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City Council Newbies, East and West

Honolulu City Council’s newest members share much in common, starting with youth and its sense that nothing is impossible. Leeward Councilman Brandon Elefante is 29, East Honolulu’s Trevor Ozawa, 32.

City Councilman Trevor Ozawa

City Councilman Trevor Ozawa

Both attended public elementary and intermediate schools — Elefante graduating from Aiea High School. Ozawa veered off the public track, climbing Kapalama Heights to Kamehameha.

Both went to college on the continent, Ozawa at University of Southern California, Elefante at St. Mary’s in the Bay Area. Both majored in economics.

Here their career paths diverge. Ozawa headed farther east to attend Boston’s Suffolk University Law School.

Elefante entered the workforce in the midst of the nation’s Great Recession, where he discovered that a bachelor’s degree wouldn’t suffice. “I found myself filing for unemployment insurance,” Elefante remembers. “That was a gamechanger for me.”

Elefante returned to Hawaii and, like many of the Great Recession generation, went back to school, in his case for an MBA from Chaminade University. Ozawa’s game-changer came with marriage — to a hapa-haole Filipina from Guam, a fellow attorney, with the improbable — and delightful — first name of Nietzsche. “My wife and I wanted a house and a family, but we felt we couldn’t do it in Hawaii. It’s hard here for young professionals.”

City Councilman Brandon Elefante

City Councilman Brandon Elefante

The Ozawas talked about settling on Guam, where her family had business interests, or in California, where Ozawa had a USC network. They decided instead to brave Hawaii’s high costs and “change the fabric of society.”

“We have to address the housing problem for the gap group, people from their late 20s to their early 40s, to stop the brain drain and make it possible for local people to stay in Hawaii or come home.”

On their return, Ozawa practiced law. In 2010, he tasted politics during a six-month stint as a staffer in the office of Councilman Stanley Chang. Down the hall, Councilman Breene Harimoto had hired a newly minted MBA named Elefante.

Elefante spent four years in Harimoto’s employ, watching infrastructure and development issues. In 2014, Harimoto decided to run for the Senate seat vacated by gubernatorial candidate David Ige.

Elefante promptly announced his candidacy for Harimoto’s council seat, and almost as promptly won it in the primary with more than the required 50 percent plus one vote.

In East Honolulu, Ozawa would not have it so easy. When 4th district Councilman Chang opted to run for Congress in 2014, Ozawa went after his council seat. He ran strong in the primary, but second to former state Rep. Tommy Waters. In the two-person general, Ozawa snuck by Waters by 41 votes out of more than 32,500 cast.

The new councilmen’s districts vary. Ozawa’s 4th runs from Hawaii Kai to Waikiki, including stable, more expensive suburbs. Ozawa talks about building “a vision of what we want in 30 years so that jobs will be created and the housing supply increased, enabling people to come back to Hawaii.” He mentions Kaimuki as an example of an older community that needs “revitalization.”

Elefante’s 8th district includes Aiea, Pearl City and Waipahu — all part of or on the edge of the chaos of new development taking place on the Leeward plain. That includes the 12,000-home Ho‘opili mixed-use development and rail transit, both of which Elefante feels “will allow more families to get housing and foster growth in the Kapolei, achieving the true fruition of that area.”

Ah, youth. Ah, optimism.