Four years ago this month, Alan Arakawa was in a tough spot. He had been Maui County’s mayor once before, but that was all in the past. Since Charmaine Tavares had defeated his 2006 reelection bid, he’d been out of power, and out of the news. But Tavares had grown seriously unpopular during her term, and by the beginning of 2010, had about $89,000 in her campaign coffers and was looking very vulnerable. Eventually, 10 challengers publicly declared that they could do a better job than the incumbent. Arakawa was one of them, but in January 2010, he had little more than $10,000 to work with.
Today, records at the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission show that a great deal has changed in the last four years. Arakawa ended up beating Tavares in the 2010 rematch, but he never stopped raising money for the next election cycle. Today, his campaign’s most recent contribution and spending report shows that he has more than $320,000 to play with during his 2014 re-election campaign. What’s remarkable about that figure is that unless something changes radically in the next few months, most of that money will probably stay in the bank.
Writing about what basically amounts to a small town political race 11 months in advance is always tricky. Potential candidates have until the summer to file their official declarations (filings with the state Elections Office don’t officially start until Feb. 2). But what makes the Maui County mayoral race so unusual is that it seemed to become a foregone conclusion back in 2013. Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013, to be exact.
That’s when Alan Arakawa and about a hundred friends and supporters gathered in the Lihikai Elementary School cafeteria in Kahului for his public announcement that he was running for reelection. But that’s not when the race ended–that happened a few minutes later, when Maui County Council member Mike Victorino took hold of a microphone and started speaking.
“Let me make it perfectly clear,” he told the crowd. “I am not running for mayor in 2014.”
Instead, Victorino said he’d run for reelection to his current council seat. For the people around Arakawa, it was a stunning moment.
“We were certain it was Victorino,” one person close to the mayor’s campaign told me when asked who Arakawa was preparing to campaign against.
As late as Sept. 1, 2013, Victorino was apparently still considering a mayoral run, according to a Maui News story that ran that day. And while that’s certainly possible, it’s also possible that dream ended back April, when ILWU Local 142–a powerful labor union which actually employs Mike Victorino’s wife–publicly endorsed Alan Arakawa for reelection.
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It wasn’t supposed to be like this. On Maui, its the Maui County Council races that are dull–with incumbents usually getting challenged by under-funded no-names or no one at all–not the mayoral contests. But going into the 2014 race, that political equation seems to have reversed itself, with a couple Maui County Council races looking to be bruising battles between incumbents (like a prominent possible mayoral candidate Mike White, who told The Maui News back in September that he had “no interest” in running for mayor) and former incumbents (like Mike Molina, who spent the last few years working in Arakawa’s office and now wants to send White packing). Other high profile councilmembers have either expressed no interest in running for mayor (like Riki Hokama) or have already declared that they’re running for reelection to their own council seats (Gladys Baisa).
For this story, I spoke to half a dozen people who are wired into Maui’s political scene. People who’d lived here for decades and watched many elections come and go. Most asked that I not use their names. All of them said the same thing: it was highly unlikely that any “big name” would stand against Arakawa.
“That’s a really good question,” said one observer. “I haven’t heard that anyone will run.”
“I don’t see anyone else out there,” said another. “No one [of name] will run against him.”
There are, as far as I’ve been able to determine, four main reasons why Arakawa looks so strong that he’s scared off most potential mayoral candidates. The first and foremost is his campaign coffer: holding $322,000 before the race really begins is a hell of a deterrence against getting challenged.
Another reason is that the Alan Arakawa who’s running for reelection today isn’t the same man who lost his 2006 reelection bid. “He’s extremely smart,” one long-time observer of Maui politics told me of Arakawa. “He learned what to do after he got knocked out by Charmaine [Tavares in 2010]. And he came back with a vengeance.”
As a result, Arakawa today is far more pro-development than he was during his first term of office. And the county’s construction industry and unions are also far friendlier to him. In addition to the April 2013 endorsement from ILWU Local 142, Arakawa has also collected public promises of support from a host of other unions, like they were precious jewels for a crown he’s forging.
In September, the Operating Engineers Local 3 announced they were backing Arakawa. And on Dec. 10, 2013, the Hawaii Construction Alliance (HCA)–which represents the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters, the Hawaii Masons Union (Local 1 and Local 630), the Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 368 as well as the Operating Engineers Local 3–also gave Arakawa the nod.
“Mayor Arakawa has been a strong and steadfast friend for our union members here in Maui County,” HCA Executive Director Tyler Dos Santos-Tam said in his Dec. 10 press release on the endorsement. “He understands that a vibrant construction industry means quality jobs for local workers and a healthier economy for all of us.”
