East Hawaii News

Hawai’i County Council District 2 race features political newcomers Kagiwada and Kusch

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In the 2022 General Election, only one of the nine Hawai‘i County Council seats is up for grabs: District 2, which features political newcomers Jennifer Kagiwada and Matthias Kusch. Only 40 votes separated them in the primary election.

There were five candidates running for District 2 in the August primary. Because no candidate received 50% of the votes cast plus one, the top two vote-getters of the nonpartisan primary race advance to the runoff during the General Election on Nov. 8.

Kagiwada received the most votes: 2,675, 33.5%. The second most votes received was Kusch: 2,635, 33%.

Jennifer Kagiwada and Matthias Kusch are running for the Hawai’i County Council District 2 seat in the Nov. 8 General Election.

District 2 is comprised of a portion of South Hilo that includes Downtown Hilo, Bayfront, Wailoa, a portion of Waiākea Houselots, University Heights, Komohana Gardens, a portion of Waiākea-Uka, Lanakila, Mohouli, Ainako, Kaūmana, Pi‘ihonua, Wailuku and Waiānuenue.

The seat is now occupied by Aaron Chung, who is term-limited after serving the district for four two-year terms.

Kagiwada, a Pi‘ihonua resident who has lived in the district for about nine years, works as the legislative assistant for District 1 Councilwoman Heather Kimball. In the job, the 57-year-old works with constituents and county departments, and helps craft and write reports, resolutions and bills. She’s had the position for two years.

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Kagiwada has also worked as a resource teacher, substitute teacher and an instructional coach. She was the coordinator for the Hawai‘i Island Women’s March in 2018, 2019 and 2020. Before moving to Hilo, she spent nearly 10 years working on state and county policies and providing technical assistance to counties on issues related to the well-being of children. She’s also worked nationally, setting up child care programs for federal employees.

Kagiwada and her husband, Geoff Bower, have two children.

Kusch, a former first responder, retired in 2020 as a battalion chief after 25 years of service with the Hawai‘i Fire Department. He has owned and operated a company that builds, renovates and manages affordable homes and rentals for 22 years. The 56-year-old, a resident of Kaʻūmana who has lived in District 2 for the past 11 years, also held other positions in small boat commercial marine services, tourism and restaurants.

Kusch has volunteered around the island, serving various organizations including the West Hawai‘i Fisheries Council, Hawai‘i County Cost of Government Commission and Downtown Hilo Business Improvement District Steering Committee.

He has served as president and in other positions for the E.B. deSilva Elementary Parent-Teacher Association, president of the E.B. deSilva Elementary School Community Council and president and in other positions for Hilo Bayfront Trails Inc. Kusch also served as an American Youth Soccer Organization coach and a lifeguard/volunteer for several “Project Grad” safe graduations around the island and with various Big Island environmental and cultural resource conservations projects.

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He and his wife, Sunita, have three children.

Kagiwada has enjoyed working with the District 1 community and county government in her current position. She is seeking the District 2 seat because she loves Hilo and wants to give back to the community where she lives, works and raised her children. She said her education, training and experience have all made her ready to represent District 2.

“I have a master’s degree in early childhood education with an emphasis in public policy development,” Kagiwada told Big Island Now. “I have spent the past two years working at the Council, creating policy but also building relationships within county government and community organizations. I’ve also worked in settings where diverse viewpoints are strongly expressed and I’ve learned how to turn opposing views into a positive part of a productive process.”

Kusch worked in all of the island’s districts as a firefighter and emergency medical technician, helping people during their greatest times of need and vulnerability. He said he’s had the unique opportunity to learn about the history and challenges of the Big Island’s diverse communities directly from their residents.

“These career experiences and a lifetime passion for community service have inspired me to seek a seat at Council to use my knowledge and track record of getting things done for Hawai‘i County,” Kusch told Big Island Now. “It is my sincere goal to support and elevate the future of our children, our workers, our kupuna, our fragile environment and amazing culture.”

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Both candidates respect Chung’s service and contributions to the Council and County, but said they would blaze their own trails if elected to represent District 2.

“I view this position as an opportunity for me to be of service to the community as a full-time, fully participating council member,” Kagiwada said. “Hilo deserves someone who is 100% committed to this job.

“While I recognize the importance of our shared history, and learn from it to shape our future, I definitely see a more progressive horizon for our county government: tackling our housing issue, our homeless, downtown, infrastructure, labor force support and climate change initiatives,” Kusch said.

Kagiwada said her top priorities would include housing, making local jobs better jobs and supporting programs for keiki, especially high-quality child care and after-school programs.

Kusch said his main priorities would be improving downtown Hilo, affordable homes and infrastructure.

Big Island Now asked both candidates specifically about the overcrowding at Hawai‘i Community Correctional Center and about the possibility of relocating the state jail from its current location in a residential neighborhood. The Council recently approved a resolution, introduced by Chung, in support of moving the correctional facility.

“We need to put pressure on the state to move the jail to a more appropriate location,” Kagiwada said. “Council member Chung started the ball rolling with Resolution 559-22, but we need to find additional ways to compel the state to act.”

Kusch said: “This is an issue that will continue in Aaron’s footsteps: supporting the relocation of the jail to a better suited area. When this property was developed, it was the edge of town. It was clearly a gross misrepresentation to expand the jail without any public input. If that simple step had been taken, I’m certain we would be building elsewhere already. I will continue with that effort.”

Next topic: Homelessness

Kagiwada said: “This past budget cycle, the County Council approved approximately $9.5 million [per] year for five years to the Office of Housing [and Community Development] to address homelessness. I am in favor of the Office of Housing providing data indicators and reporting on outcome measures regarding program planning and spending. It is up to the administration to do the work and up to the Council to monitor, share with the public and provide feedback.”

Kusch didn’t provide a direct comment to Big Island Now about how he would tackle the issue, but he does include addressing homelessness as part of improving Downtown Hilo. He also listed affordable housing as one of his top priorities. 

“We need to support the heart and history of our town: Downtown Hilo,” he says on his website. “First, we start with treating our homeless/houseless population with dignity by providing options to help them get off the streets. I worked at Central Fire Station for nearly 10 years and used to know many of the homeless on a first-name basis. We can employ programs to support our police and fire/(emergency medical services) workers to better serve our homeless population and assist them into a more productive and stable life under a roof.”

Kagiwada said Hilo is a special place, with many residents throughout the state having roots in the Big Island’s largest community.

“It is the quintessential Old Hawaiian town and people here love that,” she said. “I want to ensure that as we grow and develop, we don’t lose what makes Hilo special. Any improvements to the area must be viewed through that lens.”

Kusch waited to seek a seat at the Council table until redistricting was finished to make sure his values lined up with those of the people he is asking to represent.

“As the district lines settled, it was clear that I share those values many in the district hold dear,” he said. “As do many on the island, as I have learned over the years working in the various districts.”

Voters should already have received their ballots for the 2022 general election in the mail. Voted ballots must be received no later than 7 p.m. the night of the election, Nov. 8, to be counted. You can drop your ballot in a drop box or at one of the County’s voter service centers.

If you plan to return your ballot via mail, the U.S. Postal Service recommends sending it by Nov. 3.

To learn more about Kagiwada, check out her campaign website. You can visit Kusch’s campaign website to find more about him.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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