When we think of politicians, we think of highly publicized speeches, attack ads, scandals, and super PAC donations. Take, for example, what transpired at the Republican National Convention last week: actor Clint Eastwood spoke to an invisible Barack Obama, Ann Romney gave a sentimental address about meeting her husband at a high school dance, and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney made overreaching promises to improve the economy.
Nicole Velasco, however is different from most people running for office. A native of Kalihi, Hawaii, the 26-year-old is committed to improving Hawaii’s underprivileged neighborhoods. She ran her first campaign for office in August, aiming for a seat in Hawaii's of House Representatives in District 30 against Roma Cachola, who previously served in the House from 1984 to 2000.
After graduating from Princeton University with a degree in English in 2008, Velasco got a job at a music production company in New York City, and later worked at Google’s headquarters in California. She moved back home to Hawaii, where she worked at the state House of Representatives, and finally at the Hawaii state Office of the Auditor.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Velasco via phone about her recent campaign. Expecting a set of canned responses, I was surprised when an animated voice greeted me. Velasco radiated confidence as she elaborated on the aftermath of the election.
Velasco told me about the voting fiasco in District 30 this year. Citing the disorganization of the polling stations, people—even those who are deceased—appeared to vote multiple times. In addition, the stations had to remain open two hours after closing time. The paper system significantly slowed down the process.
An article in Honolulu’s Civil Beat brought to light a case of voter intimidation against Velasco’s opponent, in which an elderly woman claimed that Cachola forced her to fill in an absentee ballot in front of him in her home. Her son also came forward and told the press that Cachola tried repeatedly to do the same at his house. There could be many more cases like this family’s.
According to the results, 72.9% of absentee votes were for Cachola, and 25.9% were for Velasco. When we look at the results from Election Day, Velasco beat Cachola with 59.8% of the total vote, with a clear margin of 24 points.
I got the impression that Velasco was on the people’s side. Her impressive community service record shows off her passion for improving the quality of life in district 30, so it was only natural that she was a hit with voters.
The Kalihi community was surprised when someone as unusual as Velasco wanted to run for a House seat. Even though her opponent has name recognition and enough funds to run a successful campaign, Velasco and her team continued fighting for what they believe in: improving lives of their voters.
“It’s about sincerity. It’s a question of people of understanding that I had the best of intentions, and that I really did believe that [Kalihi] could become better,” she said.
Outside of her work life, Velasco coaches a local girl’s high school water polo team. She says that because the school doesn’t have a pool, the team practices at YMCAs and YWCAs. Velasco is a former water polo player herself. She learned the sport during her time at Punahou School, and now is passing on her knowledge to a small group of kids who share her excitement for the game.
She accompanies the elderly to a fun and relaxing exercise class. The kupuna, or grandparents in Hawaiian, think of her as a granddaughter.
When she’s not serving on the neighborhood board or working with the Filipino Chamber of Commerce, Velasco is helping out the Lanakila Meals on Wheels program, which provides free meals to seniors.
Velasco is constantly occupied with spending time in her community, yet amazingly, she still finds time to exercise. When she has spare time, she paddle surfs, and on rare occasion surfs at Hawaii’s famous beaches.
“I think Hawaii is on the cusp of a new social contract in terms of what we expect from our leadership,” she affirmed.
Our government needs a face-lift. More approachable and caring young people like Nicole Velasco would bring fresh perspectives to elected office, even if only on the local scale.