Honolulu Hale will have a new council member representing central Oahu as five candidates with varying levels of experience are hoping to succeed Brandon Elefante, promising to tackle housing concerns, crumbling infrastructure, public safety and more.
This is the first time in eight years that District 8 has an open seat. Elefante is term-limited for the City Council and is instead running for state Senate District 16.
The crowded field will be narrowed down to the top two vote-getters in the Aug. 13 primary election, unless one manages to get more than 50% of the vote. The winner of the Nov. 8 general election will represent Waipio Gentry, Waimalu, Pearl City and Mililani on the nine-member City Council.
The candidates are Ron Menor, who previously served as a council member from 2013 to 2021; Rep. Val Okimoto, who was elected to the state House in 2018; Charmaine Doran, a real estate agent who worked for the City Council for a couple of decades; Dion Mesta, who is Elefante’s legislative aide; and Keone Simon, who ran unsuccessfully for state House District 34 in 2020.
“What’s interesting about District 8 is that it is a contested race,” said John Hart, a communications professor at Hawaii Pacific University, adding that any of the five candidates could win.
‘Know The Lay Of The Land’
Two first-time candidates bring some experience as political insiders.
Doran and Mesta currently serve on the Pearl City Neighborhood Board and have worked behind the scenes at the City Council.
Mesta, 39, has been Elefante’s legislative aide since 2014, and the councilman is endorsing his candidacy. Elefante said he’s known Mesta since graduate school at Chaminade University.
“He is someone that is involved and he is already a leader in the community,” Elefante said. “He has a wealth of background working in a nonprofit, and he is really engaged.”
“What you’ll get is someone who is not new to city issues,” he added. “He cares about the community, he is a man of his word, a man of integrity, he’s just an overall good guy.”
If Mesta wins, he would be the third consecutive legislative aide to hold the office. Elefante was the legislative aide for the late council member Breene Harimoto, who also worked for then-council member Gary Okino.
Hart said it’s common for legislative aides to ascend to elected positions.
“You know the lay of the land,” Hart said.
Mesta said the most pressing issues facing his district are the lack of affordable housing and concerns about homelessness.
He wants to provide more funding for existing city services such as the Crisis, Outreach, Response and Engagement program – a city initiative that has EMTs, community health workers and social workers respond to nonviolent, homeless-related emergency calls.
Mesta said he plans to work with developers to increase the affordable housing inventory, with the median price for a home surpassing $1 million.
Some of his plans include considering land trusts, increasing down payment subsidies at the city level, building affordable housing for teachers and purchasing and refurbishing existing units for affordable housing.
“We need to beef up our programs that help folks not only prevent them from going into homelessness but also get them out of homelessness,” Mesta said.
Doran, 50, has worked for the City Council for 30 years but never considered running for office until this year.
She said her motivation was her frustration with the lack of capital improvement projects to fix crumbling sidewalks; and the lack of change in issues relating to affordable housing, infrastructure, homelessness and fireworks.
She also wants to try to keep Menor from winning the seat, saying she was disappointed with his previous leadership.
She also wants to direct more financial assistance to working families who need help with rent.
“To preserve our local families we need to have more assistance for them,” Doran said. “All of our Covid funding really gives us an opportunity to do that because it’s there and it’s available.”
Doran also wants to develop an islandwide city policy that “allows districts to get fair spending” to help fix infrastructure problems such as damaged sidewalks that pose a safety hazard.
Doran said if she’s elected, she wants to review the housing policy to try to require more housing at a lower median income.
A ‘Working Man’
This is Keone Simon’s second time running for office. He ran unsuccessfully in 2020 for state House District 34 as a Republican.
Simon, 53, describes himself as a “working man” after working in the copper mine in Utah for eight years. He currently works in the oil refinery at Island Energy on Oahu.
After returning to Hawaii from Utah about 15 years ago, he said “things got out of control” with the cost of living, inflation and homelessness.
“It’s harder for regular people,” Simon said. “We need people in office that actually care for the people and have policies that will help them stay in Hawaii and stay afloat.”
Born and raised in Pacific Palisades, Simon said he’s concerned about an increase of homeless people in Blaisdell Park and wants to increase funding for addressing mental health and improving outreach.
“It’s not safe anymore,” he said. “When I was young, I would go to the park by myself. Now I would never send my wife and kids down to the park by themselves because you got people walking all over the place.”
He also wants to increase neighborhood police patrols to help improve safety and said there needs to be more community engagement with the police.
“This anti-police rhetoric that we’ve seen around the country is ridiculous,” Simon said.
Rep. Val Okimoto brings experience as a state lawmaker. She was elected into the state House as a Republican in 2018 and represents Mililani.
Okimoto, 46, was born and raised on Kauai and lived in Mililani for nearly 20 years.
Okimoto said she wants to serve on the City Council instead of the House because it’s an opportunity for her to serve her community beyond Mililani.
“So now due to redistricting, we can focus on long-term solutions and finding solutions for these everyday issues that affect our residents,” she said.
She’s never represented Pearl City, but Okimoto said she has connections to the neighborhood after previously teaching at Pearl City Highlands Intermediate School.
She said one of her priorities is to focus on economic development by “promoting development of commercial, retail and public facilities.”
Okimoto also says the problems of homelessness are connected to the cost of living on the island.
“While I don’t think it’s the sole reason that people are ending up on the streets, it does have a great impact on people being able to survive here,” she said.
If elected, Okimoto said she plans to “invest in functional, resilient and well-maintained infrastructure.” She also would support the implementation of the Transportation Implement program and the Oahu Regional Development Plan.
The Honolulu City Council is nonpartisan, meaning that politicians are free from any party affiliation, however candidates can still claim a party. Moore said that the redistricting has made District 8 more conservative with Mililani included.
He also said that Okimoto could face a challenge because of her party, but noted that she’s run a tough race before.
“I think that could create some problems for her,” Moore said. “After redistricting, this district probably has more conservative voters with the addition of Mililani. But it’s always been an uphill battle for anyone who served as a Republican, because even if it is a nonpartisan race, they still have that label.”
A Familiar Face
Ron Menor has the most political experience of the candidates, having served as chair of the City Council during which time he led the powerful committee on Zoning, Planning and Housing.
He also served in the state House and Senate from the 1980s to early 2000s.
Menor, 66, previously represented District 9 for eight years, but the new boundaries from last year’s reapportionment process allow him to run for District 8.
Hart said Menor has the most name recognition of the five candidates. His cousin Sherry Menor-McNamara is running for lieutenant governor.
Council member Andria Tupola proposed a city charter amendment that would have prevented Menor from taking office again. City Council members may serve two four-year terms. But the proposal didn’t make the city’s charter amendment deadline.
Menor has said he will focus on fixing the city’s infrastructure, creating affordable housing opportunities through zoning and land use processes, finding solutions to homelessness and supporting police and first responders.
“I would like to continue my work as a council member on the critical issues facing our island,” Menor said. “Moreover, our city faces significant challenges, which I believe require a steady, effective and experienced leadership. I’ve established a track record of providing as a former city council member and state legislator.”
“I would still like to serve my residents and address their concerns on the City Council,” he continued.
Menor was born in Hilo but resides in Mililani. His father is the late Hawaii Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Menor, who was the first Filipino to be appointed to the state’s highest court.
Pearl City Neighborhood Board Chair Larry Veray said he’s familiar with all five contenders and he’s hoping the political novices, Mesta and Doran, will come out ahead though he’s not ready to endorse anybody.
“I know Keone Simon is good, I know Val (Okimoto) is good, and I know Ron Menor has had his time in the City Council,” Veray said. “But it’s time for young blood.”