There’s a lot of agreement, but also major differences, between the two candidates running for Hawaii County’s top office.
Both agree county government needs to be more responsive, more transparent and work for the people instead of restricting them. Both see the need to improve solid waste and recycling programs, increase speed and efficiency in processing building permits and support agriculture and aquaculture for a more sustainable island. Both see tourism as an essential part of the economic mix.
With ballots set to be mailed to Hawaii Island voters Wednesday, the two finalists for Hawaii County mayor, Mitch Roth and Ikaika Marzo, are stepping up their outreach and spending the last dollars of their war chests hoping to claim the undecided voters and step into the office being vacated by Mayor Harry Kim on Dec. 7.
Some 30,237 voters in the primary voted for one of the other 13 candidates in the crowded field, leaving lots of votes up for grabs as the candidates head to the Nov. 3 general election.
Roth, the top vote-getter in the primary with 20,235 votes to Marzo’s 13,775, is also the top fund-raiser, bringing his contributions to $365,686 as of Sept. 26, according to filings with the state Campaign Spending Commission. Marzo had $127,610, with 44% of that coming from donors giving $100 or less. Roth’s small contributions were less than 5% of his total.
Roth, 56, who’s been county prosecutor since 2012, an islandwide elected position, worked in prosecutors’ offices on the Big Island and Oahu for more than a decade before that. He has a bachelor of science degree form the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and a law degrees from Whittier Law School in Los Angeles.
He sees his law degree as an advantage in executing county contracts, and his government experience, including creating and enforcing budgets and hiring and firing employees, as a plus. But he thinks government can do better, creating spaces for entrepreneurs and business incubators by improving technological infrastructure, for example.
“The way we do that is getting government out of the way, changing the philosophy of government to a government that helps people thrive and succeed versus controlling,” Roth said during a forum Thursday sponsored by the Big Island Press Club. “When we serve as government, we allow for creativity and great ideas to happen. When we control, we stifle creativity and it makes it very difficult to get people back to work.”
Marzo, 36, who graduated from Pahoa High School, is a licensed charter boat captain, commercial fisherman and cattle rancher who started his own cultural tourism business. During the 2018 eruption that sent lava into Puna, Marzo became a community organizer, founding Pu’uhonua o Puna, “the Hub,” a community relief center for lava evacuees.
Marzo’s regular updates on the lava activity made him a social media influencer. But it also gave him a less than positive view of government’s ability to respond to the crisis.
“I don’t have any experience in government. And sometimes it’s a good thing. And if we look at how our government is run now, it’s definitely a good thing,” Marzo said during the forum. “It’s outside of the box thinking that can get us from one point to the other. I can communicate, I can bring people to the table. … I was a born leader. I was born with this gift to lead people in the right direction. I don’t know why it’s my kuleana but I’m a born leader from the beginning of time and I continue to lead people in the right direction.”
Beside their level of government experience, Roth and Marzo primarily differ on their stance on an issue actually under state control, the future of telescopes on Maunakea. With disputes over the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope and the future of the University of Hawaii’s astronomy leases in the balance, Gov. David Ige had delegated most of the responsibility to Kim, but it’s unclear how a new mayor will carry on that work.
It’s a big issue for the island. Astronomy has a $90 million annual economic impact on the island, including providing some 500 support jobs and positions for 100 astronomers.
Marzo is opposed to TMT being added to the dozen telescopes already on the mountain, and he opposes extension of the astronomy leases, saying Native Hawaiians weren’t treated fairly when the university constructed the Maunakea access road on Hawaiian Home Lands in the 1960s without clearance from the state department or the U.S. Department of the Interior.
He said the lost revenue could be made up in other areas, such as tourism and the cultivation of hemp.
“Because of the economy on the mountain, we’re going to have to close our eyes to what is happening below the mountain,” Marzo said.
Roth countered that there was more than just the revenue involved. He said quality jobs and STEM — education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — is essential to a future where good jobs keep the next generation from leaving the island.
“I support astronomy because astronomy represents not only economic opportunities but educational opportunities and the opportunity to keep our keiki here,” Roth said. “People are suffering. … We need to be sure we are taking care of our families and looking out for the future so they can raise their families here.”
Supporters of both candidates made their opinions known, posting comments during the 90-minute forum.
“Thank you Mr. Roth for standing strong for our children and families having a real future – giving everyone choices,” said Patti Cook. “Astronomy and science-technology must be a part of our economy going forward.”
“It takes a fire within your heart and soul to create the kind of passion Ikaika Marzo has,” said Moana Molale. “You can teach anyone skills. You can’t teach passion and compassion.”
“Do we want to elect someone to learn on the job, make all the mistakes and take all that time learning, versus someone who can take office and immediately start getting work done?” asked Woody Plaut.
“My vote is for Ikaika Marzo,” said Kalokuokamaile Wilcox. “He will work sunrise to sunset right next to his constituents to make this island better for everyone. Roth picks who he wants to support. Marzo helps everyone, even the ones who doubt him. Roth makes promises. Marzo promises nothing BUT his heart and hard work. There’s your difference.”
(Nancy Cook Lauer is president of the Big Island Press Club but did not participate in the forum.)