Hilo incumbent, challenger offer very different platforms

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Chris Todd
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Terri Napeahi

Editor’s note: This is one in an intermittent series of stories about contests in the Aug. 11 primary election.

After two sessions in the state Legislature, state Rep. Chris Todd might no longer be the new kid on the block.

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But Saturday’s primary election will be the first time the 30-year-old Hilo resident, who represents House District 2, will appear on the ballot after being appointed to replace the late Rep. Clift Tsuji, who died in 2016 after being elected to another term.

His name will appear with Terri Napeahi of Keaukaha, who is challenging Todd in the Democratic primary for the seat that represents Keaukaha, Panaewa, Waiakea and parts of Hilo town.

Todd said he learned a lot during the past two sessions and that he has “laid a lot of the groundwork for Hilo” going forward.

“A lot of things got done (last session) that were pending for a really long time,” he said, while noting an economic development bill he worked on with state Sen. Kai Kahele intended to help businesses extend state land leases.

“It really helps to preserve our small business community.”

Long concerned about industrial facilities around Hawaiian Home Lands communities, Napeahi said she is motivated to run to look out for the health and safety of district residents. She wants to the see more mitigation of the impact of facilities, such as Hilo International Airport, Hilo Harbor, and a sewage outfall, on Keaukaha and other parts of the district.

“You have a community that has had things happen with no transparency and no disclosure, and not being at the table for years,” said Napehahi, who founded the Keaukaha Action Network.

She has collected health data for six years in the community with the help of a medical school student and said there are health problems tied to pollution that are being overlooked.

“That is the reason why I’m running,” said Napeahi, 56. “There are things that need to be done, and that’s where the decisions are made.”

She owns Papa Mu Native Hawaiian LLC, which she said is the only imu business with a federal grant of inspection, and sits on the board of the Pele Defense Fund, which opposes geothermal development. Napeahi said she sees starting small businesses as a way to uplift Native Hawaiians and others.

“A healthy community brings economic growth,” she said. “And that’s my whole theme.”

Napeahi has worked with East Hawaii lawmakers to introduce measures to address those issues.

One bill, introduced through Todd, would have created an East Hawaii water quality specialist in the state Department of Health. Currently, there’s only one position for the whole island.

She said she is concerned about pollution in Puhi Bay, where the county’s sewage outfall is located.

The bill passed the House but not the Senate this last session.

Napeahi said she her campaign is not about being against the incumbent.

“I’m not running against Todd,” she said. “… It’s for the safety and health and well-being of our people.”

A resolution Kahele introduced on her behalf urges Hawaii County to prioritize improvements to its wastewater management system.

Napeahi said the county should seek alternatives that wouldn’t involve dumping the treated waste near Keaukaha.

“In my lifetime, I’d like them to relocate the pipe,” she said.

Napeahi also has urged the county or state to create an asset fund for industrial sites at the harbor to fund emergency evacuation plans and health mitigation efforts.

In the Legislature, Todd is vice chairman of the Water and Land Committee and sits on the Energy & Environmental Protection and Finance committees.

He is an offensive coordinator for Hilo High School’s football team and worked as a distribution manager at Hawaii Paper Products before his appointment. Politics runs in his family; his mother, Bobby Jean Leithead Todd, is a former County Council member and county department administrator.

Todd said he didn’t seriously consider getting into politics until after the 2016 presidential election. He said the election of Donald Trump left him upset.

Tsuji died Nov. 15, 2016, shortly after the general election, and Todd was encouraged to submit his name to fill the vacancy.

Gov. David Ige appointed him in January 2017 just before the start of the next session. Todd said he didn’t expect to win.

“It happened really quickly,” he said. “I think most of it, that first session, you are spending getting comfortable, learning about people and the issues. The second session I was a lot more comfortable. The proof is in the pudding in the way we got a lot done this year.”

Todd cited bills for funding rat lungworm research and child welfare positions as examples. Funding for redevelopment in the Banyan Drive area wasn’t approved, but it’s something he said Hilo lawmakers will seek again next session.

“You can’t always get what you want right away or anything,” he said. “It really came down to we were going to get Banyan Drive (funding) or the lease extension bill.”

Todd said he focuses on issues affecting working families and the cost of housing in the state. He said the tax code is too generous for outside buyers, though he acknowledged addressing that will take work with the counties, which oversee property taxes.

“I do think we need more housing units, but beyond that, I think we need to have a real discussion about the nexus between the state and the counties and how we operate our tax code,” he said. “To solve a problem like housing, we really have to address property tax issues.”

Todd voted for a bill that will place a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot this November, seeking to raise money for education by taxing investment properties valued at least $1 million. He said he is not urging people to vote one way or the other.

Todd said it’s a messy way to go about the issue but noted the state has fallen behind on education funding. If the amendment passes, it will be up to lawmakers to work out the details.

Todd said he’d like to see it raise $250 million.

“If we’re going to do this, it’s not time to be shy about it,” he said.

Napeahi said she supports the measure. She teaches Hawaiian studies part time at Waiakea Elementary School

“What other remedies do they have to go get monies for our children?” Napeahi asked. “They can contribute.”

The candidates differ on the Thirty Meter Telescope, though both are against the state using the National Guard if protesters again try to block construction if the project clears the state Supreme Court.

Todd said he supports the project and the current management structure for the mountain. He’d like to see telescopes that still use cesspools to upgrade their wastewater systems.

Napeahi said Maunakea is a spiritual place for her and sees development there as harmful to Hawaiians.

She said that’s no different than “drilling into Pele” for geothermal power.

“I would like to see that again” Napeahi said, as she pointed to an old photo hanging on the wall of the Tribune-Herald office that showed Maunakea before it hosted telescopes.

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“Because I remember it that way.”

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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