The third time was the charm.
Tommy Waters won the Honolulu City Council’s East Honolulu seat over Trevor Ozawa in a do-over special election that ended Saturday, capturing 17,491 votes to Ozawa’s 16,487 votes.
The 1,004-vote victory capped a crazy extended election period that was precipitated by the Hawaii Supreme Court’s decision in January to invalidate the November general election results for the Council District 4 seat that covers Hawaii Kai to Ala Moana.
In November, Ozawa was declared the winner with a 22-vote gap separating him from his opponent. Waters and, separately, a group of 39 East Honolulu residents raised the challenge that triggered the special election. Ballots were mailed out March 21 to district voters, who had the option of voting in person at Honolulu Hale through 6 p.m. Saturday.
“It doesn’t feel real,” said Waters, after the results were announced shortly before 9 p.m. “I wanna wake up tomorrow and if we won tomorrow it’ll feel real.”
He said that based on his door-to-door interactions with constituents, the city’s top issues are homelessness, the cost of living, affordable housing “and trying to solve the rail problem, trying to save money for our constituents, keep local people home in Hawaii … . I’m gonna work hard to ensure that our keiki, like my two kids, can stay here in Hawaii and raise their families here.”
Continuing with his campaign message of bringing cordiality to city politics, Waters said: “I get along with everyone. I always tell people we can agree, we can disagree, we can agree to disagree, but let’s not be disagreeable.”
Both candidates seemed to put aside any lingering rancor from the campaign, with each congratulating the other.
“Good luck to you in the future,” Waters said, referring to Ozawa. “You ran a spirited campaign and nothing but aloha for that, brotha.”
At Ozawa’s headquarters at Roy’s Hawaii Kai, the losing candidate offered his own congratulations.
“We’ve been through a roller-coaster,” he said. “Hats off to them.”
Ozawa said he would continue fighting for the district’s constituents. “Everything happens for a reason.”
His defeat marked a stunning reversal of fortune for the incumbent since the November election.
Ozawa was on track to be selected Council chairman in January until the turmoil over the election results forced the Council to move on without him and elect Ann Kobayashi as interim chairwoman.
Former city Transportation Services Director Mike Formby was named interim Council member pending the special election.
The large turnout surprised many political observers. The 33,978 votes cast represented 49.3% of the 69,031 official District 4 voters. However, Elections Division Administrator Rex Quidilla said only 63,392 ballots were mailed out due to confirmed deaths or address changes since the general election.
In their first election faceoff in November 2014, Waters lost to Ozawa by 41 votes. His challenge to the Hawaii Supreme Court that year was denied.
Saturday’s victory by Waters, an ally of Mayor Kirk Caldwell since the two met as rookie state representatives in 2003, likely will result in smoother relations between the Council leadership and the mayor during his final two years in office.
Ozawa was among Caldwell’s staunchest critics since being elected in 2014 and was part of a five-member majority that was more hostile toward the mayor’s policies.
During the campaign, the incumbent had characterized himself as an independent thinker and check on the mayor while portraying Waters as Caldwell’s lapdog. Waters countered that he would be more cordial while maintaining the role of watchdog.
The Hawaii Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate the November results came after it was determined that elections officials violated state rules by collecting mail-in ballot envelopes after 6 p.m. on election day.
Election officials were forced to hold a revote between the two candidates after explaining they could not separate out the votes collected after the 6 p.m. deadline.
The Ozawa-Waters revote will go down as among the most expensive and closely watched elections ever held outside of the normal primary-general election cycle.
Ozawa spent far more than Waters during the 2018 campaign, but Waters turned the tables for the special election. The latter’s efforts were bolstered by $163,000 in ad campaigns by two labor-related political action committees that reminded voters of Ozawa’s frequently caustic personality.
Waters’ campaign had spent $230,365 as of March 31 while Ozawa had spent $191,588, according to reports filed Wednesday with the state Campaign Spending Commission.
During the 2018 election cycle, Ozawa spent $530,542 through Nov. 6 while Waters spent $205,168 during the same period.
Honolulu Council members make $66,576 annually.
Before joining the Council, Waters will have to wait out a 20-day challenge period set by state law. Assuming no one contests the results by the May 3 deadline, elections officials will likely certify the results in the ensuing days. The Council’s next monthly meeting is May 8, when Waters will likely be sworn in.
City Clerk Glen Takahashi estimated the cost of the special election at $250,000. It was conducted solely by the city Elections Division.
The close results, the challenge by Waters and the group of voters, and the forced special election spurred talk of the need for automatic recounts in close votes. At least one bill requiring a recount is still alive in this year’s Legislature.
Senate Bill 216 would require a mandatory recount when the results show the margin of victory at 100 or fewer votes or one-half percent of votes cast, whichever is greater. Different versions of the bill passed in the House and Senate, and the measure must now make it through the conference committee process.