Maui’s “healthier” (or at least recovering) economy is also a factor in Arakawa’s favor. And this is true at all government levels, from the President of the United States to Mayor of Maui County. Never mind that mayors (or presidents, for that matter) can do virtually nothing to affect the state of the economy. But history tells us that voters will reward those who govern during good economic times and punish them when things start going south.
“Arakawa came in when the economy was down, but it’s much better now,” said one political observer. “It’s not through anything he did, but for some people he gets the credit.”
Lastly (and this is where he seems to have taken advice from Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part II), Arakawa has mastered the art of keeping his friends close, and his enemies closer.
Since he became mayor again in 2010, Arakawa has found jobs for numerous people who’ve run against him in the past like construction consultant Randy Piltz and environmental activist Rob Parsons as well as numerous former Maui County Councilmembers who could easily run against him in 2014: Danny Mateo, Bill Medeiros, Mike Molina and Joe Pontanilla. As a result, not one of those individuals will be running against Arakawa in 2014.
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Ironically, a few of Arakawa’s strengths could easily be turned into weaknesses–specifically, his largely pro-development policies haven’t exactly gone down without opposition. The Maui County Council’s outrage over Arakawa’s supposed move to demolish the old Wailuku Post Office without consulting them doesn’t stand up to a review of the public record, but the council certainly could have taken his administration to task for watering down the Maui Island Plan (which finally passed last year) or for initially supporting the now-abandoned “Kihei Mega Mall” proposal (which ran afoul of previous state Land Use Commission zoning).
For those on Maui who believe in “slow growth,” Arakawa is certainly vulnerable to attack. And yet today he stands alone in the race.
Well, not exactly alone. In fact, two individuals have already decided that he could do a better job at Mayor than Arakawa and has promised to run (actually, it’s three, but I only learned of Tamara Paltin, a County of Maui lifeguard who filed an organizational report with the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission on Jan. 15, as we were going to press). The first is Alana Kay, who owns Prestige Cleaning Maui and ran unsuccessfully two years ago against incumbent Don Couch for the Maui County Council.
“I would like to tighten up our administration organizationally, fiscally and ethically,” she wrote in a Jan. 12 email after I asked if she was planning to run for mayor. “I would like to return all water resources to the county and implement changes to the system to improve efficiency. I believe that we (our government) needs to negotiate several key items with [Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar] HC&S as well as Native Hawaiians and people who were born here. I would like to fast track sustainability measures including clean energy, waste handling and farming (food independence).”
Like many candidates outside the local political establishment, Kay framed her decision to run in terms of fighting “cronyism.”
“We need a mayor who serves all of the people of Maui and who is not afraid to stand up for their beliefs,” she wrote. “We also need a mayor and other administration who are not looking for a career in government work, but an opportunity to really do some great things in a four-to-eight year period and then move on. The cronyism has got to end.”
The other person who’s planning to pull papers and run against Arakawa is Ori Kopelman, who first ran for Maui County Mayor back in 2010.
“I was just online checking campaign spending limits,” Kopelman told me when I called him last week. “I will run for the same reason I ran last time: I’d like to see the county run more like a business. I would like to create a new politics for Maui.”
According to his booklet Creating Mauitopia (which he published in 2009), Kopelman was once a Silicon Valley exec who moved to Maui in 1999. His booklet, which Kopelman says outlines what he would do as mayor, contains a number of unique policy ideas for turning Maui into what Kopelman calls a “real, true paradise.”
“First, why not give visitors at the airport or better yet on their flights before they arrive, a Mauitopia code of conduct of one or two pages,” he wrote. “This brochure would outline our vision and what we’re trying to achieve coupled with expectations for their behavior while they’re here. Second, explain the consequences for violating this code. Consequences could include fines, community service, and being thrown out of Maui County for varying lengths of time depending on their offenses.”
Like Arakawa, Kopelman has run for office before. In the 2010 mayoral primary, he got 111 votes. If it seems like a poor showing, it’s also true that three candidates did even worse than Kopelman.
“I was disheartened at the time, but politics is mostly a popularity contest,” he said when I asked about his 2010 run. “It’s about who knows your name.”
About Anthony Pignataro
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He started work as MauiTime's Editor in 2003, took a couple years off starting in 2008, then returned to the staff in 2011. He's the author of "Stealing Cars With The Pros," a 2013 collection of his journalism and the Maui novels "Small Island" (2011) and "The Dead Season" (2012)–all of which were published by Event Horizon Press. In 2014, his one-act play "War Stories" won second place in the Maui Fringe Festival.