With veteran Democratic lawmaker Suzanne Chun Oakland giving up her state Senate seat after 20 years on the job, three lawyers have stepped up to compete for the Democratic nomination in a district that stretches from Nuuanu to Honolulu Harbor.
They are state Rep. Karl Rhoads (D, Chinatown-Iwilei-Kalihi), former state Board of Education member Kim Coco Iwamoto and Keone Nakoa, a former aide to retired U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka.
All three promise to carry on the legacy of the hardworking Chun Oakland, who dedicated much of her legislative career to the betterment of women, children, seniors and the disadvantaged.
Rhoads, a state representative for 10 years and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee since 2013, said affordable housing and homelessness are issues that are linked hand in hand and are among his top priorities.
“It was not that long ago that homelessness was not the front-and-center issue it is today. Susie (Chun Oakland) focused on the issue long before it was popular to do so,” he wrote on his campaign website, adding that he intends to “follow in her footsteps.”
In an interview, Rhoads said he has a notable record of pushing for affordable housing. A bill he introduced provided the funding to keep Kukui Gardens affordable, and, with his support, Mayor Wright Homes is being redeveloped to improve living conditions and to increase the number of available units. The affordable Senior Residence at Iwilei is also being built.
The private sector can make more money developing luxury towers and selling them to offshore buyers, Rhoads said, so it’s important for lawmakers to step in.
“Without some government intervention, affordable housing is just not going to get built,” he said.
Rhoads, 53, a former Downtown Neighborhood Board member, said his decade of representing an urban constituency has prepared him well for the Senate district. He said he will continue to push for safer neighborhoods, an improved educational system and an end to involuntary homelessness.
Although it would appear Rhoads, as a legislator, is the front-runner in this race, he’s not taking that notion for granted.
“I’ve been an underdog in the past. I’m not counting my chickens,” he said.
Iwamoto, a retired attorney who is owner and property manager of AQuA Rentals LLC, said Chun Oakland walked her district four times a year — every year — to interact with her constituents in person.
“I would like to follow in her footsteps,” she said.
Iwamoto, 48, was elected to the Board of Education in 2006 and 2010. She was appointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie to serve a four-year term on the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission in 2012. In 2013 she was one of 10 openly LGBT elected or appointed officials honored by the White House as “Harvey Milk Champions of Change.”
Iwamoto said the biggest issue the district and state face is homelessness.
“I am the only candidate that has been working on the front lines, providing the homeless with direct services or housing since 2001,” she said.
She said her public-interest legal career started in 2001 as homeless outreach coordinator, offering legal clinics in shelters. She also fostered teenagers who have endured homelessness.
“As a small-business owner, I manage apartments, half of which are offered to low-income or previously homeless residents,” she said.
Iwamoto said lawmakers need to work to prevent families from slipping into homelessness by legislating a livable wage that keeps up with the cost of living.
The state should be ashamed that the children of some of its full-time state Department of Education employees are eligible for free and reduced lunch, she said.
Iwamoto said the state needs to increase the inventory of affordable rental housing by requiring developers to take care of it before granting permits for the luxury condos.
“The luxury condos being built for the world’s wealthiest individuals directly increase the costs of land and labor when trying to build an affordable-housing project,” she said.
Keone Nakoa, 30, is a newcomer to elective politics but not to the district. He was born within the district and grew up in Nuuanu and Pauoa.
After graduating from ‘Iolani School and Harvard University, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for Sen. Akaka. It was there that he was inspired to follow a career of public service and run for elective office.
“I could see the difference you can make in people’s lives,” he said.
Before doing so, he decided to round out his educational experience by earning a law degree and Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Hawaii.
Nakoa met with Chun Oakland to tell her he was going to run for the seat even before the senator announced she would be retiring. He vowed he would carrying on her legacy by working on a range of issues regarding women, children and seniors, including providing adequate resources for caregivers to allow more seniors to stay in their own homes.
Nakoa said the district includes some of Hawaii’s hardest-hit areas for the homeless, and that he would work to find solutions to the problem. He said he supports the Housing First concept of getting the homeless off the streets — no questions asked — and then working to address any mental health problems as well as problems with addiction and substance abuse.
Nakoa said he wants to encourage more economic diversity in Hawaii by luring brainpower industries such as engineering, art and design, banking and education. These industries, he said, can work here in a shrinking world of the internet, where our geographical isolation doesn’t matter as much.
Nakoa said his run for office isn’t about political opportunity.
“From the bottom of my heart, I really, really just want to help and serve the community more than anyone else,” he said.
The winner will face off against Republican Rod Tam, a former Honolulu City Council member and state lawmaker, and Libertarian Harry Ozols, a Nuuanu/Punchbowl Neighborhood Board member.