Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 13 Primary Election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions about where they stand on various issues and what their priorities will be if elected.

The following came from Kim Coco Iwamoto, Democratic candidate for state House District 25, which includes Ala Moana, Kakaako and Downtown Honolulu. The other Democratic candidate is Scott Saiki.

Go to Civil Beat’s Election Guide for general information, and check out other candidates on the Primary Election Ballot.

Candidate for House District 25

Kim Coco Iwamoto
Party Democratic
Age 54
Occupation Small business owner, Affordable Quality Apartment Rentals
Residence Ala Moana, Oahu

Website

Community organizations/prior offices held

Chamber of Sustainable Commerce; Wai Ola Alliance; Partners In Care; JABSOM Dean’s Advisory Council; Hawaii Civil Rights Commission; Career & Technical Education Coordinating Advisory Council; Hawaii Teachers Standards Board; state Board of Education member; Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action; ACLU Hawaii.

1. What is the biggest issue facing your district, and what would you do about it?

The number one issue of concern for most of my neighbors is homelessness, which has gotten exponentially worse over the past 28 years.

We may be getting some people off the street, but more keep slipping into homelessness every day. According to the 2022 Point-In-Time Count Report, 22% of unsheltered individuals self-reported that being “unable to pay rent” led to their homelessness.

We need a stopgap: more funding for rapid response subsidies and social workers that will keep those who are housed in their homes; and a hotline for tenants or landlords to call to alert an agency that someone is about to slip into homelessness unless a safety net is put in place.

Currently, we only have available housing for just half of all unsheltered residents on Oahu. We don’t have enough private landlords willing to rent to previously homeless tenants, so government needs to purchase more apartment buildings and contract with service providers who can manage the buildings and support these tenants.

Some 38% of unsheltered individuals self-reported having a mental health illness. We need to increase access to in-patient mental health services, including drug treatment and support triage clinics serving this community.

2. Many people have talked about diversifying the local economy for many years now, and yet Hawaii is still heavily reliant on tourism. What, if anything, should be done differently about tourism and the economy?

We need to cap the number of tourists and aim to double their average spend rate. This will minimize environmental impacts and impacts on local families enjoying their own natural resources and beaches.

We need to support our local food production food chain and distribution. Let’s start with reconditioning our soil by redirecting all food waste to composting instead of to the incinerator.

We need to increase the DOE food budget so they can buy locally grown and locally prepared foods; that honors the actual expenses involved in paying workers a living wage.

We are still 80% reliant on fossil fuels on Oahu and that is unacceptable. We need to increase incentives for photovoltaic and micro-wind turbines and we need to favor the permitting of micro-grid projects over larger distributive systems.

3. An estimated 60% of Hawaii residents are struggling to get by, a problem that reaches far beyond low income and into the middle class, which is disappearing. What ideas do you have to help the middle class and working families who are finding it hard to continue to live here?

The single largest portion of our “costs of living” is housing. We need to ensure local families have access to housing they can actually afford, especially given all of the other outrageously high costs of living in Hawaii: electric, water/sewage and gas. Rent or purchase, real estate prices are always impacted by supply and demand.

Impacts on rental demand: military not building sufficient housing on base and giving large housing stipends and the proliferation of short-term vacation rentals.

About 40% of all privately held land is owned by out-of-state entities. We need to disincentivize out-of-state investors from driving up prices by outbidding local families and depleting stock. One way we can do that is by levying a surcharge on empty homes.

We also need to ensure developers can afford to build housing local families can afford to buy. Affordable housing developers will always be outbid by luxury developers for land, labor and materials, like concrete. This is why we need a moratorium on permitting new luxury construction, at least until we have a sufficient supply of affordable housing. (The moratorium may have the collateral impact of driving up prices on luxury housing because supply will be limited in that category.)

4. Hawaii has the most lopsided Legislature in the country, with only one Republican in the Senate and only four in the House. How would you ensure there is an open exchange of ideas, transparency and accountability for decisions? What do you see as the consequences of one-party control, and how would you address that?

It seems like legislators must make it through a partisan primary election, but after that, they can legislate in a manner that is inconsistent with their own party’s platform or resolutions — without repercussions from their party.

So, we see a Republican senator voting for raising the minimum wage and a Democratic speaker of the House introducing a bill that would provide hundreds of millions of dollars in tax giveaways to a fossil fuel corporation. And a Republican representative was the loudest voice for fully funding DHHL, when it is actually a cornerstone of the Democratic platform, but the Democrat-controlled Legislature refused to provide DHHL adequate funding, year after year, until the Supreme Court got involved.

Voters in Hawaii aren’t as concerned with party affiliation among local politicians as they are with their actions and integrity.

5. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process? 

While the citizens initiative process is always presented as a way for ordinary citizens to overrule the politics that serve corporations and other monied interests, the sad truth is that, without safeguards, the process can easily be hijacked by those very same interests.

However, the rising tide of people-focused grassroots activism gives hope that this would not happen easily now. We are reclaiming our political power and building coalitions through the Aloha Aina and women’s marches, student-led protests against gun violence and climate change, as well as the massive movements to protect Mauna Kea and affirm that Black lives matter.

As we build on the momentum these social and environmental justice movements generate, I am cautiously supportive of legislation that would allow such initiatives and determined to include requirements limiting them to single-subject questions, that can only be passed with supermajority support, and can never result in diminished constitutional protections.

