The race for mayor of Maui just got more competitive

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Kelly Takaya King, a progressive who has championed climate sustainability and economic diversification while serving three terms on the Maui County Council, announced Tuesday that she is running for mayor, joining a crowded field of candidates on the last possible day. to participate in the race.

Earlier this year, King announced she would no longer run for county council and had instead considered running for a State House seat. But at the urging of her supporters, King said she jumped into the mayoral race with at least seven other candidates trying to win voter support to lead the county of about 165,000 people.

“When I thought about it, I thought the biggest impact I could have might be here as mayor,” King told a group of two dozen supporters at a campaign event on Tuesday after -midday.

During his years on the council, King advocated for and won more affordable rental housing in his district of South Maui, pushed for policies to steer Maui away from its reliance on tourism, and spearheaded a number of changes to strengthen protection and environmental sustainability. Rather than working with 50 other House members to craft laws for a short time each year, she said she felt she could more quickly enact change in the community as mayor, working with the council that has tried in recent years to make great strides. to cope with issues such as the soaring cost of living, the volatility of the visitor industry and the threats of the climate crisis.

Kelly Takaya King, who is currently serving her third term as a Maui council member, announced she is running for mayor on Tuesday afternoon. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

“It’s so last minute that you don’t think about something that big,” King said of his decision to run for mayor. “But we talked about the possibility and the timeliness of a change that may not happen again for another decade.”

With King’s belated announcement, Maui’s mayoral race is shaping up to be one of the most competitive in its history. King joins three other prominent government leaders who are seeking the Maui County Chief Executive position, including Mayor Michael Victorino, Councilman Mike Molina and former Judge Richard Bissen, all of whom have years of experience in their roles in government. Bissen has launched one of the most aggressive campaigns so far, outscoring opponents by tens of thousands of dollars.

“Never before have we had such high-profile and qualified candidates,” said Dick Mayer, a retired economics professor who has watched Maui politics for decades. “What makes it most competitive is the fact that good candidates may not win because other, perhaps weaker, candidates may take votes away from the best candidate.”

Politician wearing aloha shirt pictured in head
Former Judge Richard Bissen

Since the last mayoral election in November 2018, the pandemic has compounded many of the county’s existing problems. After decades of talk of economic diversification, half of all jobs on Maui in 2019 still depended on the visitor industry. When the pandemic halted travel, Maui’s unemployment rate soared to 35%, the highest of any metropolitan area in the United States.

Over the past three and a half years, the typical price of a Maui home has soared by nearly half a million dollars to $1.2 million, pushed by a flood of buyers from outside of the state who have flocked to the islands during the pandemic. The community is concerned that many long-term families are being forced to leave, and so far nothing has been done to prevent them from being overpriced.

“We’re just not doing what our people need,” said Stan Franco, who leads Standing Maui, a non-profit organization that advocates for affordable housing. “That means anyone running for mayor has to commit to making this happen for our people.”

Right now, the stakes are high: County Council is expected to approve a $1 billion budget this week.

While council members control the purse strings and set county laws, it’s the mayor — and the county administration as a whole — who initiates new programs and runs day-to-day things on Maui. , Molokai and Lanai.

The mayor is the county’s chief executive, serving a four-year term with the power to select and remove county department heads who oversee everything from development to social safety net programs to environmental protection. for the county’s next fiscal year, which begins July 1. It includes $58 million for the county’s Affordable Housing Fund, which can be used to help pay for home construction and cover the costs of roads, sewers, and water pipes in exchange for developers building affordable homes for families.

Councilor Mike Molina

It will largely be up to the mayor and county department heads to spend that money and ensure it pays for projects that residents can afford. Currently, the county faces increasing pressure to take a more active role in housing Maui residents, including providing county-owned land to developers to build affordable homes on.

“We just lose by not building housing for our people,” Franco said.

The future of Maui’s relationship with tourism could also be influenced by the next county leader. After rental cars and crowds emptied during the pandemic, the county’s relationship with tourism has become stark, with many locals pleading with county leaders to better control what many believe to be an unmanageable number of tourists.

Earlier this year, the council voted to enact legislation that halts construction of new hotels and visitor accommodations for two years, or until the county sets a cap on those places — whichever comes first. Victorino had tried to veto the bill, arguing that it would instead spur the growth of vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods. King and Molina, the current mayoral candidates, were in favor of the proposal.

Mayor Michael Victorino

“Our leadership needs to take a strong stance on actually managing tourism — and not just paying lip service,” said Kai Nishiki, a longtime champion of coastal access who has rallied against tourism.

In the coming months, Maui mayoral candidates will be pressed in a number of public forums to share their thoughts on the community’s most pressing concerns – from deciding who should control Maui’s water to increase the ridership on Maui’s bus systems to support the launch of the county’s newest Department of Agriculture.

Mayoral candidates are nonpartisan, meaning they do not run as Democrats or Republicans. Besides King, Molina, Victorino and Bissen, the other four candidates who filed paperwork to run for mayor are: Cullan Bell of Wailuku; Makawao’s Kim Brown; Makawao’s Alana Kay; and Jonas Lion from Makawao.

Voters will first be asked to choose their preferred candidates in the primary election in August, narrowing the field to the bottom two. Then voters are asked to weigh in for the last time in November.

A photo of Polo Beach in Maui.
The proposal to permanently cap the number of hotels is currently being vetted by the county. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

They will also be asked to choose their representatives for the nine seats that make up the Maui County Council, all of whom are up for re-election. Voters will also have the opportunity to weigh in on a number of ballot measures, including those that could require Maui County to operate as a bilingual government, create a separate housing department and ensure that residents of rural communities like Hana, Molokai, and Lanai can participate in council meetings remotely.

Coverage of Maui County by Civil Beat is funded in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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