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Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 9 primary, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions.
The following came from Jarrett Keohokalole, candidate for state representative for District 48. Other candidates include Democrat Robert Harris, Republican Eldean Kukahiko and Libertarian Kaimanu Takayama.
District 48 covers Kaneohe, Heeia, Ahuimanu, Kahaluu, Haiku Valley and Mokuoloe.
Name: Jarrett Keohokalole
Office: State House District 48
Profession: Legal Fellow, Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species; Assistant Faculty Specialist, William S. Richardson School of Law.
Education: Benjamin Parker Elementary; S.W. King Intermediate; St. Louis School; University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa – B.A. (Journalism); William S. Richardson School of Law – J.D., Certificate in Native Hawaiian Law
Community organizations: At-large member, Native Hawaiian Caucus, Hawaii Democratic Party; member, Ko‘olaupoko Hawaiian Civic Club; former Kaneohe Neighborhood Board member
1. Why are you running for the Hawaii Legislature?
I’m running because I am deeply invested in this community and want to give back to the people and community who raised me. My roots run deep here. I am from Kāne‘ohe and my ‘ohana has lived here for seven generations, which gives me a special and personal perspective on the policies affecting the communities and residents of state House District 48. I think that connection to the community — knowing where we’ve been, where we are today, and where we hope to go in the future — will allow me to be an effective advocate for the people of this district.
I attended Ben Parker Elementary and King Intermediate, and saw firsthand the successes and challenges of Hawai‘i’s public school system. I grew up in a typical working-class household; my father was a construction worker and my mother was a nurse. I saw my parents work hard and sacrifice to make sure my two brothers and I had a roof over our heads and a solid education. Because of my upbringing, and now raising a young family of my own, I can relate to the hardships and struggles that families in our community face on a daily basis. As a result, I can be a voice at the State Capitol that represents and addresses the issues and concerns that matter most to them.
My legal background and my experience working at and around the legislature also gives me a keen understanding of the process and will allow me to navigate the legislature effectively on behalf of my district. As a lawmaker, I would see my role going beyond being an advocate for my constituents, to being a convener and facilitator of community engagement. Legislating isn’t just about hearing and passing bills, it’s about creating an open dialogue with your community. It’s about understanding the issues that concern them, making sure you are accessible, and engaging them in the issues that matter at the right point in the process. Too often, I hear residents voice frustration about the process — about not being notified or invited to participate in a meaningful way. These will be my priorities in office.
Finally, as a first-time lawmaker, I will bring a fresh perspective to the table when seeking solutions to problems and challenges. My community service work and my relationships with longtime residents and leaders will enable me to bring people together to work on practical solutions to the challenges facing us now and into the future. I admit that I don’t have all the answers. I want to work with key stakeholders of the district and seek input of the communities I serve to make sure that residents will have a strong voice under my leadership.
2. Are you satisfied with the current plans to pay for the state’s unfunded liabilities? If not, how would you propose to meet pension and health obligations for public workers?
With action taken by the legislature, administration, and EUTF trustees in recent years, I think the state is on the right track toward regaining control over its liabilities and making sure we meet our obligations in funding pension and health benefits. However, as more baby boomers enter retirement, we need to start taking proactive steps now to prevent placing the state in the same precarious situation it found itself in during the recessions of the 1990s and in 2008.
While the Legislature is not a party to collective bargaining, it is the Legislature’s duty to provide fiscal oversight and ensure we take a balanced approach to shoring up the state’s financial liabilities. As such, the Legislature should take an active role in consultation with stakeholders like the public employee unions, the EUTF, health insurance companies, doctors, hospitals, and others in the medical community to make sure we continue to maintain accountability for our debts.
In the long-term, we need to support policies that develop a more resilient economy so that when financial hard times do hit, the economy can withstand the downturn or bounce back quicker. We should continue strong support for the visitor industry and military as economic drivers while also working to diversify the economy so we don’t have all our eggs in one basket. As we know, those industries are influenced by factors largely out of our control. Economic diversification has long been seen as the solution to this vulnerability, and a move towards a “green” economy — through the promotion of industries such as renewable energy production — can and should be seen as a way forward. Specifically, I would support the development of a wide array of renewable energy alternatives, including residential energy production like rooftop solar, and utility-scale projects like community solar. Besides creating jobs, these industries also provide a sustainable source of clean energy to reduce the financial burden placed on working families due to rapidly rising energy costs.
