Close Eye On The Community

David Marrotte talks story with state Rep. James “Jimmy” Tokioka at Safeway in Hokulei Shopping Village.

His neighbors and island home are of utmost importance to state Rep. James “Jimmy” Tokioka, who has a big vision for the future of Kaua‘i.

Most politicians spend the morning before Election Day in full campaign mode, but not state Rep. James “Jimmy” Tokioka. Thanks to a strong 78 percent win in the Democratic primary and no major party opposition in the general election, the veteran lawmaker can afford to take a leisurely coffee break and reflect on his long political career.

“I remember my first campaign like it was yesterday,” he says.

Tokioka remembers people encouraging him — a small-town guy from Kaua‘i — to run for office. However, Tokioka didn’t give the notion a second thought. His parents, though, were close to Maryanne Kusaka, who was mayor at that time. Kusaka approached Tokioka and encouraged him to get involved with local politics, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Tokioka wants to address homelessness, a˛ ordable housing and tra˝ c.

“I started to say, ‘What the heck, I’ll think about it,'” Tokioka recalls. “That’s how it all started, and it’s been an honor and a humbling experience ever since.”

After 10 years on Kaua‘i County Council and another dozen representing District 15 in the state House of Representatives, Tokioka has emerged as the rare seasoned state politician who maintains close connections with his local constituents.

“Because we’re such a small island, people feel comfortable to say hello when they see me,” he says. “It’s why I love being on Kaua‘i.”

Tokioka recognizes that staying connected to his community has been key to his political longevity. At the beginning of the legislative session, his office sends out a survey to every registered voter in his district, asking them questions about what issues they think are most important. His office receives feedback of 1,000-2,000 responses, and he uses these responses as his political compass.

“The focus I’m looking at this year is to make sure we address homelessness, affordable housing and the traffic,” he relays. “Those seem to be the big things that come up, and it changes every year, but in the last two surveys, (these three issues) have been at the top of the list.”

State Rep. James “Jimmy” Tokioka says there’s a big future in “smart growth” for island staples like Kukui Grove Center.

For Tokioka, he seems to navigate these central issues with an understanding that is personal as much as it is political.

“Growing up here on Kaua‘i, the focus has always been getting a piece of property with a backyard and a house, but land is so expensive, so one of the things that I think is important that we look at is how do we put housing in the core of our community and make it affordable for local people,” he says.

Continuing on the subject of the Garden Isle’s affordable housing, Tokioka sounds like any proud and concerned parent speaking of the challenges that will be faced by his children’s generation.

“My two kids are the most important things in my life,” he says of Pono, 23, and Emma, 19. “I’ve been in elected office for all of their lives, and what I am most proud of is our kids have turned out to be very good, very well-adjusted kids. We need to make sure we do as much as we can to help our local kids because … I don’t know how kids are going to be able to afford a home if the government doesn’t step in to provide housing.”

Tokioka does offer some insight into future solutions, saying that his focus outside of legislature is to work with Kaua‘i’s business community and development community to look at the possibility of building infrastructure.

He uses Kukui Grove Shopping Center as one example of possible “smart growth.”

Last year, a former governor contacted Tokioka regarding discussions with the owners of Kukui Grove Shopping Center to possibly put apartments in the area.

“So you’ll have housing there, you have shopping there, you have restaurants there close to the main bus line,” he explains. “This is smart growth where the infrastructure is. There’s sewage, electrical, parking those are the components for smart growth. If we can provide affordable housing areas like that, that’s one of the focuses I’m working on.

“It has nothing to do with my job as legislature, but that’s one of the areas I’m looking at, to do affordable housing in situations where it is conducive to the neighborhood and helpful to the neighborhood.”

Twenty-three years into his political journey, Tokioka is able to remember that his constituents are simply his fellow neighbors.

“What keeps me motivated and has always kept me motivated is that Kaua‘i is such a small place,” he says. “We can sit here, and many people will stop and say hello. Whether it’s people with disabilities that I’m involved with, the seniors, kids when my son was playing youth sports, the families of those kids, when I can help people I grew up with, people that I know, that I worked with before in my career, that’s a great feeling and that’s what keeps me going.”

Contact state Rep. James “Jimmy” Tokioka at 586-6270 or reptokioka@capitol.hawaii.gov.