The seven Democrats campaigning to represent urban Oahu in Congress for the next two years have a lot in common when it comes to social issues.
Honolulu City Council members Joey Manahan, Stanley Chang and Ikaika Anderson, human rights advocate Kathryn Xian, state Rep. Mark Takai, Sen. Will Espero and Senate President Donna Mercado Kim are all pro-choice, hate the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision, believe climate change is a real threat and support medical marijuana.
Distinctions emerge, however, when it comes to marriage equality and making pot legal for recreational use.
Kim, the frontrunner to fill the 1st Congressional District seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, is the lone candidate opposed to gay marriage. That would not have been the case even three years ago, though, since half of this crowded field has changed positions.
Takai, Manahan, Espero and Kim each voted against legalizing same-sex civil unions when it was before the Legislature in 2010 and again in 2011. The measure passed both years, but Republican Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed it in 2010; Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed it into law in 2011.
Kim now supports civil unions, but has said her Catholic faith makes gay marriage a “very personal” issue for her. She wants same-sex couples to have access to the same benefits as heterosexual couples, just not the right to wed.
“I was raised to believe that marriage is a sacrament of the church and it’s between a man and a woman,” she said.
Kim said she opposed civil unions when it was before the Legislature because at the time she believed it would lead to same-sex marriage, which it did in 2013 when Abercrombie called a special session for lawmakers to consider a gay marriage bill.
“It’s between a man and a woman.” — Senate President Donna Mercado Kim
Despite disagreeing with the legislation, Kim said as the head of the Senate she recognized the majority of her colleagues supported gay marriage so she steered the bill toward passage during those protest-filled, emotionally fueled weeks last fall at the Capitol.
“That shows how democracy works,” she said. “We don’t always have to agree on everything. But with the majority, if you come together and believe that’s what should be, then as Senate president that’s what I did and it’s the law now. I don’t really feel it’s an issue at this point.”
Takai, Kim’s closest competition based on Civil Beat’s May poll, said he has “evolved” on the issue of gay marriage — along with his friends, neighbors, President Barack Obama and the rest of the country.
“My position in the past was wrong,” Takai said.
A first lieutenant in the Hawaii Army National Guard, Takai said he changed his mind after being deployed to Iraq in 2009.
It was a Department of Defense decision to change its policy to recognize same-sex marriages that he said made him realize how unfair it was in Hawaii for civilian gay couples to not have the same benefits as those serving in the military.
“I thought that, being the Aloha State, we should look at this issue from the perspective of love,” said Takai, who won Equality Hawaii’s endorsement in April.
“My position in the past was wrong.” — State Rep. Mark Takai, regarding marriage equality
He returned from his deployment and voted twice against civil unions, but in November 2013 he voted in favor of the bill that legalized gay marriage in Hawaii.
Espero and Manahan, both Catholic, have similarly evolved and now support gay marriage.
“I took a real hard look at my faith and I came to the conclusion that the same religion that teaches me family values also teaches me not to judge,” Manahan said.
“For me, it’s about having the same options and choices,” he added. “If government tells you you can’t choose, you create inequity and discrimination through policy.”
Espero, who voted in favor of marriage equality last year, said it’s a generational issue that reflects the transformation of society.
“I do not believe it is a religious issue but rather what government will recognize and accept,” he said.
Anderson, Chang and Xian — who said she’s Hawaii’s first openly gay, partnered congressional candidate — have long supported marriage equality.
If elected, Xian said a viable way to make marriage equality the law of the land is through the Commerce Clause in the U.S. Constitution.
“It’s an easier way to approach the equalization of access to this right, rather than butting heads against an issue based on religious morality,” she said.
“Marriage equality is a huge victory, but it’s only the beginning.” — City Councilman Stanley Chang
A ban on same-sex marriage is like only allowing Coca-Cola to one ethnicity, she said, or water to just one community.
“I don’t think it’s the state’s role to morally decide which contracts to grant to which people,” she said. “As a gay Christian, I feel we need the same rights as everyone else.”
Anderson said he would back initiatives like the Respect for Marriage Act, a legislative repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, which has let states refuse to recognize gay marriages. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of DOMA in 2013 as unconstitutional, giving many states, including Hawaii, the impetus to enact same-sex marriage laws.
He faulted the candidates who have “flip-flopped” on the issue, questioning how committed they would be to fighting for gay rights in Congress.
Anderson also took a shot at Kim for opposing gay marriage because it’s a “personal issue.”
“Has it ever occurred to Donna Kim that many people she seeks to represent aren’t Christians?” he said.
Chang called marriage equality the “civil rights issue of our generation,” noting that “the world didn’t end” when he was at Harvard University in 2004 and Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage.
