Lee Cataluna: The Maui Conference Optics Look Bad But The Explanation Is Worse - Honolulu Civil Beat

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Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

What’s that smell wafting over from Maui’s south shore? It’s a mix of odors all bended together: the fake-coconut fragrance of suntan lotion and umbrella drinks; the sweaty, inky scent of money; the pungent feedlot stench of hypocrisy. Phew, what a stink.

Oh, right. It’s that four-day travel junket for West Coast politicians at Maui’s Fairmont Kea Lani hotel. It’s the Pandemic Party. It’s the COVID confab. It’s the exceptional travel exception for politicians from states that have told their residents not to travel.

While their constituents lucky enough to still have jobs are going dead-eyed to endless zoom meetings, these dedicated public servants are putting on their flip-flops and having drinks by the pool on behalf of good government. What a sacrifice they’re making for the good of their communities.

The outrage from the hometowns of some of the attendees has been heated:

One headline out of Los Angeles blasted:Governor: Don’t travel! Lawmakers: Hawaii’s OK, right?”

The San Francisco Chronicle said: “California Lawmakers, Lobbyists Mingle on Maui, Pandemic or No Pandemic.”

In Washington state, the story was headlined: “Washington lawmakers reportedly at Hawaii conference while residents are urged not to travel.”

According to the organization that has been hosting this annual event for 15 consecutive years, it’s all legit and actually the perfect time to get together and really work on solving pandemic-related and economic rebuilding issues.

“The Independent Voter Project Business and Leadership Conference is a 4-day conference held each year in Maui, Hawaii. The purpose of the conference is to provide a setting, away from the Capitol, for elected officials and a diverse group of industry experts to consider policy matters in a nonpartisan manner,” the website proclaims.

Independent Voter Project’s Dan Howle defends the annual Maui junket in the midst of a pandemic. Screenshot/2020


Discussion of upcoming legislation is against the rules at the conference, according to the IVP website. It’s more a chance for everyone to get to know each other in a beautiful, relaxed atmosphere before the legislative session starts. How nice for them.

Dan Howle, chairman of the Independent Voter Project, has defended the decision to go ahead with the conference this year with multiple arguments, saying that it is important to his organization’s fundraising efforts, that the lawmakers were already enroute to Maui when the various travel advisories came out, that all attendees are following strict COVID-19 protocol while in Hawaii and — get ready to throw up your hands and roll your eyes for this last one– because coming to Hawaii provided the conference participants a great chance to learn from the leadership of Gov. David Ige.

Does it matter to Hawaii that the conference in and of itself is outrageous? Nope. Not as long as they’re paying their bills and wearing their masks, the state doesn’t care how icky it is.

“Here in Hawaii, the governor has done a tremendous job putting together a program where travelers can come to Hawaii now and feel safe and secure,” Howle said in an interview on Fox News which was, to be honest, conducted by a fairly unfriendly host. “We thought it was really important for legislators from different states to experience the Hawaii Safe Travel Program and use that as a model across the country where venues such as Disneyland or professional football can create a process where people can start to go out and take advantages of those things. The hospitality industry has been virtually destroyed by this pandemic and the governor in Hawaii has created a …”

At that point, the Fox anchor cut him off. She had heard enough. She was maintaining her original position of outrage.

The whole thing is outrageous.

It’s outrageous for lawmakers to take vacations when their constituents are being told they can’t go to grandma’s house for Thanksgiving. It’s outrageous to point to Gov. Ige and his constant tweaking of a travel program that has been full of headaches and loopholes as the way to save professional sporting events.

The outrage, however, is not so much about visitors coming to Maui. The State’s Safe Travels program, imperfect thought it may be, is better than nothing and there is no indication that anyone on this junket avoided testing protocols. There seems to be widespread agreement in the community that Hawaii’s tourism industry should not “bounce back” to the level of insanity that resulted from 10 million visitors a year, but it’s also clear that Hawaii can’t survive without the travel industry.

We need stuff like this — state-level politicians and big-money lobbyists all staying in expensive hotel rooms, buying each other dinner and running up big tabs at the bar. Does it matter to Hawaii that the conference in and of itself is outrageous? Nope. Not as long as they’re paying their bills and wearing their masks, the state doesn’t care how icky it is.

There have been hard questions about the annual junket for years, even before the pandemic. The optics have always been bad.

But whatever. Tourists are tourists, and Hawaii is open to anyone who can produce proper COVID-19 test results, regardless of how they spend their time here or who they tick off back home. It’s important to get back to “normal.”  Just hold your nose.

Read this next:

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About the Author

Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

Latest Comments (0)

Well, at least they are all blue, Dem state leaders spending money in another Dem controled state.  We could use the money, but I doubt they will learning anything from Ige other than how to destroy the economy, restrict it's citizens and business, all with the byproduct of putting another bloated and inefficient state government into a multi billion dollar tailspin.  Maybe they can all figure out a way to dig themselves out of the hole without Federal support?  One thing I do know is they won't be looking to Caldwell and HART on how to build a rail system.  

wailani1961 · 2 years ago

Sorry, but this junket probably was safer than a visit to grandma's, assuming the attendees followed mask and distancing rules and met outdoors. At grandma's in a New England winter the house is sealed, and any asymptomatic carrier can infect others, including grandma. You may be outraged, but this is precisely what tourists should be doing, to help Hawaii with its deficit. 

readysf · 2 years ago

Yes, it matters - but to all Americans, not just those in Hawaii.The story is NOT about "well we need 'tourist money' even though it looks bad."The point of the story being run - at least by honest media outlets - is that some people in power (often Democrats) believe they are a special ruling class entitled to privileges outside the rules that they mete out to the people they view as peons, i.e. regular American citizens.

pueobeach · 2 years ago

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