Mr. Kawakami Goes to Honolulu

Derek Kawakami realized at a young age he wanted to serve the people of Kaua'i, and now at age 33 he'll be doing so in the state House of Representatives. Amanda C. Gregg photo

Derek Kawakami realized at a young age he wanted to serve the people of Kaua'i, and now at age 33 he'll be doing so in the state House of Representatives. Amanda C. Gregg photo

Derek Kawakami heads off to the Legislature with the people of Kaua’i in his heart, knowing his roots are here

State Rep. Derek Kawakami keeps reminders of what’s important to him at no more than arm’s length.

Dressed in corduroys and a casual shirt, Kawakami explains that his “Moniquita” tattoo on the pulse side of his wrist – a term of endearment for his wife Monica – is just one of those pleasant reminders of what it’s all about.

“Wherever she is, is home,” Kawakami says.

That’s a bittersweet realization for the moment, as home for the weekdays through November 2012 will mean representing Hanalei, Anahola, Kealia, Kapa’a and Waipouli away from his wife and children Hailee, 7, and Christopher, 14. Because on April 4, Gov. Neil Abercrombie announced Kawakami would replace former District 14 Rep. Mina Morita after she accepted an appointment from Abercrombie to the Public Utilities Commission.

Though being away from home will be a sacrifice for Kawakami, he said he plans to make it as worthwhile as possible by helping his native Kaua’i.

The 33-year-old Kaua’i High School graduate has done so already while on the County Council, having led initiatives emphasizing public safety. He worked with the Kauai Police Department to set a liquor curfew in public parks and helped enact a distracted-driver ordinance that prohibited texting and using a cell phone while driving. He also introduced a bill into the Hawaii State Association of Counties legislative package that would raise the penalty on assaults against lifeguards and firefighters. Because that bill is still alive as Senate Bill 1025, he may have an opportunity to shepherd it as it heads into conference.

With wife Monica and Hailee and Christopher

With wife Monica and Hailee and Christopher

Blessed with the kind of sincerity and inherent diplomacy often lacking in seasoned politicians with platitudinous soundbites, Kawakami seems to be made for the lege.

“I’m really the mellowest person,” Kawakami says, reflecting the earnest, down-home Kaua’i style he will be bringing to the big-boy table at The Big Square Building in Honolulu.

Mellowness and approachability seem to be among the premier attributes locals hope Oahu won’t take away.

“No forget the little peoples,” one passerby said during the interview for this article, congratulating Kawakami on his recent appointment.

Kawakami took the passerby’s comment as the perfect opportunity to assure him that will never happen.

“My roots are Kaua’i,” he says. “You can take the boy out of Kaua’i, but you can’t take Kaua’i out of the boy.”

Kawakami says he’s used to people coming up to him and talking to him. “I just love that,” he says. “Still get those small-town values. You don’t have to go seeking problems, people will come and tell you.”

He expects to take on those expressed needs, many of which stem from our economically challenging times, he said.

“That’s really what sparked my interest. I saw this budgetary shortfall and saw it as a chance to make some hard choices,” he says. “We’re attempting to balance a $1.2 billion shortfall in the budget and at the same time we’re trying to maintain core services. So those that are most affected are struggling – our kupuna, the working poor and those who are dependent on services.”

Kawakami finds balance in jiu-jitsu. Photos courtesy Derek Kawakami

Kawakami finds balance in jiu-jitsu. Photos courtesy Derek Kawakami

Kawakami seems just the man to do it, as he has earned a reputable track record in terms of going to bat for the people of Kaua’i. He not only helped save the Transient Accommodations Tax, but was an advocate for HB 1040 (aimed at giving county lifeguards immunity when guarding state beaches) and has been a friend to the visitor industry. It’s with these accolades and experience that Kawakami plans to tackle his list of long-term priorities, including diversifying the economy, creating alternative energy solutions, increasing food security – goals similar to those of his predecessor, Morita.

“Former Rep. Mina Morita has been a champion of this philosophy, and I look forward to working with her as she has a key role in our future of energy independence,” he says, adding his goal is to create a better future for our next generation, which inevitably relies upon our treatment of the environment.

“It comes down to ensuring that the regulations we impose on businesses provide a fair system of checks and balances to ensure there isn’t a negative impact on our environment,” he says. “(The land) is something we don’t own. We’re just watching over it for our children because they’re going to inherit this.”

Kawakami knows that in order to tackle these issues, he will have to bring a Neighbor Island voice to the big city – something he’s already been doing as a Councilman serving as president of the Hawaii State Association of Counties.

