When we say Hawaii is a special place, it’s more than a marketing slogan. It’s obvious when you go to a family party and see the faces of the children, not to mention the food being served. It affirms that although all of us came from different places at different times, what we have in common is far more important and far more relevant than what divides us.

We all want a better future for our children. We all want to have a community that cares for each other and believes that we can do better. We all want our leaders to work for the common good.

There will be no better test of these values than in the upcoming legislative session. Oh, there’ll be the usual speeches about change and cooperation and collaboration. But the real test will be in what we deliver. After all, ideas are important but it’s results that count.

Let’s not sugarcoat our challenges. The projected $700 million budget deficit is real. The economic downturn has led to an increase in the need for health-care services and food stamps. The backlog in repairs and maintenance for public housing and schools is over $800 million. The public pension fund is woefully underfunded. And that’s just for starters. (Let’s not even mention the $14 trillion federal debt that affects all of us but that we have very little control over.)

As we begin this session, my hope is that my colleagues keep in mind the following:

We need to be truthful no matter how painful it is. Politics should not be about the survival of the glibbest but about telling it like it is. If we need to raise taxes, say so instead of calling it revenue enhancements. If we need to eliminate jobs, say so instead of calling it rightsizing government.

We need to be bold. These are times when temerity should trump timidity. It shouldn’t be about “protecting the freshmen” or “let’s not divide the caucus” but about advocating policies that are sound, sustainable, and simply the right thing to do.

We need to seek cooperation rather than confrontation. It doesn’t mean we compromise our basic principles but it does mean that we cannot be absolutists in seeking solutions to challenges facing us as a state.

This is what we need to do at the legislature. But that’s only a part of it. This is where the community comes in. I was on a radio talk show recently and when I said that legislators don’t have all the answers, it prompted a listener to call in and say, “Then what do we need you for?” Well, most of us don’t just drop our kids off at school thinking that their education is not our responsibility. Or we don’t blindly go along with what our doctor recommends without asking a lot of questions.

It’s no different at the legislature. No one has the monopoly on answers. The best solution will be a collective one that involves as many stakeholders as possible. Otherwise, what Plato said a few thousand years ago is still relevant: “One of the penalties of refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”

One example of this is when I spoke at a class at the University of Hawaii a few years ago. Now, you could argue college students, more than average citizens, should be a little more knowledgeable about the relationship between the political process and their own lives. I asked who knew the name of their representative or their senator or their councilmember? Out of 25 students, no hands went up. I then asked if any of them had ever contacted an elected official. Again, no hands.

Let me give another example. What do many of us do on Sunday morning? We open the paper and pull out the Longs ad. We see what’s on sale and clip out the coupons to save 50 cents here or a dollar there. And that’s not unusual; that’s being a smart consumer. Yet, here we have a state budget that spends billions of tax dollars annually (and a federal budget that’s over three trillion dollars) and we don’t make the connection between that budget and our wallets. More importantly, we are alienated from the process that decides how these resources are allocated. 

James Madison wrote that politics is about the control and distribution of property. Well, we can shy away from that process and let it happen, or we can participate and make it happen. Democratic practices do demand some measure of time, some measure of commitment, and some measure of seeking common goals rather than personal or private ones.

Finally, far too often we emphasize our differences — geography, gender, age, class, race, religious, political — that we forget that we all need to work together to achieve these common goals. My favorite African proverb says it best. 

Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up.
 It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. 
Every morning a lion wakes up. 
It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death.
 It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle. 
When the sun comes up, you better start running.

I hope to see all of you at the starting line.