comscore 2020 Election: Esther Kiaʻāina | Honolulu Star-Advertiser

2020 Election: Esther Kiaʻāina

  • Esther Kiaaina
Name on ballot:

Esther Kiaʻāina

Running for:

Honolulu city council – District 3

Political party:


Campaign website:

Current occupation:

Executive Director, Pacific Basin Development Council



Previous job history:

• Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas, U.S. Department of the Interior, under the
Obama Administration
• First Deputy, Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources
• Chief Advocate, Office of Hawaiian Affairs
• Land Assets Manager, the Kamehameha Schools
• Chief of Staff, Congressman Ed Case
• Chief of Staff, Congressman Robert Underwood
• Legislative Assistant, Senator Daniel Akaka

Previous elected office, if any:


Please describe your qualifications to represent the people of Oahu.

With the daunting challenges facing the City and County of Honolulu, including as we address the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe that my cumulative work experience and determination can make a meaningful difference to help the residents of City Council, District 3, and all who call Oahu home.

This experience includes working in Congress and the Obama Administration serving Hawaii and the Pacific Region for 20 years, and working for the State of Hawaii, Hawaii’s largest public and private landowners, and currently leading the Pacific Basin Development Council, a regional non-profit that advances economic and social development, for nearly a decade.

I am a graduate of the Kamehameha Schools, the University of Southern California, and the George Washington University Law School. I also attended Waseda University in Japan, and the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

I believe my first-hand knowledge of how we can most benefit from federal support and funding to address the COVID-19 pandemic and other important projects and how we can leverage our state’s economic recovery will serve me well on the City Council as we work with state and federal leaders.

What is the most pressing need for the people you seek to represent, and what can you do to address that need?

Reducing the cost of living and increasing access to affordable housing is the most pressing issue facing our district both for our homeless population and for our working families.

I believe the City & County of Honolulu has a significant role to play in prioritizing affordable housing through zoning, streamlining planning and permitting policies and developing incentives to make housing more affordable for local residents.

As a Councilmember, I would introduce policies that improve the use of City properties to add on affordable housing units if appropriate, work to develop a comprehensive program to improve our aging infrastructure (water, wastewater, municipal roads), and consider other incentives to increase affordable housing.

I am committed to working with state and federal officials to ensure that creative solutions are sought to increasing the number of affordable housing units, identifying suitable sites for such units, and ensuring that community consultation is incorporated at the outset of a project.

As Hawaii faces the COVID-19 pandemic, what more should county government do to protect residents’ health?

As we continue our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, we will need to have close coordination among County, State, and Federal branches of government, deliver clear and concise public information and expand our efforts to keeping communities safe.

Continuing the 14-day quarantine for travelers entering the state, maintaining social distancing and wearing face masks are a good next step. What is key now is enforcement on all fronts. We need to ensure that the Honolulu Police Department and other first responders get the kokua they need on resources (personal protective equipment (PPE) equipment, personnel and funding) to do their job in protecting and safeguarding our communities.

We should limit quarantine exemptions on a case-by-case basis, require testing for all travelers and others at risk to exposure, and develop a coordinated system for contact tracing with state and county health officials to contain and mitigate COVID-19 infections. Reopening and restarting the economy will depend on expanding public health testing and rapid contact tracing efforts and sustaining healthcare coverage and our healthcare system capacity to respond to new outbreaks and contain infections.

That said I have concerns about the quarantine exemptions for military personnel who move here or are on work travel. Currently, they are jeopardizing the welfare of Hawaii residents who work on the bases as well as when they are allowed to intermix off-base with our general population. The County should oppose this exemption with narrow exceptions.

I am also deeply concerned about those workers who have lost or on the verge of losing their healthcare insurance without being able to qualify for MEDQUEST. If allowed, the City and State should use federal CARES funding to establish a temporary health insurance program for those impacted.

What should county government do to help residents who have been economically affected by the pandemic?

The City should maintain a hub of information and resources for residents to access online or by phone to learn about all resources that are available to the public. This hub should include information for financial assistance to help individuals, families, and small businesses adversely impacted .

The City’s funding should be prioritized and leveraged with state and federal funds
to provide financial relief to individuals and small businesses, expand rental assistance to ensure tenants stay housed and small landlords are able to make their mortgage payments, outreach to our homeless population to provide wrap-around services, and continue funding for food assistance, public transit, and work-force training and diversification. At a time when thousands of residents are out of work or on furlough, we have a willing and motivated work force to recruit and train for outreach and contact tracing programs. We should leverage all resources to fight against COVID and help our economy to recover.

Should public worker furloughs, pay cuts or downsizing be used to help the county deal with lower tax revenues and higher expenses during the pandemic? Why or why not?

