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 Jonathan Lee, Democratic candidate for state House District 44, which includes Honokai Hale, Nanakuli and Maili. The other Democratic candidate is Darius Kila.
1. What is the biggest issue facing your district, and what would you do about it?
Lack of affordable housing is our most potent issue on the West Side. Even those who already have a home can’t afford to live there because of the rising costs of electricity, petroleum and groceries. Our country is on the verge of another recession and the West Side is going to be hit the hardest.
I want to work on projects like relaxing zoning and permitting barriers to build more apartments and homes, increasing government vouchers, and tax and development incentives to companies for building high density housing.
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?
Surprisingly, in 2021, Hawaii’s top exports were iron, steel and aircraft parts. In order to become more self-sustainable, we need to find ways to increase and diversify exports, which requires us to think outside the box.
One way we can do that is by legalizing, growing and selling cannabis. Fifteen other states have successfully increased economic revenues by hundreds of millions of dollars and have been able to fund programs for schools, infrastructure and better pay for teachers, police and firefighters. It is only a matter of time before it is legal at a federal level, so the time to start building the foundation for our industry is now, before the market is saturated and taken over by outside corporations.
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?
Worker exploitation is the largest issue plaguing the Hawaiian economy and unions are the antidote. Increasing the number of industries that have organized labor and strengthening existing unions is imperative to protecting the working and middle class from the cycle of being taken advantage of.
We need to reward businesses who treat their workers humanely and fairly and stop giving handouts and tax breaks to companies who mistreat employees while raking in billions in profits.
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?
There is strength in diversity and the lack of diverse ideas in the Legislature has led to corruption, group-think and politicians more interested in personal power than serving the people.
As a first-time candidate, I am trying my best to focus on my platform, listen to my voters and stay positive, but the amount of dishonesty and corruption I’ve already witnessed is deeply disturbing. It makes me even more determined to keep fighting.
Democrats need to extend an olive branch to moderate Republicans and other party members, have the willpower to hold members of their own party accountable when they break the rules, and voters should be more critical with their incumbents when one party has so much power.
5. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
I wholeheartedly support a statewide citizens initiative process. The main reason we do not have one here, historically, is the fear that Hawaiians would vote to secede from the United States. This fear of the people has kept the voices of kamaaina silent for too long.
We need to allow voters the right to garner signatures for initiatives or referendums. Legislators, especially committee chairs, have too much power to simply sit on their hands when they don’t feel like doing something; a citizens initiative process provides a check and balance to such inaction.
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, term limits for state legislators is an excellent idea. I currently support a maximum of 12 years (six terms) as a means to ensure continuity for ongoing legislative efforts, but I am open to discussion for shorter limits.
I understand needing time to see projects through to fruition, but after so many years of being in office, it becomes almost impossible to properly relate to and represent everyday people. The pattern tends to be: The longer one is in office, the more likely they tend to be out of touch with constituents. Time to change office or change careers.
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?
The Sunshine Law is an excellent idea. The House-appointed commission does not have enough teeth when it comes to holding legislators accountable.
We need to pass a state-level law similar to the Hatch Act, one that goes further than the current HRS §84 Standards of Conduct. Specifically, we should add an amendment which would bar state employees from future state government employment for a period of time if found guilty of violating election laws.
Harsher punishments for candidates found guilty of corruption, like disqualification from running for office, could help reduce the dirty campaign tactics that are rampant in our state.
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?
Committee chairs currently have way too much power and do not have to give a reason as to why they will completely stop a bill from being voted on. They should not have the power to “kill” a bill and make the rest of the committee obsolete.
Legislators should also have to give a reason as to why they are “excused” from voting. Too often, legislators will use this as an excuse to not take a stance on a particular measure.
The process for selecting committee chairs should also be more transparent because the selection often goes to members with seniority rather than qualifications. For example, the chair of the Judiciary Committee does not have a law degree. I believe that committee chairs should have practical experience with the matters their committees decide on and just like term limits, there should be “chair limits.”
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 focus on “common aina” between parties and stop amplifying arguments that do not serve the people. Everybody needs to stop painting the other side in broad brush strokes and take the time to listen to the nuances of each other’s arguments and discern intent.
We shouldn’t immediately come to the defense of someone in our party, nor should we jump to conclusions about someone in the other party in order to score political points.
My campaign promises to see past the differences and focus on building bridges wherever possible because I believe we have so much more that unites us to work toward — we cannot afford to get lost in amplified divisiveness.
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.
I would diversify our economy more, which would also allow us to address the disparity in infrastructure and technology we faced during the pandemic.
For example, if Hawaii had a strong cannabis industry prior to the pandemic, we could have benefited financially from exporting Hawaiian marijuana and CBD products to tens of millions of Americans stuck indoors. Farmers would have thrived and would have needed to hire more local workers, so those who lost their jobs in the tourist industry could have been hired (temporarily or permanently) in an industry that does not require visitors to travel to the island.
This is just one example of a way we could be building economic and community resilience for Hawaii’s future.
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