Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 8 general election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions.
The following came from Karlen Ross, Democratic candidate for the state House, District 17, which includes Hawaiʻi Kai and Kalama Valley. There is one other candidate, Republican Gene Ward.
Name: Karlen Ross
Office seeking: State House, District 17
Occupation: Restaurant manager
Place of residence: Hawaii Kai
Campaign website: www.KarlenRoss.com
1. This year has seen an outsized influence from people who want big changes in how government is run. What would you do to change how the Legislature is run?
This election season is unlike anything we’ve seen before. When I talk to voters in my district, I hear them expressing dissatisfaction with career politicians and the disconnect between our representatives in government and the people they serve.
A lot of good ideas die in committee, leaving the general public mystified. I support making sure all committee hearings are recorded and open to the public as well as strengthening the lobbying disclosure laws and the frequency of reporting requirements.
Lobbying disclosures should also be entered electronically so they can be provided to the public in a searchable form. The voters have a right to know whether their representatives are being influenced by special interests.
2. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizen’s initiative process. Do you support such a process?
Citizen’s initiative processes have done a great job of moving the law forward in many Western states, with medical marijuana being the prime example, but they have also created a variety of bad laws. For example, many states passed anti-gay measures through citizen’s initiative process. In other cases, corporate interests have spent significant sums to influence the process. Citizen’s initiatives have created significant state budget problems in California and Oregon. If we make this change, we need to do it carefully.
It’s important to make sure the majority doesn’t trample on minority rights, or that the state isn’t forced to spend significant sums of money to defend unconstitutional laws. There is a lot about this process we can learn from the other states. I would support putting more democracy in the hands of the people with certain caveats. There would have to be a process to verify that the proposed law is constitutional.
There would need to be clear rules regarding who is responsible for defending any approved citizen’s initiative against any court challenges. There would need to be full disclosure on who is financing the campaigns for and against the initiatives. I would also consider a ban on paid signature gatherers.
3. Hawaii has long been dominated by the Democratic Party establishment. Should this change, and if so, how?
The main reason the Democratic Party does so well in Hawaii is that its core principles reflect our local values. Inclusion, respect for our aina, and caring for our keiki and kupuna are important to all of us.
The GOP struggles in Hawaii because its platform is out of touch with the lived experiences of our people. We live on an inland in the middle of the Pacific, yet they deny climate change. My Dad is a longshoreman, so I know how important unions are in keeping workers safe on the job, yet the Republicans want to make Hawaii a Right-to-Work state. Our local diversity is one of our greatest strengths, but they propose legislation that would allow businesses to openly discriminate against people. My opponent has spent his entire career proposing these types of bills as the Hawaii chairman of ALEC, a partnership between Republican politicians and big business that works to push right-wing policy on all 50 states.The GOP doesn’t need more power in our state.
I believe the Democratic Party primary process reflects a desire for party reform. The people are demanding an end to politics as usual in Hawaii, and the establishment is listening to our voices.
4. What specific steps would you take to strengthen Hawaii’s lax lobbying, ethics and financial disclosure laws?
First, I agreed to run my campaign under voluntary spending limits. I believe ideas should win elections, not money. I fully support efforts to limit lobbying and fundraising. I am interested in studying what lobby reform proposals have been most effective in other states, but I believe greater transparency is one of the best checks on corruption.
There are those who do lobbying without being registered lobbyists in Hawaii, so I support broadening registration requirements and moving toward real-time disclosure. I would also consider requiring politicians to report contact with registered lobbyists via phone, e-mail or in-person meetings.
5. Would you support eliminating Hawaii’s high fees for access to public records when the request is in the public interest?
Absolutely. To be fair, there are real costs involved in retrieving files, particularly older files that haven’t been digitized. But these costs should never be so prohibitive as to discourage the public from gathering important information.
When I asked one of the voters in my district this same question he suggested that once a file is released it should be posted on a website so that everyone could have access to it. While on the subject, upgrading computer systems across all state agencies would improve government transparency and interdepartmental efficiency.
