Election Day Special! Meet the Surfing, MMA-Fighting, Would-Be Mayor of Kauai

Karen Wilson/ASP

“I’m actually not much of a social person,” Dustin Barca admitted to surfer mag Stab back in the spring of 2013, a year before he announced his candidacy for mayor of the Hawaiian island of Kauai. “I mean, I’m a high school drop-out and a surfer.”

The 32-year-old Barca, who kicked off his campaign by making stump speeches with the help of a stand-up paddle board, is more than that: In addition to being a former surfer on the professional circuit, he also spent time as a pro mixed martial arts fighter. (He first honed his pugilistic skills as a member of the Wolfpak, a wavebreak mafia of some infamy.) Now, he’s one of thousands of striving politicians awaiting today’s election results, precinct by precinct.

The island of Kauai is one of Hawaii’s less-developed locations; lush and craggy canyons comprise great swaths of the land, much of the rest of which is devoted to farming. (You can’t even circumnavigate the island by car; the western coast is too remote.) Even if you haven’t seen Kauai, you’ve seen it: The film The Descendants was based there, and Jurassic Park, South Pacific, and dozens of other movies were filmed on the island. So it’s fitting that today’s mayoral race is pretty cinematic in its story lines: Barca, a surfer-brawler who cut a man’s face with a cocktail glass in a 2004 bar fight and subsequently declared bankruptcy, versus Bernard Carvalho Jr., a former NFL offensive lineman and “The Garden Island”’s current incumbent. Oh, and for good measure? Throw a big bad corporation into the mix.

Carvalho, the first Kauai native to even earn an NFL tryout (he spent two seasons with the Miami Dolphins) has been in office since 2008, and was on-brand well before that: In 1984, he told the Palm Beach Post that even Honolulu was too much for him to handle. “People aren’t laid back there like they are on Kauai,” he said. Barca, in comparison, is an unlikely and unpolished politician, with his fighter’s face and his surfer’s solitude and his rough-and-tumble past. But he’s tried to transcend that by punching up, way up: His biggest battle isn’t the one against Carvalho, really, but the one he’s waged over the past year and a half against agricultural giants like Monsanto, which he sees as Kauai’s greatest foe.

Barca had already been involved in a crusade against genetically modified crops; last year he participated in the campaign to pass Bill 2491, which would force corporations to increase their disclosures around chemicals and testing. (Surfing legend Kelly Slater also took part in the campaign.) The bill passed, but was vetoed by Carvalho; last November, though, the County Council overturned the veto with a 5-2 vote.

Yard signs trumpeting Barca are visible all over the island, but there’s likely to be less actual support for his campaign than meets the eye. Many of Barca’s believers are transplants to Kauai; a fair percentage of them probably aren’t even eligible to vote. In the primaries, Carvalho garnered more votes than Barca by a nearly 2-to-1 margin; and while many island residents may in theory not be thrilled about genetic testing carried out on their vast local fields, they also may not be ready to vote into office a candidate who is greener than the Kauai landscape — and who may cost them their jobs.

In a mini documentary by Vice, Barca describes the day he decided he was going to run for office: He went to town for some sundries, happened upon a Carvalho rally, recognized some industry executives in the crowd, and cried out, “All you corrupt fuckers! This shit’s over! I’m running for mayor already!” He probably won’t win, but that particular brand of aloha spirit is hard not to appreciate, regardless of where you stand politically. (And on that note: ROCK THE VOTE today, dudes.)

Filed Under: Surfing, Politics, Election Day, MMA, Kauai, Hawaii, Bernard Carvalho, Miami Dolphins, NFL

Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes