Two Democratic House lawmakers are looking to take Senate seats that will be vacant after the Nov. 3 general election.

Rep. Chris Lee, a Windward Oahu lawmaker and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Joy San Buenaventura, who represents Puna and chairs the House Human Services and Homelessness Committee, are both leaving the House for the chance to win seats left open by the departures of Sens. Laura Thielen and Russell Ruderman, who are not seeking reelection. 

Lee is up against Kristina Kim-Marshall, a Republican and Waimanalo resident, and San Buenaventura is running against Ron Ka-Ipo, an Aloha Aina candidate and retired musician living on Hawaiian Homestead Land in Makuu. 

Legislature 2020 opening day Senate press conference with Senate President Kouchi and Majority Leader J Kalani English.
Two House lawmakers are looking to move up to open Senate seats. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The result of the two races, no matter which way they go, won’t tip the balance of power in the Legislature’s upper chamber. Senate President Ron Kouchi has already cruised to reelection after running unopposed as have many of his colleagues. Other incumbents appear on their way to reelection in the 25-member chamber, which has only one GOP member at the moment.

Battle For An Open Windward Oahu Seat

Perennial issues like crime, homelessness, affordable housing and public schools are among Kim-Marshall’s list of issues to tackle if she’s elected.

She wants the state to hire more mental health professionals and create a quicker avenue out of the court system for individuals needing mental health services. Lawmakers and the judiciary have been exploring ways to create such pre-trial diversions.

Like virtually every other candidate in Hawaii, Kim-Marshall wants to find ways to diversify the economy, but she says Hawaii shouldn’t place a heavy focus on agriculture as a major economic driver and instead use it only to produce enough food for the state’s population. 

She’d support growth in other industries, like film. Kim-Marshall hopes that more actors and production crews traveling to Hawaii will result in extra tax revenue.

In 2019, lawmakers raised the cap on tax credits allotted to the movie industry to $50 million a year. 

Political newcomer Kristina Kim-Marshall wants to ease some business regulations. Submitted

To shore up the budget, the Republican candidate has also suggested raiding some of the state’s special funds. Some of those are tied up for specific projects, but the auditor identified $75 million worth of those funds that have gone untouched in the last five years.

Like Senate District 9 Republican candidate Sam Slom, Kim-Marshall also supports eliminating the general excise tax on food and medicine and setting up zones in the islands that have less regulations for businesses.

Kim-Marshall sees the second round of coronavirus lockdowns on Oahu as far too restrictive and is among those who question why big-box retailers were allowed to stay open during the last lockdown while smaller retailers that also sold essential supplies had to temporarily shutter.

“We really need to be fair,” Kim-Marshall said. “If we let Target, which also sells hand sanitizer and masks, be open, we should also be taking care of our own people.”

She said she doesn’t agree with the release of inmates from the Oahu jail and worries that those released may commit crimes again, a concern raised by county prosecutors.

A report to the state courts showed that the recidivism rate for inmates released as an effort to quash COVID-19 in the jails had a lower recidivism rate, meaning they committed less crimes, than those released during normal times of the year.

However, she said constituents in Hawaii Kai have told her they worry about an apparent increase in crime in the district over the last year.

Lee, who spent more than a decade in the House, wants to continue many of the projects he and his colleagues already started.

Lee was known for his work with the environment and protecting the Kaiwi Coast from development as well as passing a law that set Hawaii’s 100% renewable energy goal by 2045.

Lee says he wants to continue work in helping to preserve areas like Kawainui and the Kaiwi Coast, and also wants to see through other energy initiatives like a 2018 law that paved the way for a microgrid program that is still pending before the Public Utilities Commission.

He sees the homeless community in Waimanalo that’s run by Blanche McMillan as one that could be a model for other areas around the state. The program has helped to shelter homeless individuals during the pandemic.

Lee said his constituents are also worried about the cost of living, and would like to see reforms to the tax code. He said the general excise tax is efficient at capturing tax revenues from visitor spending, “but ultimately, we know that it’s still an enormously regressive system.”

Representative Chris Lee. Civil Beat Editorial Board Meeting. 11 sept 2015. photograph Cory Lum/CIvil Beat
Rep. Chris Lee wants to see through renewable energy initiatives in the Senate. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Lee suggested proposals that could charge tourists more for accessing certain areas like Hanauma Bay or implementing so-called green fees, or offering high-priced travel packages that could streamline where tourists travel in the state, while also capturing tax revenue.

While Lee and Kim-Marshall both ran unopposed in the August primary election, Lee still garnered 11,000 votes to Kim-Marshall’s 3,100. Lee also still leads in the money race as well, with $33,448 on hand as of Sept. 26.

He raised $14,000 in the last two months from labor unions like the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers, the International longshoremen and Warehouse Union, and the Hawaii Government Employees Association.

Kim-Marshall has $10,541 on hand heading into the general election. She’s outspent Lee, putting $9,200 toward her campaign, mostly on research, surveys and voter lists as well as advertisements.

Lee spent $2,000, mostly on signs, during the same time period.

