Sen. Bennette Misalucha, a former banking and marketing executive, and Kelly Kitashima, the director of sales at Mariott Kapolei, have found themselves in a somewhat unexpected race to represent Pearl City, Aiea and Halawa.
Misalucha, a Democrat, was appointed to the seat after the sudden death of the late Sen. Breene Harimoto in June.
And the Hawaii Republican Party chose Kitashima, who lost a 2018 council race for the same area by just a few thousand votes, as its candidate to run in the special election for Senate District 16.
It’s a seat that was held for two decades by Democratic Gov. David Ige, who along with Harimoto saw little challenge from Republicans or candidates from other parties.
Both Kitashima and Misalucha say that the biggest issue facing the district is getting help to businesses.
Shops and restaurants along a 3-mile stretch of Kamehameha Highway struggled for years when construction on the rail line impeded access to businesses. Now, the restaurants and shops along that corridor are just reopening after Oahu’s second lockdown temporarily shuttered businesses.
She says she has met with almost every business owner and landlord along that stretch. She’s heard from bars that are struggling to make rent with no clear opening date in sight, and restaurants that have seen their sales decline since the start of the pandemic.
Misalucha has also been contacting owners of the malls and shopping plazas in the district to get a handle on how many businesses have closed and which ones are in need of aid.
She plans to use that information to develop a strategy to get help to the area.
“It’s hard to advocate if you don’t know what the actual numbers are,” Misalucha said. “Hopefully we can get the data and stand on more solid ground.”
Both the candidates also want to get the businesses more greater access to CARES funds.
Misalucha said her office is in preliminary discussions in getting more of those funds to businesses that need them. She’s worried some business owners may be dealing with language barriers or may not be aware of the aid available to them.
Kitashima says that the state should have acted sooner to get those funds out and found more ways to provide businesses with rent relief. She also criticized the city’s tiered system for reopening, and believes that it should be more fluid to allow some businesses with safeguards in place to open sooner, pointing to her daughter’s gymnasium as an example.
“They’ve spent thousands on PPE, no rent relief, no deferral from landlords,” Kitsahima said. “In the same way we would treat a tenant that can’t pay their rent, why not give the same privileges to business owners about to get evicted but with no revenues coming in.”
Both candidates also appear to support the redevelopment of the Aloha Stadium site when asked during a segment of Insights on PBS Hawaii. Next to rail, the planned $350 million development will be the second largest public works project in the state.
Kitashima said a revitalized stadium district is long overdue, and Misalucha echoed that sentiment, while adding that the developers should keep in contact with the community in the area.
Those projects will be going up as the Legislature contends with a budget hole projected at more than $2 billion in the coming fiscal year.
While neither support furloughs, an idea already floated by the Ige administration, their ideas for filling the state’s budget hole and diversifying the economy are different.
Misalucha said she wants to focus on raising revenues, including eliminating certain tax credits that are no longer beneficial to the state. She also wants Hawaii to pursue other industries like technology and renewable energy.
Misalucha said she wants to work with the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism to find ways to incentivize companies to come to Hawaii. Part of diversifying the economy also means expanding educational opportunities in science and technology.
“You don’t have to leave town,” Misalucha said. “We need to create a hub, create some incentives for tech companies to access the bright minds we have here.”
Part of Misalucha’s plan for expanding educational opportunities also involves expanding broadband infrastructure in the state. A long term policy push for her would be to expand internet access for those in public housing and putting in more underground lines.
She suggested a pilot program involving Wifi buses on Oahu like those in Hana.
To shore up the budget, Kitashima wants to look for savings in individual departments. If elected, she said she wants to meet with each department to understand their needs, go over their operating procedures and help get them the resources they might need to work remotely during and after the pandemic.
She supports fewer taxes on businesses and wants the government to streamline certain processes, like permitting, to help them along. Kitashima wants Hawaii to attract businesses from the continental U.S. and Asia.
Kitashima hopes that bringing people to Hawaii on business trips could also help to increase visitor spending while decreasing the total number of tourists coming into the state. Though she works in the visitor industry, she doesn’t want to go back to 10 million tourists arriving on Hawaii’s shores every year.
Like Misalucha, Kitashima also wants to tackle issues in the Department of Education, specifically, teacher retention. She wants to keep Hawaii students that want to become teachers in the state through college incentive programs, like UH’s “Grow Our Own” initiative which gives stipends to students pursuing degrees in education.
Misalucha leads Kitashima in the money race, having raised three times as much in the most recent reporting period, covering Aug. 9 to Sept. 26.
Misalucha got more than $42,000 in contributions from unions representing plumbers, builders and longshoremen. Fellow Sens. Glenn Wakai, Gil Keith-Agaran and Stanley Chang have also contributed to her campaign.
Misalucha had $27,729 on hand heading into October.
Kitashima has about $4,300 on hand after the same reporting period.
She raised over $12,000, with her notable contributors including Dominoes franchisee Mike Rompel ($4,000) former Gov. Linda Lingle ($1,000) and Patrick Kobayashi of the Kobayashi Group ($1,000).