Third Time’s The Charm

After two unsuccessful tries for the county council, Kipukai Kuali'i was appointed to replace Derek Kawakami when he was appointed to the state House. Blessed with a gift for math and numbers helpful in sorting out budgets he also brings a strong sense of Hawaiian values to his new role, and helped lead the struggle for equal rights for gays. Amanda C. Gregg photo

After two unsuccessful tries for the council, Kipukai Kuali’i wants to encourage Hawaiian values and equal rights on Kaua’i

Kipukai Kuali’i knows how to work hard and aim high.

A Kamehameha graduate who hails from a large working-class sugar plantation family in Old Puhi Camp, knew being the eighth-place finisher in last year’s election for the seventh seat on the Kaua’i County Council wasn’t the end.

Now that he finally got his chance which wasn’t without a fight, as rumors that his selection was some kind of backroom deal in violation of Sunshine Law made headlines Kuali’i has worked to seamlessly to take Rep. Derek Kawakami’s seat on the council, while making a mark of his own.

One of his chief concerns so far: the potential threat of lost revenue from the transient accommodation tax (TAT) and real property taxes in future years.

“We seem to have avoided a disaster this year, but it’s year by year,” he says. “We need to continue to be conservative.”

Ready to hit the ground running when he took office in April, Kuali’i began his term amid contentious budget sessions.

“The night of swearing in, I went right to work,” Kuali’i says, noting he wouldn’t have had it any other way. Likening the budget presentations to a crash course for his new job, Kuali’i says he embraced the learning opportunity.

“I think it was actually a great time for me to start,” he says. “I do have a solid financial background and a knack for numbers, so it was good to feel like I could be a part of it right off the bat and engage and participate fully. I enjoyed taking it all in and asking questions.”

With his proud parents Wilfred and Patricia on swearing-in day. Photos courtest Kipukai Kualiæi

Kuali’i, who got his Bachelor of Science degree in business administration from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., says being deft with numbers was always one of his strong suits.

“I loved math growing up, and thanks to math I got into good schools,” he says.

Though he didn’t major in political science or public administration, Kuali’i is no stranger to campaigns. Having worked behind the scenes for candidates Shaylene Carvalho and Jeremy Harris during their County Council runs and JoAnn Yukimura’s first mayoral run, he wasn’t on new ground when he ran for Kaua’i County Council in 2008 and again 2010.

Having run on the platform of protecting the island’s agricultural lands, cultural sites and natural resources for future generations, Kuali’i says it’s eseential to reconnect people with Kaua’i’s traditions and values.

“I have seen the struggles my family has gone through and what Kaua’i has meant to them. There is no better place to be from or grow up and raise a family,” he says.

Kuali’i’s father, Wilfred Kuali’i (one of few who can claim pure Hawaiian descent) grew up in the lo’i kalo (taro patches) and the lo’i pa’akai (Hawaiian salt beds) of Hanapepe. Kuali’i spent the first five years of his life at Kipukai Ranch, where his father had worked and met his mother, Patricia Carvalho.

“They had my two older sisters and me, and by the time I was 5 we moved out of Kipukai, as it was kind of a hard drive in and out a 4-wheel drive up.”

Kipukai Kuali‘i at his new, long-awaited city office. Amanda C. Gregg photo

Kuali’i notes that his surname could’ve been different.

“My father was actually born in Kalaupapa leper colony. His mother had symptoms of leprosy, and so did his father,” he says. “They met in the leper colony, married and had my dad.”

Kuali’i says his father was 3 days old when he was deemed healthy, sent away from his parents and adopted by his paternal great aunt, also pure Hawaiian, and her husband, an Irish man named James Corr.

“I’m really glad I have this really strong connection to my name and family history,” he says.

It’s that sense of connection that also guides Kuali’i, who says augmenting the island’s sustainability is also part of his aim.

“Thankfully there is so much nature gives us every day the sun and the rain and the ability to grow food easily,” he says. “A lot of people use the words ‘sustainable’ and ‘green,’ but I believe in its truest, purest form, which is first and foremost about environment and health. The old Hawaiians didn’t own the environment. The air, water and land, it was all part of all of us, living.”

Kuali‘i was out front in the civil unions struggle

Preserving recreational and customary gathering rights also is a quality-oflife issue that Kuali’i is working to address.

“Something affecting our beach access is that there isn’t a clear inventory of whether it’s state or county land,” Kuali’i says. “If we went back 10 or 20 years and did an inventory of what existed, and try and see what’s been lost and see if there is a way to reclaim some of what was and used to be I think we could help ensure this problem doesn’t get worse.”

Despite having strong opinions about what is best for the island and its people, Kuali’i said he believes in listening to both sides of issues openly.

“I believe in fairness,” he says. “Hopefully people can already see how I handle myself on the council, and see that I’m thoughtful and fair, and all my decisions come from a place of someone who really loves this place, loves Kaua’i and our people.”

The Kuali‘i ohana: that’s a lot of voters. Photos courtest Kipukai Kualiæi

Perhaps that diplomatic approach stems from his experience in labor, political and community campaigns on-island and on the Mainland, as Kuali’i was president and negotiator of the West Hollywood Municipal Employees union before going on to become the first executive director with Pride At Work, a constituency group of the AFLCIO, which works to rally support between organized labor and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Washington, D.C. His job was to bring together the labor and LGBT movements, with focus on building alliances, non-discrimination and civil rights at a time when the issue of LGBT civil unions wasn’t receiving the kind of media attention or progress it has today.

“Ultimately same-sex marriage is really about treating different families the same in the workplace, community and society,” he says. “We helped unions understand that in the ’80s and ’90s, that (same-sex marriage) was a workers’ issue because it affected people’s benefits, rights and retirement.”

Also an avid community organizer and former director of the Hawai’i Alliance for Community-Based Economic Development and YWCA board member, Kuali’i, who has been with his partner, Joe Carrillo, for 12 years, co-founded Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) on Kaua’i.

Saltpanning at the salt beds

“We knew we were each other’s soul mates,” Kuali’i says of Carrillo, who moved with him from West Hollywood to D.C. and later Kaua’i. “He was more than happy to go with me.”

Kuali’i returned to Kaua’i without a job lined up, but believed he would find success at home.

“I was already hitting 40, and was always homesick,” he says. “I always came to visit, but visiting was never enough.”

The couple has worked on-island in support of civil unions over the past five years, and is now anxiously awaiting Jan. 1, 2012, when the civil union law takes effect in Hawaii.

“It will mean we can register as a civil union and have all the same rights as everyone else,” Kuali’i says, adding a celebration with multiple couples will likely take place. “We plan to (celebrate) early next year maybe even New Year’s Eve. We’re going to get a whole bunch of people together.”