Editor’s Note: Civil Beat plans to sit down with Mark Takai’s opponent, Republican Charles Djou, in early October, which was his earliest opportunity.
Mark Takai is tired.
He woke up at 3:30 a.m. Thursday to start calling people on the East Coast about his bid for Congress, reaching out to labor organizations for support and thanking others who helped him win the Aug. 9 primary over six other Democrats.
Takai has worked the equivalent of a full day before arriving at Civil Beat’s office for an hourlong Editorial Board meeting later that morning. He has a luncheon with a business group to go to immediately afterward, a blessing at his new campaign headquarters in the evening and a staff dinner that night.
But he isn’t complaining. And he doesn’t let his sleep-deprived state affect his ability to provide long, thoughtful answers to questions about bringing down Hawaii’s high cost of living, the military, Micronesians and political party allegiance.
That’s because he’s also tired of business-as-usual in Washington, D.C. The 20-year veteran of the Hawaii Legislature wants to “knock some sense into them.”
It would be a whole new type of exhaustion, attempting to break through partisan paralysis as a freshman Democrat in the GOP-controlled House. But he’ll deal with that challenge if and when he gets there.
His focus for the next two months is winning the Nov. 4 general election against Republican Charles Djou, a formidable opponent with a sizable fundraising lead.
Takai blames Hawaii’s near-total dependence on imported oil and food for making the isles one of the most expensive places to live in the country. A stronger push toward sustainability would bring down electric costs and grocery bills, he says.
Hawaii imports $7 billion worth of fossil fuels and $2 billion worth of food every year, he says, reciting numbers he’s used throughout his campaign. Takai says that’s almost like building two Honolulu rail projects every year.
“It’s not only a matter of economics, it’s a matter of food security.” — Mark Takai
If elected to represent urban Oahu’s 1st Congressional District, Takai says he would strive to bring more federal money to Hawaii for hydrogen fuel stations. There are currently three, all on Oahu military bases, but he sees potential for more both in the state and nationally to power fleet vehicles, especially for the postal service and bus systems.
Hawaii should also be growing a lot more of its own food, Takai says, noting “tons of acres” of usable agricultural land have sat fallow for years.
Part of getting that into production is making farming more cost-effective, he says, adding he wants to help local farmers by reducing their insurance and water rates and easing access to low-interest loans.
“It’s not only a matter of economics,” he says. “It’s a matter of food security.”
Takai said he would have to study the Jones Act more before concluding — as many others have — that it’s to blame for the high cost of living in Hawaii. The law requires goods to be shipped between states by U.S.-built, U.S.-flagged and U.S.-crewed ships.
His opponent, Djou, would like to see Hawaii exempted from the Jones Act. But Takai has said it protects jobs and is important to national security.
Takai questions the value of bringing in foreign-flagged vessels as competition. He says foreign companies operate under different environmental and labor laws, which the U.S. should be wary of.
He acknowledges letting in the competition may drive prices down, but said it could end up putting local companies — including Matson, which nearly has a monopoly on the shipping industry in Hawaii — out of business. If that happens, he thinks the foreign companies would just jack the prices back up, not unlike what happened when Aloha Airlines went out of business in 2008 after the introduction of go! airlines and its significantly cheaper tickets.
Instead, Takai says the federal government could offer tax credits to lower the cost of shipping goods to Hawaii. He notes that many people blame high construction costs on how expensive it is to ship materials to the islands.
It’s not just the cost of building new homes that has Takai concerned. He thinks we can drive down rental rates in part by addressing the base allowance that active-duty military families receive, which in some cases is $4,500 a month.
He says the large allowances inflate the price of rental units. If on-base housing could be improved so that it was preferable to off-base housing, everyone could conceivably benefit, Takai says.
Another issue with housing is the lack of financial literacy, he says, crediting former Sen. Daniel Akaka as a champion of this issue.
There’s a problem with people staying in Hawaii’s very limited supply of affordable housing units longer than they might need to, he says. If there were better opportunities to learn about savings and other ways to be “more financially akamai,” Takai says it could help address capacity issues.
Encouraging developers to build more rental housing projects is critical too, he says.
There hasn’t been a rental housing project in the last 30 years, Takai says, until the planned 499-unit, $140 million Forest City development in Kapolei. Most of those units are to be offered at affordable rates.
Takai, a lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii Army National Guard, and Djou, a major in the U.S. Army Reserve, have both done stints in the Middle East.
Takai says he doesn’t think it’d be prudent to send troops to the Middle East again to engage in the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere.
“What’s happened in the Middle East is centuries in the making,” he says. “It’s a challenge for the U.S. to think it can go in and solve all the world’s problems.”
“I don’t think the American people will tolerate us going into war without the support of the global community.” — Mark Takai
Instead, Takai says it would be better to spend that military money honoring the commitments it has made to veterans.
His campaign has received support from veterans groups. VoteVets.org, a political action committee, spent $175,000 on TV ads to help him win the primary.
As the U.S. pivots to the Pacific, Takai says it’s important for Hawaii to maintain the military presence it has.
“We’ve got to focus more of our energies on this area of the world,” he says.
Ideally though, Takai says the U.S. should avoid fighting any wars whenever it can.
“I don’t think the American people will tolerate us going into war without the support of the global community,” he says.
The federal government should “absolutely” reimburse Hawaii more than it has been for the cost of providing education and health care services to migrants from Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau, Takai says
Residents of the three nations are allowed to travel and work freely in the U.S. as part of the Compact of Free Association, or COFA. While the courts have ruled that Hawaii doesn’t have to fund Medicaid, the state has chosen to pick up the remainder of the balance that the federal government fails to reimburse.
“That’s a debt owed by the federal government that the state of Hawaii is burdened with,” Takai says, calling COFA a “drain.”
The feds only reimburse roughly 10 percent of the more than $100 million the state spends on health care, education and housing costs for COFA migrants, according to data compiled by U.S. Sen. Colleen Hanabusa’s office.
As a state, Hawaii must honor the commitment that was made to the COFA countries, Takai says.
He adds that he talked to the late U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink in the early 2000s about utilizing some sort of federal program, like the impact aid money the state gets for military families, to compensate Hawaii for the impact of COFA migrants.
When it comes to getting things done in D.C., Takai says he’s built his entire legislative career on forming partnerships.
In the last two years, he says he worked with Republicans in the state House to form the current coalition government that returned Speaker Joe Souki to the top leadership post.
Takai notes power is cyclical, both in Hawaii and in Washington.
Given the history of Hawaii politicians keeping their seat in Congress for multiple terms, sometimes decades, Takai, 47, suggests he may not have much success in his first two years on the Hill but could over the long haul.
One of these days, he says, the Democrats will regain control of the U.S. House.
As part of his congressional campaign, Takai has worked to gain support from members of Congress, including former Hawaii resident Tammy Duckworth, a military veteran who now represents Illinois.
“We can’t do much with just two members,” he says, referring to the two seats Hawaii holds in the House.