Political leaders have been fodder for ridicule for millennia, and Hawaii’s modern-day pols are certainly not exempt. But when the State Legislature and governor’s office become punch lines on a near daily basis, as has been the case in recent years, something is wickedly rotten in Honolulu.

What follows is a look at several aspects involving the Legislature and the governor that I think offer insight into the current mess, and suggestions as to how both branches might better serve the common good. Some of these ideas are old, some are new, and some are upsetting. But I trust all will at least stimulate discussion and perhaps be of use.

Here are just a few of the ideas discussed in the full chapter:

Create a Unicameral Assembly

We are one of the smallest states in the union, by population and geography, yet we have 25 state senators and 51 state representatives. We also have two U.S. senators and two representatives, a governor and lieutenant governor, four county mayors and three nine-member Councils, an elected Board of Education and Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and dozens of neighborhood boards. That’s a lot of people doing the people’s work. Many of these elected officials have smoothly moved from office to elected office, learning the issues of different, though overlapping constituencies.

Does greater representation lead to greater government? That’s debatable. But it’s clear that Hawaii’s small size allows politicians to grasp the basic issues quickly, regardless of whether they actually live in the neighborhood. To wit: Ed Case, who formerly represented the State’s 2nd Congressional District (rural Oahu and the Neighbor Islands), sought election to the 1st Congressional District (urban Oahu) in 2010. Colleen Hanabusa has run for both offices too, as has Mazie Hirono, a Honolulu resident who today represents Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Kauai, and Hawaii Island in Congress.

Voters have not quibbled much with the pseudo-carpet-bagging. (To be fair, candidates like Case have lived in both districts.) But the presence of multiple unknown candidates for State House and Senate races may lead to confusion on Election Day, with name recognition from campaign signs posted at busy intersections a deciding factor in casting ballots.

A unicameral Legislature could result in a stronger candidate pool, and fewer elected officials will make it easier for voters — with the help of the media and citizen advocacy groups — to keep track of their legislative records. Let’s vote to keep either the House or the Senate, and then (I’m taking liberty here) turn the vacated chamber into a homeless shelter, seniors’ center, or day-care facility.

Have Nonpartisan Elections

Two offices with huge constituencies — the Honolulu City Council and Honolulu mayor’s office — are nonpartisan. This has not necessarily resulted in smooth relations between the two; in fact, they’ve often been the opposite. Still, the point is that Honolulu’s mayor and Council are able to govern an island of some 900,000 through public debate, consultation, coalition, and agreement, and not simply because Democrats or Republicans hold a majority.

Why can’t the Legislature and governor’s office be nonpartisan? Answer: They could, if Hawaii decided so. Loyalty to political party has a deep tradition in Hawaii, of course, and for Democrats especially it’s been a matter of great pride for the past half century. Since the takeover of the Territorial Legislature in 1954, Democrats have held the most seats in the House and Senate, and dominated the governorship and congressional seats. I’ll not address that history and its consequences here, except to say that it has produced notable milestones (mandatory employer-paid health insurance) and lingering failures (a lousy public school system).

But I will suggest that one big problem with one-party dominance is that the Democratic Party of Hawaii believes its positions and values are not only the status quo, but are also the pono way to go. That effectively negates any contribution from the Hawaii Republican Party, which is today so small and powerless that it does not even constitute a loyal opposition. The results of party polarization are clear when it comes to governance. There is rarely a serious challenge to Democrats getting their way at the Capitol.

But blind party loyalty also means many lawmakers adhere to the dictates of leadership rather than to their own beliefs or the views of the people they represent. Real decision-making is often done in caucus behind closed doors. This pattern particularly weighs heavily on recently elected legislators, who come to the Capitol full of energy and ideas, but are quickly urged to fall in line by veteran lawmakers who feel they know better.

Party politics can be a tremendous disservice, because most of the elected officials I have met and watched in action over the years are far more intelligent, thoughtful people than the sometimes simplistic platforms they supposedly stand for would suggest. Indeed, lawmakers often hold certain positions that are the opposite of what might be expected from their party label. For example: Cynthia Thielen, a House Republican, is one of the most pro-environmental legislators around, while Norman Sakamoto, a Senate Democrat (and lieutenant governor candidate this year) is one of the most religiously conservative.

To be sure, all of these politicians have demonstrated support for stands that are traditionally Democratic or Republican. But political parties can’t solve Hawaii’s problems. It takes hard work, respectful argument, and ultimately, compromise. When a party controls 23 out of 25 Senate seats and 45 out of 51 House seats, however, as has been the case in the 2009 and 2010 Legislature, might has usually made right, even when it sometimes has been wrong.

These arguments are easy for me to make. I have never run for office, nor assumed such awesome responsibilities. And I accept that there are many knowledgeable people — namely, lawmakers — who could tell me why these ideas are unworkable. . . and while they’re at it, point out how journalists and academics like me can improve upon their own lot.

Fair enough. But as a registered voter of the State of Hawaii, I think it is our responsibility to help each other crawl our way out of our fiscal malaise. I hope this at least fosters constructive debate.

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