3. Local officials and advocates have worked to address homelessness for years, yet the crisis is growing. What proposals do you have for this complicated issue?
• Support community-based services aimed at working with the homeless toward self-sufficiency with dignity and respect. Also, support safety net programs to help prevent residents on the brink of the economic edge from falling into financial dire straits.
• The long-term solution to this issue has to be diversifying Hawai‘i’s economy with sustainable, high-paying jobs and building more affordable housing. This is an issue that is directly tied to the cost of living in Hawai`i, and only through addressing that larger issue can we come to deal with this one effectively.
4. Where do you stand on labeling genetically engineered food and pesticide regulation? Are these public safety issues, or are the dangers exaggerated?
I believe in the public’s right to know what is in the foods we eat. That said, I’m not sure labeling at the state level really moves the needle on the overall issue of GMOs. This is essentially a federal issue; the FDA declares what foods are safe to sell to consumers, and will continue to do so regardless of whether the state of Hawai’i labels any particular product. I think the most effective way to move forward on this issue is to work with our federal delegation to engage those agencies that have direct jurisdiction over food labeling and safety.
When it comes to pesticide regulation, one issue that has really been left out of the conversation is the chronic underfunding of our state regulatory agencies. The most practical solution I see to the pesticide issue is to restore funding to the state departments of Health and Agriculture so that they can effectively enforce current rules that punish polluters, while also developing state pesticide regulations that apply uniformly across all islands and cover all pesticide uses. We simply cannot reduce the risk to public health and environmental degradation without addressing our state and county enforcement challenges.
5. Hawaii’s cost of living is the highest in the country by many indicators. What can really be done to make things like housing, food and transportation less expensive?
This issue touches my family personally, as well as many of the families I’ve spoken to throughout our district. Early in our married life, my wife, Ku‘ulani, and I moved to the mainland to pursue educational and career opportunities. When we decided to have children, we returned to Kāne‘ohe to raise them near our families. Like many other families in our district, we struggle financially to deal with the cost of housing, utilities, transportation costs, student loans, and childcare. We must address these issues head-on or risk “brain drain” and see our kama‘āina families forced to make a living on the mainland and elsewhere.
When it comes to working families, no burden is greater than the cost of housing. While it is a historically controversial issue, I support sensible development. Growth is a reality; our population continues to increase and along with that growth comes the need for housing. In planning for that growth, I support directing development to the urban core, where the best available infrastructure exists to support development. I want to keep our young kama‘āina families in Hawai‘i and connected to the communities in which they were raised. In order to do that, we need to develop more affordable housing.
The cost of electricity goes hand-in-hand with the cost of housing. Our grid is outdated and is in dire need of modernization to allow all residents to take advantage of renewable energy technology. I also support the development of renewable energy sources that renters and condominium owners can take advantage of, like community solar, as a means of making the benefits of renewable energy accessible to all residents.
In addition, we should be addressing the burden of high costs of imported food by incentivizing our families and communities to grow their own food. While it may seem like a small step, the expansion of home and community garden initiatives can move us toward a more food secure future. This is especially significant for residents of our district, which was historically considered a robust center of food production. Much of our best agricultural land now lies under residential communities, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be innovative in our use of open space to capitalize on the natural fertility of our district and our state.
Regarding transportation, I’d like to continue discussions with the city about developing more park-and-ride sites in our district to encourage mass transit or carpooling as a more cost-effective means to commute and to alleviate the number of cars on the road. Finally, we should be encouraging the transition to electric and alternative-fueled vehicles by developing infrastructure to support the growing demand for these vehicles. These initiatives will take time to implement, but what they need most is the attention and support of our elected leaders and a commitment to see them through.
