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 Keith Amemiya, Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. The other Democratic candidates are Ikaika Anderson, Daniel Cunningham, Sylvia Luke, Sherry Menor-McNamara and Sam Puletasi.

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

Candidate for Lieutenant Governor

Keith Amemiya
Party Democratic
Age 56
Occupation Executive director, Central Pacific Bank Foundation
Residence Pauoa, Oahu

Website

Community organizations/prior offices held

Hawaii High School Athletic Association executive director; executive administrator and secretary, University of Hawaii Board of Regents, state Board of Education member.

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

Fundamentally, Hawaii should be a place of hope and opportunity for our families and our keiki. With Hawaii’s median home price pushing above $1 million and the cost-of-living pushing kamaaina families out of the state, we need to confront the affordable housing shortage head on.

State government needs to work with the counties to ensure zoning regulations help support development for residential housing. We need to dedicate significant funds to subsidize the cost of infrastructure development for affordable housing developers. We need to identify state lands that make sense for housing our communities. We need to contemplate innovative revenue generation opportunities, including potential green taxes, to create more funding.

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?

Hawaii has the potential to be a leader in regenerative economies that strengthen and support the quality of life of our communities. I strongly support diversifying our local economy, and I believe that tourism can be driven in a more regenerative direction. I support Hawaii Tourism Authority’s movement to huliau or transform toward a kamaaina-driven visitor model, focused on bringing the right visitors that are respectful and mindful of their impact on the local community.

We need to look at other industries as well that move Hawaii in a positive direction. For example, we need direct and focused investment in industries that build resilient communities while also building economic opportunities. Following our experience during the pandemic, where I was humbled to work with groups feeding our youth and their families, it is clear that we need meaningful investment in agriculture and to move away from importing over 80% of our food. We also need to leverage the federal infrastructure funds to build green jobs for our local people.

3. The Legislature this session approved spending $600 million for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands plus another $300 million for other housing programs. What specifically would you try to do to create more housing for middle- and low-income residents?

Being able to house our families is at the heart of our responsibility to ensure a basic quality of life for our communities. The state needs to take an active role in increasing the supply of housing for middle- and low-income residents. I believe these strategies can be implemented at the state level to create more housing:

  • Build water and infrastructure capacity, where appropriate, to incentivize development of housing local families can afford.
  • Make state lands available for low or no cost for affordable housing to be developed, where appropriate and where sufficient infrastructure exists.
  • Work with community organizations to go beyond just saying “no” and move into envisioning what we are willing and wanting to say “yes” to regarding affordable housing in their communities.
  • Provide zero-interest down payment assistance to first time homebuyers.

4. 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?  

Hawaii’s cost of living is out of control, and it is hurting our families and communities. The prices of housing, gas, food and other essentials are skyrocketing. Young people are leaving our state in alarming numbers, and we can’t attract and retain essential workers like nurses and teachers from other states because Hawaii is simply not affordable. My plan to lower the cost of living consists of:

  • Finally passing into law a true living wage and paid family leave.
  • Eliminating taxes on food, medicine, diapers and other essential products.
  • Lowering the cost of housing for working families.

5. The pandemic was particularly difficult for Hawaii’s public schools. Should there be a change in the way schools are administered? Would you support more local control including breaking the single school district into subregions?

Quality education is one of the keys to opening a future of hope and opportunity for our youth. I served on the Board of Education from 2011 to 2015 and know firsthand that every school is unique, particularly in our island state. Empowering principals to make decisions that are right for their students and communities is my priority.

Schools and communities also need to be better resourced. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I saw firsthand the food insecurity that was caused when the schools shut down, and many families went without meals. I worked with high school principals, local businesses and community leaders, including Carissa Moore and Marcus Mariota, to distribute over 20,000 meals at schools to ensure our keiki and their families were fed. We need to invest in our local families and our schools having the resources to truly support our next generations.

6. 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?

Absolutely, I support measures that will address corruption and trust in our government. Corruption scandals at the Capitol have shaken our trust in Hawaii’s elected officials. Over the last 10 years, the state Legislature has accomplished almost nothing on the issues that matter most to people in Hawaii — affordable housing, homelessness, the cost of living, climate change and protecting our environment. They have failed to deliver a true living wage or paid family leave.

I am the only candidate for lieutenant governor who is not a career politician or lobbyist, and the only one who does not take money from lobbyists. Additionally, I support the following measures to combat corruption in our Legislature:

  • Impose term limits on legislators.
  • Ban fundraising during the legislative session.
  • End financial conflicts of interest.
  • Require legislators to follow sunshine laws.

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

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has created and exacerbated rifts within the community and furthered distrust in government. We need to first truly listen to one another to understand different perspectives and values. As I have done throughout my career, I always listened to people from different sides first and tried to come up with shared solutions when possible.

When it comes to making difficult decisions, we need to be clear and transparent, and we need to rapidly and clearly communicate to the public our intentions and plans of action. We need to bridge gaps by treating all the people of the state with respect, even if we don’t agree.

8. The office of lieutenant governor has few official duties and is often viewed as irrelevant. But some LGs have managed to play a significant role in government. What would you do to make the office more productive?

The Office of the Lieutenant Governor is an office of opportunity. As lieutenant governor, I will specifically ask the governor to empower our office around affordable housing and dedicate staff and resources to work in tandem with the governor’s office.

Former Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz developed a team to pursue federal funding, something we should reconstitute to secure the billions needed for our state. Additionally, state government operates in silos much too often. The power of the Office of the Lieutenant Governor can be used to coordinate and work between state agencies, convene working groups for departments working on housing issues, and streamline existing processes.

9. Sometimes Hawaii governors and lieutenant governors have not gotten along very well, and those disputes have spilled into the public realm. How important is it for you to be on the same page as the governor, and how will you handle disagreements on policy?

We each carry different responsibilities in making Hawaii stronger and more hopeful for future generations. I believe in the chain of command, and the lieutenant governor should, by and large, defer to the governor’s initiatives and support them. The public’s trust in government as a whole is easily undermined by instability in the leadership.

I have a good relationship with each of the gubernatorial candidates and believe I can effectively advocate for the priorities I believe are important professionally while supporting the work of the governor and the state.

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.

There are many inspirational things happening in different parts of our community that can each help to build exciting opportunities for Hawaii’s future. For example, two industries have demonstrated potential in Hawaii, but not been fully leveraged: film and media production, and technology and innovation.

As a state, we have only scratched the surface in terms of our potential as a hub for media production. Beyond using our islands as a site for filming, there are creative tax credits that we should explore that incentivize the development of brick-and-mortar studios locally that could generate significant funds. Other cities have pivoted to make themselves attractive to production companies and have reaped the benefits. We have talented local producers and compelling stories to tell that can be part of a regenerative economy.

The same can be said for using the state’s commercial and industrial holdings as potential sites for technology companies in the biotechnology and innovative technology sectors. Again, utilizing creative tax credits to incentivize companies relocating to Hawaii, we can generate much needed revenue and create a diverse field of new local jobs for our residents.

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