A citizens initiative process may be the only way we may get a chance to vote on whether to have term limits on state legislators.

6. Thanks to their campaign war chests and name familiarity, incumbents are almost always re-elected in Hawaii legislative races. Should there be term limits for state legislators, as there are for the governor’s office and county councils? Why or why not?

Yes. Why should state legislators be the only local elected officials to have unlimited time, with no sense of urgency to get things done? Look at how decisive county councils have been when they know they only have eight years to make a difference and deliver.

This one issue underscores the inability of legislative leaders to resolve conflicts of interests in favor of Hawaii voters. Getting the issue of term limits on the ballot, for voters to decide, requires state legislators to act against their own self-interests. Most legislative leadership has been serving in the state Legislature beyond any generous definition of what might exceed a “term limit,” so why would they allow this question on the ballot when they know what the outcome would most likely be? A 2018 Civil Beat poll demonstrated that 70% of voters support term limits on state lawmakers.

Until the time we change our current “campaign fundraising” laws, the longer a state legislator holds office, the more campaign contributions they will be able to raise to pay for campaign mailers, technology, ads or collateral give-aways — tools used to connect to voters and increase likelihood of holding onto their seat.

7. Hawaii has recently experienced a number of prominent corruption scandals, prompting the state House of Representatives to appoint a commission tasked with improving government transparency through ethics and lobbying reforms. What will you do to ensure accountability at the Legislature? Are you open to ideas such as requiring the Sunshine Law and open records laws to apply to the Legislature or banning campaign contributions during session?

Stepping up to represent my district, persevering and working hard enough to successfully challenge a 28-year incumbent who also happens to be House speaker is the first thing I am doing to ensure accountability at the Legislature. Factors that need to be in place for corruption to thrive include centralized power, unquestioned authority, lack of transparency, reinforcing control through reward and punishment, and formalizing “above the law” status.

As I pointed out in a February Civil Beat piece, legislative leaders could have implemented safeguards immediately if they were willing to admit there was a problem. Instead, they distanced themselves from these two members of leadership that were busted for bribery as if they were both outliers and not canaries in a corrupt coal mine. Ironically, if those two legislators were private practice attorneys, those envelopes of cash could have simply been deposited as “retainers for legal services,” the client would have got what he paid for, and they would both still be in office.

Yes. I support banning legislators from accepting campaign contributions while in legislative session, when they should be focused on the people’s work. This will reduce the “pay-to-play” influence peddling that seems to disproportionately benefit corporate lobbyists.

8. How would you make the Legislature more transparent and accessible to the public? Opening conference committees to the public? Stricter disclosure requirements on lobbying and lobbyists? How could the Legislature change its own internal rules to be more open?

On May 28, 2022, the Democratic Party of Hawaii adopted “Resolution 2022-40.a, Urging Hawaii Lawmakers to Address Corruption at the Legislature,” which states in relevant part:

“to take the following immediate actions: adopt House and Senate rules that 1) restrict state legislators or their representatives from soliciting or accepting campaign contributions during the legislative session, 2) require legislators to comply with all State Sunshine and Ethics laws while working to amend the relevant statutes and codify this compliance, 3) adopt House and Senate Rules that restrict legislators from holding any leadership position if they were, within the preceding six months, a) hired as private-practice attorneys, or b) were profit-sharing law practice partners bound by attorney-client privilege from disclosing clients’ names or businesses, 4) grant any bill sponsored by a majority of the members in the originating chamber at least one committee hearing, and, 5) prevent a bill from being deferred indefinitely without a recorded vote by committee members.”

So this is the legislative leadership’s own party members asking them to clean up their act.

9. Hawaii has seen a growing division when it comes to politics, development, health mandates and other issues. What would you do to bridge those gaps and bring people together in spite of their differences?

Diversity of viewpoints and perspectives is a good thing. Alienating, silencing or marginalizing people you disagree with is a problem. The solution calls for a degree of humility, remembering those moments when you were in the minority on an issue, when the majority was so robust that there was no room to voice your dissent.

As individuals, we all have much more in common than we have differences. We must honor those areas of broad agreement: work expediently to implement changes — harvest the “low-hanging fruit.” The bulk of our time should be spent on the middle tier: listening to each other share our worst- and best-case outcomes from the proposed solutions, have an open discussion and leave room for collaboration. The third and final step of the process is where representative democracy steps in and votes must be taken on each issue – so that the will of a single person or a powerful minority cannot supersede the consensus of the majority and all the citizen voices they represent.

There will be issues that we will have to agree to disagree on. After the vote, may the prevailing side move forward with humility and the other side with grace.

10. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed numerous flaws in Hawaii’s structure and systems, from outdated technology to economic disparity. If you could take this moment to reinvent Hawaii, to build on what we’ve learned and create a better state, a better way of doing things, what would you do? Please share One Big Idea you have for Hawaii. Be innovative, but be specific.

One big idea is to adopt New Zealand’s economy – with its emphasis on agricultural production of high-quality food and modest reliance on tourism — as an economic model for post-pandemic Hawaii. New Zealand measures its economy against a Social Progress Index (SPI), considering environmental and social health: meanwhile, Hawaii’s economic assessment only looks at growth in revenue.

The SPI measures 50 indicators, including access to quality health care, shelter, sanitation, information and education, as well as its citizens’ personal sense of freedom, equality and inclusion.

New Zealand demonstrated that valuing the welfare of its citizens did not hurt its economy, it strengthened it.

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