Editor’s note: This Community Voice was one of numerous entries in our recently concluded Emerging Writers Contest.

What do we want? Justice.

When do we want it? Now.

This is the essence and mantra of progressive values.

Here in Hawaii we’ve been waiting far too long, and there is no good reason why we should have to wait any longer.

Here in Hawaii, where members of the Democratic Party are in total control of both the legislative and the administrative branches at the state and county government levels, it shouldn’t be so hard.

Capitol Building Honolulu Legislature. 1 may 2017

Will lawmakers at the Capitol embrace a progressive agenda in 2019?

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

According to the Democratic Party of Hawaii’s 2018 Platform, “We (Democrats) believe that the current minimum wage is a starvation wage and must be increased to a living wage.”

Yet, Hawaii’s Democratically controlled Legislature refuses to pass legislation that even attempts to phase in a living wage minimum over time.

According to a 2017 report by the Department of Business and Economic Development and Tourism, the minimum hourly wage to support a single adult (without children) with shelter, food, clothing, and medical care is $17.41 per hour.

Yet, the minimum wage in Hawaii sits frozen at only $10.10 per hour.

One would hope that those who truly believe in economic justice would also believe that anyone working 40 hours per week deserves to earn a wage that will provide basic shelter, food and medical care.

The truth is there is a price to pay no matter what. Either employers can pay their workers a living wage or government must fill the gap via food, rent, and medical subsidies.

Incentivizing work by rewarding labor with an honest and living wage is a far better solution than, legalizing tent cities, passing “sit-lie bans,” or otherwise criminalizing the poor and disenfranchised.

Paying The Price For Injustice

Regardless of the ideological label one wears, one way or another, we all pay the price for injustice. The societal costs of abject poverty and homelessness are inescapable and the sooner we confront this fact and implement the appropriate public policies necessary to deal with it, the better — for all of us.

While I currently serve as vice-chair of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, I do not write this in that capacity, but simply as a progressive Democrat who finds the glacial rate of change in Hawaii unacceptable. Whether it be economic, environmental, or social justice, the elected office holders in Hawaii continue to take too long to do too little.

The historical norm is that hardworking advocates trek the halls of the Capitol, kowtowing to the powerful (mostly) men in suits. As they huddle earnestly presenting their research and fact-finding, they are reminded by those in the know to be thankful for the policy wins they have gained in the past (however modest they may have been) and warned not to bite the hand that feeds them by being unreasonable, intemperate, or otherwise disrespectful.

Ever the optimist, I am hopeful that 2019 will be different.

The 2018 Hawaii elections that featured numerous highly qualified progressive candidates, combined with the growing blue wave that is sweeping the continent, is changing the conversation here in Hawaii and akamai political incumbents get it.

It is a forgone conclusion that the elections of 2020 will feature an even larger number of progressive challengers, with more experience, greater name recognition, and even more funding behind them. The message will be about the slow pace of justice, that the incremental change offered by incumbents is woefully inadequate, and that “any ole blue won’t do.”

The emergence and growing strength of several local advocacy groups adds another important element to the formula needed for progressive policy wins during the 2019 legislative session. The Young Progressives Demanding Action, Our Revolution and Democratic Socialists of America are just three of the many organizations that are actively meeting and recruiting new members among millennials and others who have grown beyond weary of the old guard’s resistance to change.

‘Occupy The Capitol’

This new wave of civic activism gave legislators this past session a taste of what’s to come as supporters marched the Capitol halls loudly protesting the failure of a bill allowing graduate students to unionize. Another bill allowing “initiative and referendum,” and killed in the dead of the night by a single committee chairman, further infuriated and frustrated this group particularly.

You can be sure that during the 2019 session their numbers will be larger. There is already talk of an “occupy the Capitol” effort and many expect Wednesday, Jan. 16, opening day of the 2019 legislative session, to be an especially lively one.

I doubt if a few crumbs of incremental change thrown toward core economic, environmental, and social justice issues are going to satisfy anyone this time around.  Activated residents, young and old, are more aware and more empowered than ever before.

There are many pressing issues on the table, and the days of being told to pick just one and be happy with it, are over.

The passing of a living wage bill that phases hourly rate increases in over time until a living wage threshold is reached, is a reasonable ask, especially when you are asking a Legislature dominated by Democrats. Likewise, meaningful steps toward true criminal justice reform, new dedicated funding for public education, protection of our reefs, the legalization of cannabis, automatic voter registration, and publicly funded elections are all needed now.

If the political will is there, bold progress can be made on each of these issues in 2019. Each has been thoroughly vetted in the past (either in Hawaii on in other states), several actually generate new funding, and none are particularly risky or fraught with unknown or unintended consequences.

Good people work hard every day and yet still cannot afford rent. The poor remain in jail while the rich walk free.

The hard but often unspoken truth is that the lack of action by the Legislature serves to perpetuate the injustice that is carried on the backs of low income working people, our natural environment, and our island home as a whole.  Good people work hard every day and yet still cannot afford rent. The poor remain in jail while the rich walk free.  Our reefs are dying before our eyes. The general public has lost faith in our political system. Our public education system is crumbling due to our neglect.

Legislators who profess support for liberal and progressive values are firmly in control.

Will these leaders now act and vote in alignment with the ideals they espouse and the people they represent?

Those of us leaning furthest left can only hope we don’t fall over waiting. And to be clear, waiting is something we are no longer good at.

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About the Author

  • Gary Hooser
    Gary Hooser is a former member of the Kauai County Council.  He formerly represented Kauai and Niihau in the Hawaii State Senate where he served as Majority Leader and was Director of Environmental Quality Control for the State of Hawaii during the Abercrombie administration.  He also serves in a volunteer capacity as the President of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action.