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 Gary Gill, Democratic candidate for state House District 27, which includes Pacific Heights, Nuuanu and Makiki Heights. The other Democratic candidate is Jenna Takenouchi.

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

Candidate for House District 27

Gary Gill
Party Democratic
Age 62
Occupation Retired state environmental director
Residence Pauoa Valley, Oahu

Website

Community organizations/prior offices held

Member and chair, Honolulu City Council; deputy director for environmental health; Sierra Club; Kokua Kalihi Valley; Blue Planet Foundation; union shop steward, hotel workers; board, Seagull Schools; board, Hawaii Bicycle League; board, Historic Hawaii Foundation; board, Camp Palehua. 

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

The biggest problems in my district are the same as for the entire state. Our democratic system is threatened. Trust in our institutions of government continues to erode. The rich keep getting richer, while local people can’t find a place to live in the land of our birth. And climate changes are bringing drought, wildfire, sea level rise and economic disruption.

I will work to restore trust in Hawaii’s government with measures to reduce the power of money over elections and lawmaking. I will seek a fair tax system that provides ample funding for public services and discourages land speculation and the export of capital from our shores. I will unite with other lawmakers to allocate funds for energy and food sustainability programs.

Residents in my district are also concerned about local issues such as the construction of large “monster” homes that do not respect the residential nature of the neighborhood, traffic, homelessness and crime.

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?

To diversify the economy, the government should tap the tax revenue from tourism and invest it to support new enterprise. I was involved years ago in the effort to create the Transient Accommodations Tax (TAT) so that the visitor industry would better support our diverse economy. Of course, the visitor industry was mostly against the measure and called for tourism-generated taxes to be plowed back into tourism. We need to take those funds and support local agriculture that creates food for our people.

We need to tap the “work from home” movement to build our high-tech sector. The military presence in Hawaii is also a large economic driver that should be charged with cleaning up lands and pollution like at the Red Hill underground tanks. Businesses that make profit and export it away from Hawaii should be made to pay more taxes and higher wages to support our local community.

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 gap between the rich and the poor has continued to widen my entire life. This injustice has taken place by design as tax breaks and loopholes were created. Under the guise of “cutting taxes,” the corporations, wealthy and super-rich pay less than their fair share, hiding their wealth offshore and avoiding taxes altogether.

Federal policy has destroyed the industrial base of the country, exporting high-paying jobs to foreign countries. Speculative real estate development continues to price our local people out of the market while those with cash to invest buy and flip houses for personal profit. Empty dwellings owned by outsiders should be highly taxed. Affordable rentals need to be built and kept affordable for local residents.

The cost of living should be reduced by cutting the GET on food and drugs, and the reduction in tax revenue replaced by taxing those who can afford to pay more.

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?

One should not blame the Democrats for the ineptitude of the Republican Party of Hawaii. The Republican shift to religious fundamentalism in the 1980s and more recently to conspiracy theory Trumpism, is of their own making. They are out of step with Hawaii voters who are generally compassionate, fair-minded and respectful of diversity. Responsible Republicans have been leaving the Republican Party for years and decidingd to become Democrats.

This shift has expanded the political spectrum of the Hawaii Democratic Party to include more conservative ideas. With such a wide range of ideologies within the Democratic Party, being a member could mean almost anything, or practically nothing.

Regardless of how many parties are viable in Hawaii, our legislators should make laws in an open and transparent process that invites public participation and transparency. We need to reduce the power of money in our elections and impose stricter conflict of interest policies at the Legislature.

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

The City and County of Honolulu has an initiative process and I was among those who implemented it to Save Sandy Beach from development 30 years ago. Initiative, referendum and recall should be among the powers reserved for the people to participate in a more direct democracy and safeguard the public interest.

That said, the process can also be abused by powerful, monied interests. So, a high threshold should be set to guard against too many initiatives and conflicting ballot questions from disrupting the orderly process of good government. And strict controls on the power of initiative should be in place to prevent special interest funding from corrupting the system.

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?

