campaign Web site: “Duke Aiona’s role as Lt. Governor is unprecedented in the history of Hawai‘i. Never before has a Lt. Governor been so involved in the critical decisions that shape our state.” Whether any of the men vying to replace Gov. Lingle will rise to the state’s myriad challenges is an open question, but one thing is certain: a continuation of the last eight years would be nothing less than self-sabotage. Yet despite their allegedly cozy relationship, Aiona isn’t some faceless Lingle clone—he’s more dangerous than that. A man who wears his religion proudly on his sleeve (in 2004 he reportedly told a prayer group that “Hawaii belongs to Jesus”), Aiona led the charge against same-sex civil union bill HB444 and called its defeat “a victory for traditional marriage.” (Lingle stayed curiously silent on the issue.) Along with state Republican Party Chair Jonah Kaauwai (who wrote in a January e-mail to supporters that “God imparted that my ministry is politics,” according to an AP dispatch), Aiona is part of a zealous rightward shift in the Hawaii GOP aimed at spinning the support of religious groups into election gold. Time will tell how effective that strategy is, but it should give pause to both the secular community and moderate people of faith who respect the separation of church and state.
3. Rep. Kyle Yamashita – The title Representative Kyle Yamashita is a bit misleading. Not the “Kyle Yamashita” part—that’s his real name (as far as we know). It’s the word “Representative” where the trouble begins. It suggests Yamashita represents his constituents, the voters of Maui’s 12th District, who elected him in 2004 and reelected him last year. But his campaign spending reports tell a different story. Yamashita’s most recent filing with the state Campaign Spending Commission reveals that, in January, he had to return checks totaling $2,300 from Wal-Mart and Virginia-based Altria Client Services because he was over the limit for non-resident contributions. Meanwhile, of the nearly $7,000 he raised during the reporting period, less than $1,000 came from Maui and none from his district. That’s right—not a single penny from the people he’s supposed to fight for, but so much from outside sources that he had to give some of it back. There’s blatant, there’s painfully blatant and then there’s that.
4. Rep. Joe Souki – Like his legislative colleague, Souki’s loyalty is clearly for sale. A recent, egregious example: at an October 12 meeting of the Council’s Infrastructure Management Committee, Souki spoke against a proposed countywide ban on Styrofoam takeout containers. During his remarks, he made it clear he wasn’t speaking as a civil servant from Maui’s 8th District, but rather on behalf of the American Chemistry Council, a lobby organization whose member companies include, among others, Monsanto, Dow, DuPont and Big Oil. That Souki would so publicly and unabashedly acknowledge his divided allegiance reveals two things: 1) most of Hawaii’s state legislators (because Souki and Yamashita are merely the tip of the iceberg) are bought-and-sold-and-bought-again; and 2) they’re so confident we don’t care, they’ll openly flaunt it and still expect to be rubber-stamped back into office when the next election rolls around, provided they pepper the neighborhood with glossy pamphlets (or sponges in Souki’s case) and fake-grin their way though a few sign-waving sessions. The really tragic part? They’re right.
5. Gov. Linda Lingle – It’s hard to say if being a lame duck makes Gov. Lingle more or less scary. On the one hand, her two-term reign—defined by colossal missteps (cough, Superferry) for which she still refuses to take responsibility and a well-earned reputation for vindictiveness—is near its end and her never-cordial relationship with the legislature has been strained past the breaking point, isolating her even further (and adding a crap-coated cherry to the top of the dysfunctional dung heap that is Hawaii’s state government). On the other hand, the former Maui Councilmember and Mayor has ample opportunity to exact more damage—or at least stall progress—as she casts her gaze toward the next rung on the ladder: a U.S. Senate seat. Now that’s frightening.
6. Councilmember Mike Molina – In an August 2002 cover story, we posed the question: who’s pulling Molina’s strings? At the time the Councilmember was embroiled in a scandal involving the rezoning of Makena Resort. Molina owned a 12.9-acre parcel of land near the site of the controversial development, a fact he failed to disclose until he was taken to task on an Akaku call-in show. (His excuse? He forgot.) The Board of Ethics initially ruled Molina had to recuse himself from the Makena vote, but later reversed its decision after a report commissioned by Molina concluded he didn’t stand to benefit from the rezoning. (Who exactly footed the bill for the report was a mystery.) Of course, seven years later we all know the fate of the Makena development—what was once touted as a boon for the island has turned out to be a bust for all involved. But time hasn’t changed Molina—he’s still a consistent pro-development vote, still a symbol of the Council contingency that backs big business and big bucks (especially when some of those bucks land in his campaign coffers) at every turn. As to who’s pulling his strings? The only clear answer is: not you and me.
7. Councilmember Wayne Nishiki – To his credit, since returning to the County Council after a term limit-induced hiatus, Wayne Nishiki has been Wayne Nishiki—a shoot-from-the-hip contrarian and a vocal environmental and cultural advocate who’s unafraid to court controversy (see the flap over the upside-down Hawaiian flag he displays in the council chambers to symbolize, as he wrote in a Maui News op-ed, that the “Hawaiians are a people in distress”). Even if you disagree with Nishiki on the issues, his views and values set him apart on a Council well stocked with business-as-usual stooges (see number 6 on our list). But there is a dark cloud hanging over the South Maui Councilmember: the $100,000 personal loan he accepted from developer Everett Dowling while out of office, a loan he failed to disclose until months after the deadline and has yet to pay back (despite assuring us in November 2008 that he would do “everything in his power” to repay the money). This really comes down to transparency and integrity. If Nishiki runs for reelection, he won’t be able to paint himself as fiercely independent and untainted by developer dollars. Which begs the question: if he isn’t those things, what is he?