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Whirlwind trip for Kauaʻi Mayor Kawakami to capitals of Hawai’i, United States

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Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen, Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth and County of Kaua‘i Mayor Derek S.K. Kawakami in Washington, D.C. Photo Courtesy: County of Kaua‘i

Last week, Kaua’i Mayor Derek S.K. Kawakami found himself “sort of under a time crunch” jetting between the capitals of Hawai’i and the country.

He attended the opening of the 2023 Hawai‘i State Legislative Session in Honolulu on Jan. 18. The next day, he flew nearly 5,000 miles to represent Kaua‘i at the 91st Winter Meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C.

He and his team also met with Hawai‘i’s federal representatives and officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Homeland Security and the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

“This was an opportunity for us to discuss important issues for the County of Kaua‘i with mayors from across the nation,” Kawakami said in a recent press release.

Those issues, Kawakami told Kaua‘i Now in an exclusive interview, are far from unique.


“I think the biggest takeaway is, how much of the challenges that we all share,” he said. “I think sometimes – coming from Hawai‘i – we feel almost isolated from the other 49 states, as far as what issues we’re dealing with. But it’s clear and evident that the fentanyl crisis, homelessness, housing issues, workforce development and infrastructure are the big common denominators.”

Drug overdose deaths on Kaua‘i have more than quadrupled in the past 10 years, Honolulu Civil Beat reported earlier this month, listing less than five in 2012 and 18 in 2022. Resolving the island’s affordable housing crisis is a signature cause of a Kaua‘i county council member now nominated for state office; and Kawakami has repeatedly dubbed “infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure” as his administration’s core concern.

Kawakami provided the Hawai‘i Congressional delegation with updates about the County of Kaua‘i’s Lima Ola affordable housing project in Līhuʻe, the Kawaihau Road, Hau‘a‘ala Road, Mailihuna Road Complete Streets & Safety Improvements Project in Kapa‘a, the ‘Olohena Road Improvements project and Safe Routes to School projects recently completed at King Kaumuali‘i Elementary School in Hanamā‘ulu and Kōloa Elementary School.

Hawai‘i representatives on Capitol Hill in D.C. include Democratic senators Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono and Democratic congress members Ed Case and Jill Tokuda.

Mayor Derek S.K. Kawakami meets with Sen. Brian Schatz to discuss federal priorities. Photo Courtesy: Sen. Schatz’s Instagram account

Case’s congressional district is limited to the urban core of Honolulu on O‘ahu.


“Even though he’s technically not our congressional district representative, the one thing that I respect about Rep. Case is he’s always interested in hearing what our priorities are,” Kawakami said. “He always makes a point to reach out to us to see how we’re doing.”

When meeting with other federal officials, Kawakami discussed local flood control projects, TSA wait times at Līhu‘e Airport and potential county partnerships with Hawaiian Home Lands, according to the Kaua‘i mayor’s office.

The U.S. mayors’ conference included more than 260 mayors from across the nation. Mayor Kawakami was joined by Mayor of Hawai‘i County Mitch Roth and Mayor of Maui County Richard Bissen. The themes advertised by the conference included mental health, public safety, technology and innovation, infrastructure and jobs.

President Joe Biden – whose cabinet is filled with former mayors including Labor Secretary Marty Walsh (Boston), Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg (South Bend, Ind.) and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (Mt. Pleasant, Iowa) – addressed the conference on its fourth and final day on Jan. 20.

“You affect people’s quality of life more than any other group of people in the world,” Biden said.


Kawakami appreciates the president’s outlook.

“It’s refreshing to know we have a president that values mayors, because we’re oftentimes seen as the bottom of the totem pole, right, when you’re talking about federal, state, and then you have cities and counties,” Kawakami said. “But President Biden has basically stacked his cabinet with former mayors because I think he realizes that operationally, we’re the ones that have to execute – whether it’s infrastructure projects or responding to disasters.”

Scott Yunker
Scott Yunker is a journalist living on Kauaʻi. His work for community newspapers has earned him awards and inclusion in the 2020 anthology "Corona City: Voices from an Epicenter."
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