I do not support creating term limits for legislators. Term limits for the executive branch make sense because there, power is concentrated in an individual. Hawaii has 76 legislators and each has power limited by all the others. Hawaii can benefit from legislators who gain experience over time. It takes time for a new, well-intended legislator to develop the skill to make good laws. Serving years does not make a legislator bad. Term limits is a simple idea that will not solve a complex problem.

Term limits do not prevent corruption or abuse. A corrupt politician could take bribes on day one. With term limits, special interest money could influence new candidates as well as veterans.

Instead of limiting the service of legislators, we should promote measures to encourage democratic vitality. Ranked-choice voting, returning to multi-member districts, more public financing for low-budget races, publishing voter guides and sponsoring issues forums at no cost to candidates, civics classes for young and old, making legislative positions full-time to avoid conflict of interest and encourage working class candidates — all these and other reforms should be considered.

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?

Kalani English and Ty Cullen taking bribes really angers me. This violation of the public trust does tremendous damage to our democracy especially in these times of public cynicism. Still, I believe that the overwhelming majority of our elected officials are honestly pursuing the public interest as best they can.

Federal law that treats corporations as “people” with the right to use money as “public speech” and the creation of political action committees that allow the wealthy to hide their political ambitions are killing our democracy. Preventing fundraisers during the session is a good idea but it will do nothing to prevent special interest money from “rewarding” politicians for their support the day after the session closes. I will support more openness and “sunshine” and commonsense reforms like greater disclosure from lobbyists.

The free press is a watchdog over government corruption but it has been diminished in recent years. Great harm has come from the growth of rumor-spreading over social media and the rants of demagogues demonizing reporters and claiming what they don’t like to be “fake news.” Restoring a free and independent press should be a priority if we want to save democracy from further decline.

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?

The video-based participation that became necessary during the pandemic actually made participation at the Capitol easier for the public. Let’s keep that going. Usually, the only people who can afford to be at the Legislature during session are paid lobbyists, a few nonprofit groups and an occasional regular citizen sacrificing a day’s pay to speak to lawmakers.

One reason public participation is so low is that the process of passing a bill into law is so hard to follow. Multiple committees can kill or modify any law. Both houses play games and make trade-offs to assert influence over what passes. Many bills get killed or buried by a few powerful committees, by legislators behind the scenes or in the final conference committee just before the midnight deadline. Legislators should have to vote in public to kill a bill in committee or decide not to hear it.

It would be easier to monitor legislation if the Legislature considered all the budget bills over a time and heard the non-fiscal items at a different time.  This would reduce the “mad scramble” to pass measures all at once that often can lead to defective legislation.

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?

We need to invest in civic discourse. Disagreements can be bridged by creating a neutral zone, like the Hawaiian ho’oponopono or mediation process, where differing views are expressed freely and without vitriol. Those who complain about or are led to criticize public institutions, should have a way to test their ideas in the real world so as not to retreat to a conspiracy belief system.

In Taiwan, a citizen group tracks down internet misinformation and responds with community engagement, facts and public debates. I would like to promote such a system in Hawaii. The sensationalizing media and the fear-mongering conspiracy theory bloviators who seek to expand their following for commercial purposes must be confronted head on by those who seek to find truth from facts and broaden scientific understanding.

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.

Hawaii did pretty well through the pandemic. While a vocal minority brought their views on “personal freedom” into the public square, most of our people responded with respect and understood we all must do our share to reduce the spread of disease.

The pandemic taught us all one good thing. We now know firsthand what Hawaii can be like when our land is not overwhelmed by tourists. My wife and I went for a swim in Waikiki and we were the only ones in the water. Never again in my life will that happen.

“Building back better” for us means to better manage our visitor industry. We need to develop protections for our special, natural areas and avoid overcrowding. We need to limit the total number of visitor rooms, cars and airplane seats available in Hawaii. We need to make sure that tourism works for us, not those who generate profit and ship it away from our shores. Increasing the tourist tax and spending it on our local needs is an easy first step.

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