Kim-Marshall’s top contributor was the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, which donated $4,000 to her campaign and has also endorsed her.

The union website features a banner supporting Kim-Marshall. This election season, SHOPO has spent over $80,000 on campaigns, which is more than twice the amount it spent during the 2018 election cycle.

Lee was a negotiator on a bill to remove an exemption that shielded police misconduct records from public scrutiny. He says he stands by his decision to help push forward the bill, which had been hung up in negotiations for over a year.

“Ensuring justice for everyone and ensuring that we help our good officers weed out the bad meant making police misconduct public,” Lee said.

Representing A Hard Hit Community

Ron Ka-Ipo, a retired musician and a farmer in Makuu, wants to hasten reducing inequalities in the Puna-Pahoa district and within Hawaiian communities on the Big Island.

He supports an increase to the minimum wage, and was disappointed that officials in each of the three branches of government were set to get pay raises in 2019 even as the Legislature failed to pass a bill raising Hawaii’s hourly wage. 

Ka-Ipo says he’d also push for a tax on vacant investment property owned by what he calls “non-citizen absentee landlords.” Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell has proposed a similar measure, which would impose a 1% tax on vacant residential properties valued at over $1 million. 

It’s not clear how the Legislature would be able to pass such a law since policies and rates on real property tax are generally left up to the counties.

Two candidates are running for an open Senate seat representing Puna, which was hit by lava in 2018 and COVID-19 in 2020. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The Aloha Aina candidate said he’d propose expanding the nine-member Hawaiian Homes Commission to 12 members.

He disagrees with the department’s leasing of commercial and industrial properties to non-beneficiary tenants, a practice that department heads have said helps to generate revenue to expand the housing inventory.

Among Ka-Ipo’s ideas: cancelling all debt owed by homesteaders on DHHL lands and dissolving the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and using the agency’s trust funds for DHHL developments.

OHA was born out of the 1978 constitutional convention, which among other things helped to enshrine Native Hawaiian rights in the constitution. Ka-Ipo lamented the Rice v. Cayetano U.S. Supreme Court decision, which made it illegal to restrict voting in OHA races to Hawaiians.

“We lost our voice and gave it to all the citizens of the state,” he said.

He wants to see a speedier reopening of small businesses, with stringent rules and enforcement from the Department of Health to ensure businesses maintain public safety guidelines. 

Ka-Ipo would also support a resolution to repeal the Jones Act, which requires goods shipped between U.S. ports to be carried on American-made vessels.

U.S. Rep. Ed Case has railed against the act, blaming it for the state’s high cost of living. Axing the act would require legislation to pass Congress since state lawmakers have no control over federal laws.

Cost of living also concerns San Buenaventura, who says the top issue facing Puna is economic recovery. The region has been hit hard by storms and lava flows in recent years and has barely just gotten back on its feet.

San Buenaventura points to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which drives tourism spending in the area. Traffic to the park has been low because of the pandemic.

To help lift up the district’s economy, San Buenaventura plans to push for agricultural development for hemp and cannabis and expanded broadband access.

Hawaii passed a hemp pilot program earlier this year, but the Puna representative wants that to be scaled up and allow farmers to also make CBD products.

“We always talk about diversifying the economy, but we don’t take advantage of the benefits that Hawaii has,” San Buenaventura said. “It’s close to the equator which means a year-round growing climate.”

Hawaii is dependent on three undersea cables for internet service. When one of those cables encountered problems earlier this year, parts of Kauai had spotty internet service. 

Puna, a district about the size of Oahu, has many rural communities, not all of which have consistent access to the internet. 

Part of a remedy, San Buenaventura says, could involve streamlining infrastructure, and having utilities share space with internet towers, similar to old requirements that telephone and power lines share poles.

If elected, San Buenaventura hopes to follow through with programs recently passed by the Legislature that expand bed space for individuals needing mental health treatment and help to keep the mentally ill out of jail.

She also wants to continue pushing forward reforms to Hawaii’s civil asset forfeiture program, which a 2018 audit found was open to abuse. A measure that cleared the Legislature in 2019 that would have required prosecutors to secure a felony conviction before seizing property was vetoed by Ige.

“I’ve been able to convince the rest of the Legislature to pass it,” she said, “it’s just a question of convincing the governor.”

Ka-Ipo is by all measures a longshot candidate. In the Aug. 8 primary election, he garnered just 259 votes while San Buenaventura walked away with 8,000 as she defeated her Democratic opponent Smiley Burrows, who got 2,200 votes.

San Buenaventura also leads Ka-Ipo by a vast margin in fundraising. She’s raised $10,000 during the reporting period between Aug. 9 and Sept. 26. Major donations have come from the operating engineers union ($4,000), Green Point Nurseries ($2,000), Altria Client Services ($1,000) and August and Susan Lins ($1,000 each).

She had $53,000 on hand as of Sept. 26.

Ka-Ipo meanwhile has raised just $125 in the last two months, and actually owes his campaign $176 after spending money on yard signs and ad placement in community news site the Kau Calendar.

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