SECOND OF TWO PARTS
Mike and Jeanine Wong have what many couples envy: a nice house on a quiet street in a prosperous neighborhood.
But Mike Wong is working two jobs to stay above water in a bad economy. Unsatisfied with the quality and overcrowding at traditional public schools, Jeanine Wong is teaching their three children – 13, 10 and 9 – at home in partnership with the Hawaii Technology Academy, a public charter school. They worry about education and crime and what their community might look like when their children grow up.
"Everybody is struggling," said Wong, a stevedore who also works part-time doing loss mitigation for a real estate office. "You know times are tough when stevedores have to get part-time jobs."
The Wongs, who live at Iwalani in Kapolei, are the kind of voters who make West Oahu’s House district 40 among the most competitive in the state. Wong used to vote mostly for Republicans. His wife voted mostly for Democrats. Now, they follow their instincts, not political parties.
"We don’t vote party anymore," he said. "We vote for the person."
Former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, according to the Hawaii Poll taken for the Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now, is doing better than former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann among independents in the Democratic primary for governor. The former congressman is also performing well on Oahu, where voters are the most familiar with the candidates.
Hannemann must win back independents here and in other swing districts to help offset Abercrombie’s strength with traditional Democrats who are among the most likely to vote Saturday.
The state House district here is among the fastest-growing in the state. As the evolving second city, Kapolei has been designed as a magnet for public and private-sector development over the next two decades.
Honolulu’s $5.5 billion rail project is scheduled to start with a station in East Kapolei. A new regional shopping mall and business complex is planned as a companion on land leased from the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. The University of Hawaii-West Oahu hopes to expand its campus nearby. The Salvation Army’s Kroc Center is going in across the road from the university. Disney has a new resort, Aulani, in the works at Ko Olina Resort & Marina.
Hoopili, a planned community that would add more than 11,000 new homes, is on the drawing board between Kapolei, Ewa and Waipahu.
Many residents here say economic recovery is the most important issue in the primary. But residents also talk about quality-of-life concerns – the first being traffic – and whether the candidates can appreciate their everyday struggles.
"I think people, in general, are working hard to make ends meet," said Carl Vincenti, a business consultant and retired Marine whose wife works as an estimator and office manager at a body shop.
Vincenti, who lives at Kapolei Knolls, said residents are open to the message of change, but want real change and not "more or less words that have no meaning." He also does not believe the candidates have adequately addressed the financial challenges facing the state.
"We’re not paying enough attention to the economy," he said.
Abercrombie said at a forum last week that he would not raise the general excise tax – the state’s main source of revenue – and would prioritize state services rather than significantly increase state spending to finance his new ideas for early childhood education and alternative energy.
Hannemann has vowed not to raise the general excise tax in the short term but said he would know more about the state’s finances after an audit he would conduct. His economic plan includes following through on rail and infrastructure improvements to airports, harbors and highways.
Many residents here put education next to the economy as their biggest worry. Both Abercrombie and Hannemann have said they would not have authorized teacher furloughs – as Gov. Linda Lingle and educators did last year to help with the state’s budget deficit – and have talked about empowering school principals. But Abercrombie, who wants to decentralize power down to the school level, appears to be connecting more on education.
George Furtado, who is retired from the Army and lives in Kaupea, a Hawaiian Homes subdivision, said teacher furloughs were a mistake. "It was a huge concern for people here," he said. "That’s still on everyone’s mind."
Furtado said he is not convinced the candidates have the answer for how to shield education from the kind of budget cuts that led to furloughs. "It just doesn’t sound like they’ve got a handle on it," he said. "So far, it’s promises, promises."
While many residents are relieved by the new North-South Road, commutes can still be intolerable. Furtado says it often takes him 55 to 60 minutes to make the roughly 20-mile drive to downtown Honolulu.
Voters here favored the rail transit project 64 percent to 36 percent in 2008, the third-highest base of support on Oahu, behind districts in Waipahu and Ewa Beach.
Hannemann should naturally draw well from rail supporters, but the project still polarizes.
"It’s mixed," said Linda Young, who serves on the neighborhood board and supports rail. "I think there is an island-style mentality. People who travel see it differently."
State Rep. Sharon Har (D, Royal Kunia-Makakilo-Kapolei), who represents House District 40, said rapid growth has diminished the quality of life for many residents because infrastructure has not kept pace. She has a primary opponent in Michael Doyle, a UH-West Oahu student who was arrested at a teacher furlough protest at the state Capitol this year.
Har said the candidates have to speak to infrastructure improvements, particularly to roads and schools, to match the projected growth.
"People moved out here because government said, ‘Move out to the west side, we’ll build affordable homes for you,’" she said. "Well, West Oahu lived up to its part. But government has never lived up to its promise to West Oahu."