Election

Big Island Casts Familiar Face in New Role as Mayor

November 4, 2020, 1:23 AM HST
* Updated November 4, 5:27 AM
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There’s a new man in charge on the Big Island.

Former Prosecuting Attorney Mitch Roth will assume the mantle of Hawai‘i County Mayor following his victory over fellow challenger and community organizer Ikaika Marzo.

Roth won 57.4% of the ballots cast (48,895 votes) to Marzo’s 40.1% (34,142 votes), according to the night’s final printout. A few more than 2,100 voters, or 2.5%, left the choice for Big Island Mayor blank, while 11 citizens cast their ballots for write-in candidates.

Roth said the reporting delays and the subsequent wait time due to vast voter turnout proved a little “frustrating” but that he was surrounded by family and friends, which made the hours of uncertainty pass with relative ease. It helped, he said, that he expected the eventual outcome. Roth also finished in first place during the primary with 31.1% of the vote, topping Marzo, who came in second, by just shy of 10 percentage points.

“I kind of did expect (the win),” Roth said early Wednesday morning. “We had a really great team. It was a ‘we thing’ versus a ‘me thing.'”

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Now, with the election in his rearview mirror and just over a month before he steps into the county’s highest office, Roth has turned his eyes to a host of challenges facing the Big Island. He does so amid something close to unprecedented times under the thunderclap of coronavirus.

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“We’re in a very interesting time in history and, yes, it is kind of daunting,” Roth said. “A lot of people are unemployed, our government is facing shortfalls. I’m kind of an optimist, though … and I think we have some great opportunities to make some really positive change.”

The first change he said he’ll make involves communication between the Office of Mayor and the public at large.

“We want to make is to make sure that our communication is a little clearer and we’re a little bit more transparent about what we’re doing,” continued Roth, specifically referencing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hawaii County Mayor-Elect Mitch Roth. Photo courtesy of YWCA of Hawaii Island.

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The new mayor was hesitant to commit to policy changes more than four weeks prior to officially taking office, noting conditions surrounding both the pandemic and the county’s response to it change drastically and with speed.

For instance, Roth said he’s heard the current administration may be planning to move away from the two-test pre-travel system within the next couple of weeks. To what paradigm the administration might transition, Roth couldn’t say Wednesday.

He noted fringe moves he’ll make to combat COVID after taking office, like pushing vitamin-D intake, which has shown promise in Israel, and improving indoor ventilation while encouraging outdoor exercise. Choices on the hard policy decisions, however, are yet to come.

Marzo had not returned multiple requests for comment as of 1 a.m. Wednesday.

The race for office

The 55-year-old Roth won the Hawai‘i County Office of the Prosecuting Attorney twice, first in 2012 and again in 2016. He earned a designation as a Special Assistant United States Attorney during his time in that office and helped found the Big Island’s Veterans Treatment Court.

Roth ran on a platform of boosting county funding while keeping taxes low through aggressive grant writing, securing more state funding, and pushing public/private partnerships. He also spoke of diversifying the economy post-COVID, including supporting the astronomy industry on the Big Island, namely the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope — an issue with which he was at odds with Marzo.

Marzo came to the precipice of a mayoral term by a different road than Roth, arriving considerably sooner in life. The 36-year-old business owner from Pāhoa is a Big Island native who first rose to prominence in the wake of the 2018 Kīlauea Volcano eruption.

A resident tells Ikaika Marzo how much she appreciates his efforts. PC: BIN Photo.

Footage of the eruption and the damage it wrought in East Hawai‘i helped grow Marzo’s name, but it was his community advocacy in the aftermath of the tragedy that elevated him to the political stage. He founded Pu‘uhonua o Puna, “The Hub,” which provided community support in several forms for those affected by the eruption, from goods to information. His efforts were put forth on a volunteer basis.

Marzo ran on a sustainability platform, which emphasized housing, food, educational, and healthcare security for all Big Island residents. He made cultural preservation and respect, specifically that of the Hawaiian culture, central to his job-creation platform, looking to grow the economy through investing professional resources into cultural programs.

During his campaign, Marzo made a distinction between astronomy and the protests against TMT on Mauna Kea. He assumed the position that the county government was absent jurisdiction to decide what happens on Mauna Kea, saying trust would need to be rebuilt between government and the Hawaiian community before any construction could take place.

Roth said he and Marzo saw a lot of issues differently, and while their campaigns were distinct, there also existed important similarities.

“I really appreciate Ikaika for running the kind of campaign he ran with dignity and respect and aloha,” Roth said. “We agreed to disagree, but agreed to be friends as well. I’m really proud that we set a model that the rest of the world can follow. You don’t have to throw mud to get elected. You can treat people with dignity and respect. You can be cordial and civil and treat people with aloha.”

Roth added he expects Marzo to play a role in government leadership in the future, though said that neither side has broached the topic of Marzo pursuing that role in the upcoming mayoral administration.

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