A relatively rare vacancy in the state House in urban Honolulu has attracted a crowded field of five candidates to the Democratic primary to compete for the chance to represent Chinatown, Iwilei and parts of Kalihi.
State Rep. Karl Rhoads, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is abandoning his House seat in an effort to move up to the state Senate this year. Rhoads has held that House seat for the past decade.
The competitors in the race to replace Rhoads include an assistant inspector general for the 25th Infantry Division, a labor lawyer, the secretary of the Democratic Party’s Oahu County Committee, a retiree who served as a city councilman in the Philippines, and the assistant sergeant-at-arms of the state Senate.
This is the first run for public office for Alvin Au, 70, a lawyer who for the past eight years has worked for the inspector general’s office for the Army division at Schofield Barracks. Au is a longtime member of the Downtown Neighborhood Board and is currently the board chairman.
He said supporting small businesses is critical because having a healthy, busy business community in the district helps to squeeze out illicit activities such as drug dealing and prostitution.
Au has hands-on government experience in coping with Honolulu’s homeless population, which is also a major issue for the district. As deputy director of the Department of Parks and Recreation under Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi, Au in 1990 oversaw creation of the city’s temporary “tent city” campsite and shelter area for the homeless at Aala Park.
That initiative was launched after the Fasi administration declared the homeless population scattered across Aala Park was a health and safety hazard. Au said gangs and drug activity became problems at the Aala camp, and at times he resorted to sending in special teams of police to maintain control of the camp. The project finally “got out of hand,” and was shut down after almost two years, he said.
However, Au said there were valuable lessons learned from the effort. The city should have done more to saturate the camp with social service providers to help the homeless cope with their problems, he said, adding that the current efforts by the state and city in cooperation with nonprofit agencies “have made a difference.”
Au was raised in Chinatown and is a combat veteran who served as commanding officer of an Army infantry platoon based in the rural areas outside of Saigon during the Vietnam War.
Au later worked for the administrations of Fasi and Mayor Jeremy Harris for almost 18 years, also serving as deputy director of the Department of the Facilities Maintenance and as director of the Department of Enterprise Services until he left city government in 2005.
Crime a priority
Firmo Dayao, 67, is a retired investment banker and financial adviser who was born in the Philippines and served two terms as a city councilman in Cebu City, the second-largest metropolitan area in the Philippines. He resigned from the Cebu City Council in 2001 for health reasons, according to published reports.
Dayao serves on the Kalihi-Palama Neighborhood Board, and said he is running for the House seat in part because he wants to serve as an advocate for the large population of foreign-born residents in the district. As an immigrant, Dayao said, he knows the challenges faced by families that move here.
Also a former member of the Honolulu Police Commission, Dayao said crime statistics for Chinatown and his own Kalihi-Palama neighborhood are alarming — far higher than the national average. If the problem persists, he said, tourists will likely avoid the area.
“Something has to be done, and I feel I am qualified to be in the Legislature to look into not only funding, but also innovative programs” to combat crime, he said. He wants a greater emphasis put on community policing, and said state lawmakers can support those city efforts with funding.
The scattered homeless populations throughout the district call for a “balanced approach” in which the homeless are treated humanely but are also pressured to get treatment for mental illnesses or drug addition, he said. Dayao said the government should create more shelters in warehouses and vacant lots, and should provide the homeless with low-cost housing.
Labor lawyer Valerie Dionne, who worked on Rhoads’ Judiciary Committee staff this year, is also running for the House seat with the goal of continuing Rhoads’ “momentum” at the Legislature.
Born and raised in Little Rock, Ark., Dionne, 47, obtained a bachelor’s degree from the University of Hawaii at Hilo in political science and administration of justice. She then landed a job working for the Hawaii Government Employees Association for 10 years.
She later returned to school to get a law degree from the William S. Richardson School of Law at UH-Manoa, and now has her own law firm where her caseload includes handling arbitration cases for the union. HGEA announced this week it has endorsed Dionne for the House seat.
The homeless issue is a major concern for the district along with matters such as prostitution, drug trafficking and the lack of affordable housing, she said.
Dionne said when she walks the district, it does not appear that the homeless problem is getting better. She said there is a need for more long-term planning to cope with the district’s problems, with more collaboration and coordination among the state, the counties and the nonprofit social service providers.
“We need some leadership,” she said. “We need somebody to step in who’s not afraid to roll up their sleeves and go, ‘Look, this is a crisis. It’s beyond a crisis. We need to resolve this. We need to get some better results.’”
Another priority is preserving the “economic viability for everybody in that district,” she said. “That means the residents and business owners and everybody. I think that when the businesses thrive, the community thrives.”
Daniel Holt, 31, is making his second run for the District 29 House seat. Holt, son of former state Sen. Milton Holt, is assistant sergeant-of-arms for the state Senate.
Holt also worked as legislative liaison for state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim for two years when Kim was Senate president, and worked as a legislative aide for the late state Sen. Gil Kahele for a year. Holt holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif.
Raised in Kalihi, Holt still lives there. He maintains that the district’s main issues are homelessness, crime and development. The sweeps to remove the homeless from other communities have increased the homeless population in the district, he said.
“We need to take it head-on; we need to keep attacking it and keep at it,” he said of the homelessness problem. “I don’t know the magic solution. … Nobody has an answer, so nobody wants to deal with it, but it’s a huge, huge issue in our district.”
Other issues of concern are the plans to redevelop the Mayor Wright public housing complex, and new development along the planned rail route that will pass through the area.
Holt said he wants to “keep Kalihi with the Kalihi feel.” He said, “I know some people don’t like it, but I’m very proud of our community.” Such an effort, Holt said, must be handled “responsibly, with the people who have built this community in mind.”
“We need to bring a sense of community back where people are looking out for each other, where people are proud to be from Kalihi so they won’t do these acts of crime or violence,” he said.
Also in the race is James Logue, 30, a former military policeman who deployed to Iraq in 2008 as part of the personal security detail of the commanding general in charge of military detainee operations in that country. He now works as a legal assistant and marketer for Honolulu law firm Coates & Frey.
Logue grew up in Pittsburgh and came to Hawaii in 2006 as an enlisted military policeman in the Army. He volunteered for duty in Iraq that took him to detainee facilities across that country, and was present for meetings between high-ranking military and civilian leaders from the U.S. and Iraq.
Regarding the experience, which gave him rare insight into how the war was run, he said, “It fascinated me.”
Those experiences sparked an interest in politics, and Logue is now secretary of the Oahu County Committee of the Democratic Party. He has also worked as a legislative aide to Hawaii island Reps. Cindy Evans and Joy San Buenaventura.
Pointing to homelessness as a leading issue in the district, Logue said his team has been been drafting plans for a new “intake center” to provide mental health services and family housing. Homeless families sometimes have to split up to obtain emergency shelter, he said.
The original plan was to put a new center on the old Kmart property on Nimitz Highway, but that site is no longer available and a new site will have to be found, Logue said.
Logue noted there are a large number of vacant buildings in the district, and suggests that economic investment into the area could be spurred if some areas are rezoned for “vertical farming” operations to produce more of Hawaii’s food locally.
The winner of the Democratic primary contest Aug. 13 will face Republican Kaiwiola Coakley in the Nov. 8 general election.