He’s young — 28.
He’s a veteran — Air Force tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He’s educated — a Hawaii Pacific University graduate student.
He’s experienced — a legislative committee clerk and policy researcher.
And he’s a Democrat — he serves on the party’s State Central Committee.
On paper, Randy Gonce sure looks to be a promising future candidate for political office.
But Gonce thinks he has something else also going for him: He’s a graduate of a new program designed to identify Hawaii residents who want to develop leadership skills, learn the basics of campaigning and become knowledgable on core policy issues.
Gonce credits the Kuleana Academy with making him more confident about running for public office.
“The leadership training Kuleana Academy offers is second to none, and I have had many leadership courses in the military,” Gonce said. “It obviously is a different style of leadership than the military, but it really helped change my mindset in regards to task management and people management.”
The Kuleana Academy, from the Hawaiian word for right, responsibility or interest, might also be called The Committee to Change the World. Such high aspirations influenced the people who launched the academy two years ago.
“I believe that we can change the world,” said the academy’s president, Gary Hooser. “I know it sounds hokey, but that’s why I am doing this.”
Hooser, 63, is a former Kauai County Council member and state senator who ran unsuccessfully for Congress and lieutenant governor. He described the brainstorming session that led to Kuleana Academy:
“I sit around every day … talking to people about how to change the world, how to fix things, how to make our government better, and myself and others came to conclude that the system we have is the best we are going to get. And if people holding office are not taking us in a direction that we’d like, then we need to find and support other people.”
Hooser added that the general population in the state “seems to be more progressive and more environmentally concerned than the people holding public office, primarily at the local level.”
The engine of change is the Kuleana Academy. It is part of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit formed in 2014. Seed money came from the Hawaii People’s Fund and the Hawaii Community Foundation.
According to its website, “HAPA’s mission is to catalyze community empowerment and systemic change towards valuing aina (environment) and people ahead of corporate profit.”
HAPA’s current campaigns involve transitioning Hawaii away from genetically engineered food and pesticides to a sustainable, secure food system; reclaiming democracy; and “interrupting corporate influence on our government, restoring transparency and citizen-driven democracy.”
HAPA’s board members include a host of familiar local progressive types, including Walter Ritte Jr., Paul Achitoff, Ikaika Hussey, Kim Coco Iwamoto and Cade Watanabe. Hooser’s credentials are similarly ensconced in the lefty camp.
But Hooser said Kuleana Academy does not impress an ideology on its recruits. Guest speakers have included U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (a Democrat), state House Minority Leader Andria Tupola (a Republican) and Keiko Bonk, a former Hawaii County Council member (of the Green Party).
“There is no litmus test,” Hooser said. “You don’t have to support or oppose this or that, and we are not targeting any seats. And as a 501, we don’t support the candidates themselves. We educate, teach and motivate.”
The academy has already graduated two classes. A third, a group of just over two dozen people from the major islands, will enroll this fall. It involves five weekend retreats at a hotel in Waikiki.
Academy work includes improving public speaking skills, meeting with key policy experts and learning to question power structures and roles.
“There is no litmus test. We teach, educate and motivate.” — Kuleana Academy President Gary Hooser
There is also training in “campaign fundamentals” such as canvassing, campaign fundraising and reporting, and handling media interviews and navigating social media.
Though ideology is not impressed on academy members, it would seem that some enrolling in Kuleana Academy are already politically inclined in a direction aligned with HAPA’s goals.
A 2016 graduate, Tiare Lawrence, gave Maui state Rep. Kyle Yamashita a spirited challenge in the Democratic primary that year.
Her platform for the Upcountry seat included combatting the “outsized influence is of corporate and special interests trying to continue control of our government, our lands, our resources and our people.”
She cited in her Civil Beat candidate questionnaire Alexander & Baldwin’s successful effort at the Hawaii Legislature to secure water rights in East Maui, something Lawrence, 26 at the time, opposed.
“House Bill 2501 was a prime example of our legislators not caring about East Maui watersheds, estuaries and stream eco-systems,” she wrote.