“Marriage equality is a huge victory, but it’s only the beginning,” Chang said.
He supports a transgender-inclusive version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which cleared the Senate but is stuck in the House.
All seven candidates support medical marijuana, with most wanting it to remain an issue left up for states to decide as Hawaii has done.
But only two candidates — Xian and Anderson — believe the country, or at least Hawaii, is ready to legalize recreational pot.
“We’re not talking hardcore drugs here,” Anderson said. “I believe adults can make the decision.”
“I believe adults can make the decision.” — City Councilman Ikaika Anderson, discussing recreational marijuana
Xian said legalizing — not decriminalizing — marijuana for recreational use would alleviate overcrowding in prisons and give states the ability to regulate what’s in it to ensure it’s not tainted with dangerous chemicals.
“It’s not a gateway drug,” she said.
Kim, Takai, Chang, Manahan and Espero said it’s better to take a more cautious approach at this point and look to Colorado and Washington as test cases.
Those two states legalized recreational marijuana in November 2012. Colorado started allowing licensed businesses to sell it in January and Washington began earlier this month.
Both states have experienced an array of problems, not the least of which was businesses finding federally regulated banks to accept the revenue they make from selling pot. Many kinks are being ironed out — President Obama in February gave banks the go-ahead to do business with marijuana sellers — and the two states are progressing with implementation of their respective laws.
“It’s not a gateway drug.” — Human rights advocate Kathryn Xian, referring to marijuana
Takai said federal law should be amended to alleviate the banking issue. He said the drug schedule for marijuana also remains too severe. He said right now it’s level one, the same as heroin, when at best it should be level three, the same as prescription drugs like Vicodin.
If elected, he said he’d work to get the federal government out of the way and empower states to make decisions.
Kim also supports a state-driven approach and agrees it’s too soon for Hawaii.
“It could really help our economy because we probably grow the best marijuana here in Hawaii,” she said. “But it would be better for us to watch and see what happens to Colorado, what happens to Washington, and how do they handle the problems and the issues that come about. We can learn from that and then maybe look at it as a state and see what we want to do.”
All seven Democratic candidates believe climate change is real and that it threatens the country’s natural environment as much as its economy.
Chang is anxious to see more action taken to combat climate change’s effects, including ocean acidification and sea level rise.
“It’s not some hypothetical, abstract issue,” he said. “We don’t have to read statistics and studies to know climate change is happening. We can see it in Waikiki.”
Chang said he would support carbon trading programs and increased funding for clean-energy projects.
“We could be the Kuwait of renewable energy,” he said, referring to the oil-rich country in the Middle East.
Anderson said he supports tax credits for wind, wave and solar energy.
“Domestically produced energy is homeland security,” he said. “Every dollar that we’re not sending to a foreign country to buy foreign oil is in the United States’ best security interest.”
If elected, Espero said he would push for a carbon tax and fines against companies that are not meeting clean-energy goals.
“Hawaii could be ground zero like many of the other Pacific island nations when it comes to rising sea levels and changing weather patterns,” he said.
Espero sees philosophical differences between Democrats and Republicans as roadblocks to passing climate-change legislation. He noted Sen. Brian Schatz has had some of his proposals clear the Democrat-controlled Senate only to die in the Republican House.
“This is one that we should be able to find common ground,” he said.
Manahan said climate change means more to him than just a campaign issue. He recalled seeing first-hand the devastation in the Philippines, ravaged by storms stronger than any he’d ever seen there in his life.
“This is one that we should be able to find common ground.” — State Sen. Will Espero, referring to climate change
“I’m worried about Hawaii,” he said. “I don’t think we would be ready for that.”
Manahan supports increasing funding to modernize airports and harbors so the military can get supplies into places that have been devastated.
He hopes the Legislature reconsiders funding an undersea cable project to connect the islands’ electric grids. If elected, he said he would push for federal funding to help support that concept as well as others to build a clean-energy infrastructure.
Xian faulted Hawaiian Electric Co. for not moving faster to get off of oil. She’s baffled by the state’s reliance on fossil fuels considering the abundance of sunshine, wind, waves and geothermal potential. (Xian does not support geothermal though.)
“Is absolute unbridled profit so important that we have to sacrifice the good of people?” she said.
Takai, who has highlighted in his campaign how he drives an electric car and has a solar hot water heater, said he has made climate change a No. 1 priority for the past few years.
His name was one of many in the House majority that was on a measure to develop a climate-change adaptation strategy for Hawaii. The bill easily passed in April and the governor signed it into law. It includes hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding to create a plan to address climate threats.
After the Fukushima disaster in 2011, Takai backed away from his effort to create a commission that would study the potential for nuclear energy in Hawaii.