Kawakami takes that experience to serve as the vice chairman of the Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection and as a member of the committees of Finance, Housing and Water, Land and Ocean Resources, which should be a piece of cake compared to the long list of committees on which he served as part of Kauai’s County Council. Those included chairing the Intergovernmental Relations, Energy and Public Safety committees and helping as a member of the Economic Development and Renewable Strategies committee or Environmental Services, as well as working on everything from Finance, Parks and Recreation, Public Works, Housing and Elderly Affairs to Planning.

It makes sense, therefore, with all that committee work, that Kawakami inherited a strong work ethic from his parents.

Kawakami counts his jiu-jitsu club mates as family

Kawakami counts his jiu-jitsu club mates as family

“My grandfather on my dad’s side came over from Japan with nothing,” he said. “(It comes) from our roots as humble immigrants that came to Hawaii with nothing but the shirts on their backs, giving the next generation opportunity and hope … My mom grew up farming. Work ethic is everything in our family.”

Kawakami said working hard coupled with humility has been his M.O. for quite some time – and it’s something he plans to take to the House.

“For me, it comes down to the core values you’re brought up with, and we were always taught to keep our heads low, be humble, work hard and let your work do the speaking – you don’t have to tell people what you’ve done,” he says. “At this level I’ll be one of 51 (representatives), so I’ll have to work that much harder to bring resources back home to our island and have our voice heard as to what the people’s problems and concerns are.”

Explaining that he didn’t fall into politics overnight – and noting many think otherwise – Kawakami said he was introduced to the public arena while working on Sen. Daniel Inouye’s campaign seven years ago, when he was 26.

“I think the defining moment was 2004, when Ron Sakoda and Sen. Inouye both approached me to co-chair (Inouye’s campaign)” he says, noting that he still had some growing to do.

“I was more concerned about having fun than making a difference,” he said. “I ran for (Kauai Island Utility Cooperative) and it was a trigger point that made me realize there’s a lot of ways to help people, and not too many young people were getting involved in the political process at the time.”

During his tenure as the chairman of KIUC’s Strategic Planning Committee, Kawakami set some very high standards for young up and comers indeed, especially when looking at KIUC’s goal for Kauai to generate at least 50 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2023.

“(That) philosophy is rooted in the fact that I have two young children who motivate me every day to create a future that will be better than what I have been handed,” Kawakami says. “It’s the basic philosophy that has motivated generation upon generation.”

At his swearing in ceremony with Speaker Calvin Say, Rep Jimmy Tokioka, Rep. Sharon Har and Rep. Ken Ito. Photo courtesy Merissa SAkuda

At his swearing in ceremony with Speaker Calvin Say, Rep Jimmy Tokioka, Rep. Sharon Har and Rep. Ken Ito. Photo courtesy Merissa SAkuda

With that inspiration came a desire to make an impact for change, too, he said, and feeling a personal responsibility to do so.

“I knew I just wanted to help the people, but the wakeup call was when I had kids. That’s when you start to think beyond yourself,” he says. “You’re constantly thinking of what kind of future you’re going to be shaping for them. So that’s a great decider, a great responsibility. That’s where kuleana comes in. Everybody has to pull their weight. And (serving public office) seemed the best way for me to do that.”

Kawakami’s daughter has been part of his usual discourse, he said, dubbing her his “moral compass … Her way of thinking is much more akamai about environmental issues. She is teaching me stuff everyday.”

Akamai to be sure, his daughter and rest of his family also have taught him how to live a balanced life, he says.

“I don’t mix work with family, so there are clear boundaries that are imposed,” Kawakami says, using dinnertime as an example. “I put the phone down and give undivided attention to my kids and my wife – which is a hard thing to do because telephones are so much a part of your life but a big distraction. I drop everything for them.”

It’s also in finding that balance that Kawakami has become reacquainted with his passion that he discovered just following high school in 1996: Jiu-jitsu.

“That’s my second family,” Kawakami said of his sparring mates. “What I like the most about jiujitsu is that it mirrors real life. The more you put in the more you get out. It’s a place where nobody judges you based on socioeconomic status. I walk in and it’s a family atmosphere. We demonstrate all that is right with humanity: Mutual respect, compassion and humility. I owe my life to the principles of jiu-jitsu, the ‘gentle art’.”

As for how he’ll deal with missing his keiki and wife while on Oahu, Kawakami said Kaua’i will always be home, and wherever he goes he’ll “always carry them in my heart,” noting two slices of home he will be looking forward to on weekends:

Hamura’s Saimin with the ohana, and his wife’s shepherd’s pie.