Lawrence, a Native Hawaiian, is now a community organizer and People’s Congress coordinator for HAPA.
Gonce was inspired by his experience working for state Rep. Matt LoPresti, a Democrat representing the Ewa area on Oahu.
“I was a bit naive going into the job,” said Gonce. “I was under the impression that I would be working at the state Capitol with some of Hawaii’s best and brightest.”
“A few weeks into my first session I was shocked how mistaken I was. Some of the bills drafted (or not drafted) appalled me. Many of the issues I cared deeply about either weren’t on the radar of most lawmakers, never got a hearing, or died quickly. “I heard Democrats talk about not believing climate change, against raising the minimum wage, and the like. I reviewed voting records from past sessions and saw current serving Democrats who voted against same-sex marriage. It was extremely frustrating.”
“A few weeks into my first session I was shocked how mistaken I was. Some of the bills drafted (or not drafted) appalled me. Many of the issues I cared deeply about either weren’t on the radar of most lawmakers, never got a hearing, or died quickly.
“I heard Democrats talk about not believing climate change, against raising the minimum wage, and the like. I reviewed voting records from past sessions and saw current serving Democrats who voted against same-sex marriage. It was extremely frustrating.”
On Tuesday night in Heeia State Park, Gonce was expected to declare his candidacy for the state House District 48 seat (Kaneohe, Kahaluu, Waiahole) being vacated by Rep. Jarrett Keohokalole, who is running for the state Senate being left by Jill Tokuda, who is running for lieutenant governor.
Another graduate, Heather Kimball, said she participated in Kuleana Academy because she wants to be “as prepared as possible” to run for office. She is not satisfied with the way decisions have been made at the state and federal level when it comes to quality of life issues.
Kimball, 46, is worried about a lot of things. Here are just a few: “increasing income inequality, disproportionate taxation of low- and moderate-income residents, lack of economic diversity and increasing housing costs, our underfunded and poorly performing public education system, and the failure of our state to invest in long-term strategic planning to protect our environment and infrastructure in order to mitigate the impacts and build resilience to climate change.”
Kimball is a consultant focused on climate change mitigation, natural resource management decision making and science policy. In late June she announced her candidacy for state Senate District 4 in the 2018 election.
The district seat, which includes parts of Hilo, Hamakua, Waimea, Kohala, Waikoloa and North Kona. is currently represented by Sen. Lorraine Inouye, a Democrat.
Not all Kuleana Academy graduates are planning an immediate run for office.
Kaui Pratt-Aquino, 40, calls herself “a community-based lawyer” and a mom with “a strong desire to make Hawaii a better place.”
As a concerned Native Hawaiian beneficiary, she is a familiar presence at Office of Hawaiian Affairs board meetings.
Pratt-Aquino has also worked on the campaigns of others, and plans to do so again, but for now she is not committed to running.
Still, she echoes the same concerns raised by her colleagues — namely, the direction of the state, one she says she is increasingly dissatisfied with.
So, what does Gary Hooser plan for his future?
“A lot of people ask me that question,” he replied.
He then went on to tell the story of when he first got elected to office. An uncle congratulated him but said he was afraid Hooser would “turn out like all the rest.”
He continued: “My own theory is that I believe everyone comes in wanting to do the right thing. There are a few egotistical, self-centered people that come in, but most want to make the world a better place.”
What happens to many elected officials, he said, is they are quickly subsumed by the status quo, the institutions and establishment — for example, the Hawaii Farm Bureau and the Department of Agricultural on ag issues — that strongly influence new lawmakers.
That is especially the case at the Legislature.
“You are in a building that is immersed in that environment for five months, and it is so easy to get disconnected,” said Hooser.
That context extends itself to how House and Senate coalitions are formed, and how votes are cast. Hooser wants to see change.
“With HAPA and the life I am involved with now, we hope to play a role balancing those forces and supporting environmental, social and economic justice issues,” he said. “We hope the people who come out of the academy will have a mindset and more confidence to maintain their values and moral compass.”