Lately, he said he’s been focused on hydrogen fuel and community solar, which would let renters buy or lease panels installed somewhere other than where they live. The community solar bill died after getting lost in the shuffle at the end of the last legislative session.
At the federal level, Takai said he would push for new clean air rules and bring federal money to Hawaii so the state can lead the world in addressing climate change.
He drew a direct link to saving the environment and stimulating the economy, saying Hawaii sends $9 billion offshore each year to import food and oil.
“I strongly support clean energy innovations that begin with conservation, energy independence, and the ingenuity of American business before we irreparably harm the environment for our children and grandchildren,” Takai said.
Kim readily admitted that she is not an expert on climate change, noting her focus in the Legislature was on other issues, such as reforming the University of Hawaii. But she said she is one to do her homework and would come up to speed on it.
“To me it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that there is something going on, that there is a change in our climate,” she said. “How big that impact is going to be is something that the scientists need to tell us. I know that the glaciers are melting and all of those things that are going on, it could certainly have an effect on human health, it could have an effect on our food security, our water supply, our ecosystems, and that’s something we should be on the forefront (of).”
In the Senate, Kim supported the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, which set ambitious goals to reduce oil consumption and stimulate energy development.
In Congress, Kim said she would work to increase investments for renewable energy resource development and transportation systems that reduce the dependence on fossil fuels.
All seven candidates are pro-choice and thought the U.S. Supreme Court made a terrible decision in March with its ruling in the Hobby Lobby case. The legal opinion lets businesses avoid providing contraceptive care to women through their insurance coverage from work if it violates their religious view.
“It was a bad decision,” Kim said. “A woman should have the right to have access to the different contraceptives. Certainly I understand more than anybody about the different religions, but again it should not be part of the workplace decisions.”
She said abortion is a personal decision, and that women should have control over what happens to their bodies.
“I may not personally believe in abortion, but it’s a woman’s right to choose,” Kim said.
Takai said he was “extremely disappointed” in the court’s ruling to allow a corporation to define coverage for birth control. He said he would support an effort in the U.S. Senate to effectively overturn the court’s decision.
“From my perspective, it clearly shows more needs to be done to protect the rights of women,” he said.
Takai expressed similar sentiment on the subject of abortion.
“I believe that decision should be left to the two best people equipped to make it, the woman and her doctor,” he said. “Government shouldn’t be interfering with a decision so personal and private as a woman’s health.”
Chang said he would oppose any federal mandates that limit access to contraception or abortion. He supports the effort to overturn the Hobby Lobby decision.
“I would never deny somebody’s right to choose.” — City Councilman Joey Manahan
“In Congress I would be a strong and fierce advocate to continue that fight,” he said. “On this and other progressive issues, I’ve been a staunch supporter from Day 1. I’ve never wavered, I’ve never flip-flopped.”
Anderson voiced similar dismay over the Hobby Lobby decision. He said medical insurance should cover all FDA-approved methods of contraception.
“We’re not talking about second-rate, questionable, back-alley types of contraceptive methods,” he said. “Your employer should not be involved in what types of coverage should be allowed.”
Xian described the court’s decision as a “ridiculous” and “short-sighted.” She said the opting-out strategy lets discrimination proliferate.
On abortion, Xian said it’s about choice.
“No one is really for abortion. It’s about the woman’s right to choose,” she said. “What I see is a collusion between church and state that is growing stronger and stronger. It’s very alarming and something that must be curtailed once and for all.”
Manahan called the Hobby Lobby decision a “huge setback” and said he believes women should have autonomy over their own bodies.
“I can’t even imagine putting myself in somebody’s shoes that has to make that decision,” he said. “I would never deny somebody’s right to choose.”
Espero believes mothers should do everything possible to have the baby if they can afford it and are capable, but at the end of the day he supports it being the woman’s choice.
He called the Hobby Lobby ruling a “mistake.”
“It shows that even our Supreme Court justices get it wrong sometimes,” Espero said. “Corporations should not be able to make a business decision with regards to contraception.”
The candidates are in their final two weeks of campaigning before the Aug. 9 primary. The winner is expected to face Republican Charles Djou in the Nov. 4 general election.
Political analysts consider the Democratic race to be between Kim and Takai, who both maintained a double-digit lead over the rest of the competition. Chang, who was third in the polls, has held his own in raising campaign money, spending heavily on advertising in recent weeks.
Djou, a moderate Republican, lost the 2012 race for the CD1 seat to Hanabusa by 9 percent of the vote, but has chance to win this fall. As of Monday, he had more campaign cash on hand — $439,707 to be exact — than anyone else in the race.
Early walk-in voting began Monday at several sites around the state.