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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Challenger has Inouye in her corner

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor

From her late father, two-term Maui Mayor Hannibal Tavares, Maui County Council member and mayoral candidate Charmaine Tavares said she learned "to listen to people and to ask people to help."

CHRISTIE WILSON | The Honolulu Advertiser

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WAILUKU, Maui The surprises keep coming for Charmaine Tavares, who finds herself the front-runner in her campaign to unseat Mayor Alan Arakawa after a convincing win in the September primary.

The latest "omigosh!" occurred last month when the councilwoman received an unsolicited endorsement from U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, revered elder statesman of Hawai'i's Democratic Party. The candidate's late father, two-term Maui Mayor Hannibal Tavares, was a GOP stalwart, and the councilwoman had followed family tradition by running as a Republican before the county switched to nonpartisan races in the 2000 election.

"I'm still amazed. I feel like a kid at Christmas who got this huge present," she said.

Even though from opposing parties, Inouye and Hannibal Tavares worked together on various projects, and that same spirit of nonpartisanship and collaboration are what Charmaine Tavares, 63, describes as the hallmark of her approach to serving constituents.

Tavares' entire political career could be viewed as something of a surprise. The former educator says she never intended to run for public office, even though politics was a conversation staple at the family dinner table. Yet she agreed to serve as parks director under her father and former Maui Mayor Linda Lingle and for 10 years the personable and well-spoken Tavares was one of the most popular members of the Maui County Council.

Even as she embarked on her final council stint in January 2005 after reaching the five-term limit, the Pukalani resident didn't see a run for mayor in her future.

But over the past 18 months, she said, there has been growing public dissatisfaction with the Arakawa administration and a sense that voters want a change. The candidate said she's also disappointed the mayor hasn't done more to improve county services and permit processing, or to promote affordable housing and renewable energy, particularly development of biofuels using Maui's well-established agriculture industry.

She attributes much of the dissatisfaction to Arakawa's management style, which Tavares claims has divided the administration and the community, and caused a rift between the mayor and the council.

"He thinks that to be the leader of the county you're supposed to come up with all the ideas and all the processes, and once it's all jelled together then you get the community involved, as opposed to the modern approach to government. The community has got to be involved," she said.

The recent controversy over county plans to send treated water from two pesticide-contaminated wells to Pa'ia households over the objections of residents is an example, Tavares said, of how the mayor's actions spawned public mistrust of government and split the community, in this case by pitting Pa'ia residents against Upcountry farmers, who rely on the wells in drought emergencies.

When a vocal group of Pa'ia residents refused to accept assurances that the treated water was safe for drinking, Arakawa publicly accused them of fear mongering. Frustrated that the mayor was ignoring the residents' concerns, the council settled the matter by passing a bill banning use of the two wells for human consumption.

Tavares also disagrees with Arakawa's approach to centralizing Maui's water systems. The mayor said connecting the systems would "drought-proof" the island, but his opponent said it would make water supplies more vulnerable in the event of a major system failure.

"There are a lot of little things, the constant finger-pointing, and the council and the community are getting worn out with it," Tavares said.

Working with two strong mayors has helped mold Tavares' own leadership style. From Lingle, whom Tavares described as a results-oriented taskmaster, the councilwoman learned the importance of working with the community and of running a tight ship. Lingle held weekly meetings with her administrative team to keep her policies on track.

"She was on it all the time," Tavares said. "There's been a real deterioration in follow-up and follow through since her time."

From her father, Tavares said she learned "to listen to people and to ask people to help. Don't pretend to know the answers, and if you think you know the answer, don't assume it's the right one. Don't commit early until you explore your options. Otherwise you'll back yourself into a corner."

Some people might think that's being "wishy-washy," but Tavares said she doesn't have a problem asking others for help to solve the county's pressing issues.

Reach Christie Wilson at cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com.