6. Would you support using liquefied natural gas as part of the state’s energy sources? And how can we improve the electrical distribution system so more renewable energy can be utilized to bring costs down?
Integrating more renewable energy into the grid should be the priority. Liquefied natural gas (LNG) could be a short-term or back-up source to help to transition more renewables on the grid, but because LNG is considered a fossil fuel that needs to be imported, like oil, we should be moving away from relying solely on imported fuels.
Technologies like battery storage and micro-grids could smooth the incorporation of more renewables into our energy portfolio and should be explored and, when appropriate, implemented.
7. Hawaii’s public records law mandates that public records be made available whenever possible. Yet many citizens are unable to afford the costs that state and local government agencies impose. Would you support eliminating search and redaction charges and making records free to the public except for basic copying costs?
I am a strong supporter of open government and therefore I’m not in favor of fees that have a chilling effect on open access. I do feel, however, that agencies are entitled to recover costs – such as copying fees – they expend to respond to the public records law requests.
8. Are you satisfied with the way Hawaii’s public school system is run? How can it be run better?
School readiness – by way of universal preschool – is vital to improving our K-12 public education system. Educators and administrators have reached a consensus on this issue – preschool is an important tool for improving educational performance. A child’s brain is 85 percent developed by age 5. Without preschool, children enter our education system unprepared to learn and, studies show, are less likely to read at grade level, graduate from high school, and succeed in life. Every child should have access to pre-kindergarten school readiness programs to be ready to learn by the time they enter kindergarten.
At the K-12 level, we also need to focus on equipping our public schools with the tools they need to effectively educate our children and prepare them to move on to higher education and compete for jobs here in Hawai’i. One way we can do that is by fostering better public engagement in our school system. The Castle Complex Redesign initiative is a great example of this. As a result of the redesign initiative, local community organizations, policymakers, businesses, parents, teachers, and administrators have come together to forge partnerships and find innovative ways to use our community resources to support our schools.
We are unable to resolve every issue by simply increasing programmatic funding; and this initiative could potentially serve as a model for how our school districts can incorporate their community resources to improve schools from the ground-up.
9. There is a desire to grow the economy through new development yet also a need to protect our limited environmental resources. How would you balance these competing interests?
The modern day mantra “Keep the Country Country” could describe the efforts to prevent development in places like Waiāhole and Waikāne in the 1970s in Windward O‘ahu. From these and other historic movements, it’s clear that residents along the Windward coast and on the North Shore treasure a more rural lifestyle with special attention to protecting agriculture and natural resources, such as Kāne‘ohe Bay. I also support these sentiments. As I mentioned previously, I support sensible development. Growth is a reality as our population continues to increase. With growth comes the need for housing. In planning for that growth, I support directing large-scale development to the urban core, where the best available infrastructure exists to support development.
I also support the move toward a more “green” economy with a focus on renewable energy to spur economic growth and jobs and to decrease the use of fossil fuels for energy. I also support “green” building practices such as using sustainable building products to be more eco-friendly. We need not be trailblazers; I think we can strive to follow models developed by communities in the Pacific Northwest such as Portland and Seattle, among others, that have achieved clean, sustainable growth. I think these communities have demonstrated that conscious development can be a reality without sacrificing our natural resources.
The push for food sustainability must also be part of the conversation. I am an advocate for developing incentives for the creation and expansion of more community garden programs in our communities and for streamlining the regulatory process for restoration of Native Hawaiian farming and aqua-cultural areas in Hawai‘i.
These policies could help to strike a balance between growth and protecting our environment.
10. What other important issue would you like to discuss here?
As I said earlier, I don’t have all the answers — nor should I. The job of a state representative is, first and foremost, to listen to district constituents. The overwhelming message I’ve heard from my community as I talk with people is that our government and our elected leaders have not been listening. Too often workable, community-generated solutions to our problems fall by the wayside at the state Capitol. If elected, my main priority will be to bridge the gap between our community and our government. This is a difficult task, but one I’m excited to tackle on behalf of our district. I’m proud to be from our community and would be humbled and honored to represent the people of Kāne‘ohe, Kahalu‘u, and Waiāhole.