Furloughs, pay cuts, or workforce downsizing should be used as a last resort to offset the loss of tax revenue and higher expenses during the pandemic. Cuts should not be made across the board because the City must maintain essential services to the public. Cuts should also be balanced with other goals to improve the existing capacity for City services and build efficiency within essential programs. Cost-saving measures by looking at unspent funds, unfilled positions, freezing new positions, delaying projects or programs where possible, or other efficiency measures would be welcomed.

As we have a growing need for affordable housing and a short supply of housing in urban areas, I will consider increasing the real property tax rate for non-resident investors to raise county revenues and reinforce our commitments to making more affordable housing units available for local families who need it most.

What specific solutions do you propose to combat homelessness?

The City has a strong role to play in connecting homeless to job opportunities, shelters, and housing. In addition to wrap-around services that are needed, increasing our temporary and permanent housing units has to be part of the solution. This dovetails with the need for increasing the number of affordable housing units for all income levels.

Our current sit lie ban doesn’t solve our problems. It only highlights homelessness, a lack of affordable housing and living-wage jobs, and a lack of health care and human services. Solving the larger problem requires a coordinated effort among local, state, and federal governments, in addition to participation and support by businesses and non-profits. The City plays a critical role in this overall effort.

Because many of our homeless population are working families who can’t afford housing, addressing affordable housing has to be prioritized on helping our homeless community.

Do you support or oppose stopping construction of the rail project at Middle Street? Please explain.

I support the completion of the Honolulu Rail System to Ala Moana Center. Oahu’s light rail project will help to ease traffic congestion by eliminating tens of thousands (HART est. 40,000 car trips) per day on Oahu. Light rail will provide a reliable and cleaner alternative of transportation (as we develop infrastructure to deliver 100% renewable energy by 2045) for workers, students, seniors and others between Kapolei and Ala Moana Center, where 80 percent of the jobs currently are.

The rail project is an investment of federal and local funds that provides more than 1,000 construction jobs and tens of thousands of indirect jobs that support our economy. Over the next few years, this project will transform communities to be more livable and walkable, leverage the development of affordable housing and infrastructure, help to improve health and lower overall carbon dioxide emission.

I share the concerns by many over costs, accountability, and transparency. As a Councilmember, I would be vocal in holding the rail management accountable to our taxpayers.

Do you support or oppose using new city funds to cover any shortfall in HART’s construction or operating costs? Please explain.

The cost of rail operation and maintenance should be considered in the larger context of the benefits it provides, like reducing the cost of owning and operating single-occupancy vehicles, reducing wasted space for parking, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, designing healthy and walkable communities, and providing opportunities for affordable housing.

The City should maximize the collection of property taxes for properties around rail stations which will increase in value, while ensuring that planning and zoning around rail stations take sustainability and affordable housing into account. The City can maximize property tax revenue around rail stations by investing in public infrastructure and having a permitting system that allows proposed development that meets community requirements to move forward expeditiously.

The City’s fiscal plans should take into account current and future needs. The rail project needs to be completed as planned—20-miles, 21-stations. To do otherwise would waste significant monies and efforts already spent by the City, State, and its taxpayers. Currently, the 1/2 percent on the GET will fund only CIP. Voters may decide to extend that tax to help subsidize operations in the future—in addition to increased property tax revenues expected from increased property values around rail stations. The GET is paid not only by residents but also by tourists and visitors to Oahu. This helps spread the tax burden to all users of the transit system.

Do you support reforms to policing in Hawaii? If yes, please explain what reforms you support.

I believe there is always room for improvement in any organization. Together we can build a new model for community safety by reimagining our approach to policing and investing deeply in our community.

As a Councilmember, I would work with stakeholders to identify areas of improvement, and what actions should be undertaken, including whether the role and authority of the Police Commission needs to be changed.

What can county government do to mitigate the affects of sea-level rise on Oahu?

Honolulu signing on to the Paris Climate Agreement and implementing policies to support net carbon neutrality and clean energy goals provide a solid foundation.
I support the efforts undertaken by Honolulu’s Climate Change Commission and implemented by the Office of Climate Change, Sustainability, and Resiliency. With its first-ever 2019 Annual Sustainability Report, the City is on the right track to planning for the impacts of climate change and sea level rise. What is needed is the willpower, funding, policies and infrastructure to meet the objectives.

Because climate change impacts everyone on this planet, I would ensure continued collaboration with the state, federal, regional, and international governments to improve our capacity and effectively leverage our resources to address sea-level rise, coral reef protection, and other important climate change-related issues.

Is there anything more that you would like voters to know about you?

I am known to be an effective advocate who gets things done. Whether it be navigating within governmental systems (county, state, and federal), in the community, or with non-governmental organizations or the private sector, I will work hard to fight for the Windward region and all who call Oahu home.

My top priorities include safeguarding public health and safety, reducing the cost of living, addressing homelessness, creating affordable housing for working families, diversifying our economy, enforcing or closing loopholes for illegal vacation rentals and monster homes, and promoting food security.

View more candidate questionnaires or see more 2020 Hawaii elections coverage.
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