6. Voters complain their elected officials don’t listen to them. What would you do to improve communication?
We live in an age of instantaneous global communication, but some feel like their representative is unreachable. If you do get ahold of your local rep you might worry they think you’re a nuisance. Maybe they only listen to people who give them campaign money, or people who share identical political views.
I plan on holding monthly town hall meetings where I will listen to all voices, regardless of political views. I will also use twitter, Facebook and e-mail to keep the Hawaii Kai community updated on the legislative process and inform constituents on how they can get directly involved.
I know it’s hard. We all have jobs and families. Dedicating an evening to a community board meeting or a public forum just isn’t possible sometimes. But at the last neighborhood board meeting I went to I noticed something: It is amazing how much passion people have about their communities. In Hawaii we really do live in a state where every voice matters. We have aloha in our hearts and we care for each other.
7. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Quality of life issues are what people talk about when I go door-to-door. Common topics include:
— Development: The Great Lawn, (a parcel of land across from the Maunalua Boat Ramp) is a big concern because development would add to an already congested bottleneck on Kalanianaole Highway. I support our community’s consensus position: It should remain zoned for conservation.
— Feral cats: Cats are beautiful animals and bring joy to many. But our wild birds and monk seals are a treasure. Birds like the nene, found nowhere else on earth, are threatened by the feral cat problem. Working together, we can humanely remove these cats. I will fully support and fund efforts by the DNLR to safeguard our songbirds, monk seals, and other vulnerable species in Hawaii Kai and statewide.
— Taxes: My Republican opponent and I disagree on the purpose of government. He always wants to cut taxes. I think that’s taking the easy way out. It’s not just a choice between raising taxes and cutting programs: It’s about value. Using our limited resources and some common sense, how can we do the most good for the most people? This is my guiding philosophy in any discussion involving the use of our tax dollars.
8. 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?
Our housing shortage is real. We do need more development. The question is: Where? Some places make more sense than others. In the past, the associated infrastructure has sometimes taken a back seat to development, and that’s often where problems occur. Traffic, sewage, nearby zoning, and city and county issues all need to be considered before we approve a project. Building up rather than out, is the best way to preserve farmland and wild spaces. It also reduces auto-dependence by creating walkable communities.
When we work together in a public and transparent manner we accomplish things we can all be proud of. I want the public to continue helping us design projects that provide for our growing families without destroying the beauty of our surrounding neighborhoods.
9. What should the Legislature do to improve police accountability?
Our police officers have a difficult and important job. The overwhelming majority of them are exceptional public servants. However, bad actors erode public trust, so we need police who are role models of a civil and just society. We hold them to a higher standard, but we must give them the tools they need to keep us safe.
There are many good ideas from our community and our police groups. Body cameras are now being tested by local departments and as we learn more about the results of these programs, the Legislature should consider passing statewide standards. It is essential to increase funding for training, especially on interacting with the mentally ill, and on the crimes of domestic violence and sexual assault. We are also the only state without a statewide minimum training standards for all law enforcement officers, and that needs to change.
10. Hawaii is the fastest-aging state. What would you do to ensure we’re taking care of our kupuna?
I’ve heard more than one story about how Hawaii is one of the only places in America where you have 70-year-olds taking care of their 90-year-old parents. My focus will be on the best way we can support those who care for our kupuna. Some older people can feel stigmatized, afraid that they are a burden on their families because of our high cost of living. I think this is a shame, because our seniors deserve to spend their golden years here at home.
But there is more to consider than just the cost of living. I would invest in programs that keep seniors engaged in their community. I’m especially supportive of programs that integrate our keiki with our kupuna. We can’t forget that the generations that came before us have much to offer us all.
11. What would you do to improve Hawaii’s public education system?
First and foremost, we need better pay and working conditions to attract and retain top-tier teaching talent. Second, we need equipment and infrastructure improvements. Let’s look at our backlog of projects and start completing our list. Education can be the great social equalizer, and we owe every one of our children a high quality education. We should look to the best practices of high-performing districts around the country and make sure the DOE is implementing those practices that contribute most to student success.
People in Hawaii take so much pride in the high school they attended. I want to harness this energy. People want to give back but don’t always know how. We need to find ways to involve people in their schools and communities. Organizing around our high schools would be a natural way to bring people together.