Hawaii’s lieutenant governor could get by without doing much.

The office’s only duties involve certifying legal name changes, filing and making available to the public an array of government documents, and taking over if something happens to the governor.

Current Lt. Gov. Josh Green redefined that role, elevating both its prominence and his own during the coronavirus pandemic by acting as the administration’s Covid-19 liaison with other agencies.

Now, the four top candidates in the Democratic race to be the state’s next second-in-command want to further elevate the LG’s office.

Keith Amemiya, Ikaika Anderson, Sylvia Luke and Sherry Menor-McNamara, all say that having a good working relationship with the governor would be integral to their position if elected. Hawaii’s governors have often found themselves at odds with their LGs.

Capitol building under construction 2022.
The top candidates for lieutenant governor all have ambitious goals for what the office could become. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The four candidates also wanted to see the LG’s office have a greater presence on the neighbor islands.

Amemiya, Anderson and Luke emphasized the need for more affordable housing, although their approaches to the issue differ. Meanwhile, Menor-McNamara, the president of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, said she wanted to focus on an economic recovery plan for the state.

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Democrats Daniel Cunningham and Sam Puletasi, who have previously lost races to be governor or lieutenant governor, are also running again.

The LG’s job has been a stepping stone to the governor’s office or Congress. Three of Hawaii’s eight governors came to their positions through the LG’s office. That line was broken when Mazie Hirono lost to Linda Lingle in 2002.

The job pays about $162,000 a year.

Rob Burns, Tae Kim and Seaula Tupai Jr. will square off in August to become the GOP’s nominee for lieutenant governor.

Amemiya: ‘All Hands On Deck’

Amemiya, now an executive director for Central Pacific Bank, said the top issue he would seek to address is affordable housing. That was also his top priority while campaigning to be Honolulu mayor in 2020.

Amemiya was defeated by Rick Blangiardi in that race.

Amemiya’s housing plan includes proposals to tax vacation rentals and investor units, building more infrastructure to support additional housing units, reducing certain fees for housing developments, and working with county planning departments to get building permits out faster.

Mayoral candidate Keith Amemiya is interviewed by the media at a campaign event on King Street. October 12, 2020
Keith Amemiya has a detailed plan to address housing. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Amemiya also wants to use the LG’s office to gather stakeholders from all levels of government, the public and nonprofit sectors to develop housing solutions.

Amemiya spoke about his past experience running high school sports and Island Holdings Inc., one of the state’s largest property insurance companies. Being involved directly in running a statewide company required a “totally different skillset” that Amemiya said differentiates him from the competition.

He wants to bring that experience to bear to help the governor. He emphasized having a working relationship with the governor, and would do that by supporting his or her initiatives.

“The challenges facing the state are too great for one person alone, we need all hands on deck,” he said.

Amemiya doesn’t seem too willing to deviate from what the future governor wants. Past lieutenant governors have struck out on their own and at other times offered views on issues that differed from the governor’s.

“I believe in the chain of command, and the lieutenant governor should, by and large, defer to the governor’s initiatives and support them,” he said.

Anderson: Housing, Labor, Climate Change

Former City Councilman Ikaika Anderson also wouldn’t mind playing backup to the next governor. Or as he puts it, playing the starting running back to the governor’s star quarterback role.

His top priorities as LG would be housing, homelessness, climate change and labor – all issues he said he worked on as a city councilman.

Ikaika Anderson hopes to import county programs on housing, climate change and homelessness to the state level. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

He points to projects like the Waimanalo Kauhale, which provided homes for homeless individuals in Waimanalo. The idea stems from a program Josh Green championed as LG. Anderson said he’d like to expand that across the state to communities that want them.

He also called for an inventory of all state-owned lands that are suitable for development and could later be used for housing projects. Anderson, who is Hawaiian, also wants the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to focus more on providing rental housing for its beneficiaries, some of whom have waited decades for a parcel of land guaranteed by the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1921.

Anderson said he would have one position in his office dedicated to climate change initiatives, including  ideas to deal with the effects of sea level rise.

Anderson said he also wants to build better lines of communication with labor groups in the state and inform them of government decisions that could affect their members before hearing about them via a press conference.

Anderson has connections to labor in other ways. In late 2020, Anderson announced he was leaving the City Council to take care of his elderly grandparents. Two days later, it turned out that he took a job with Local 630, the plasterers and cement masons union.

He has since left that union job and now works as a consultant, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.

Luke: Implementing Programs

Luke, the longtime House Finance Committee chair, is campaigning on the heels of a historic legislative session that saw more than a billion dollars directed to Native Hawaiian programs and at least $300 million put toward housing initiatives statewide.

Luke said she would use her experience with government and the Legislature to implement programs lawmakers passed in recent years. In other words, she’d like to spend at least four more years telling state departments how exactly they should spend their money.

“We pass bills, but it’s really in the implementation where the rubber meets the road, and we make sure the things the community wanted and pushed for through the Legislature get done,” she said.

House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke participates in Civil Cafe 2022.
Sylvia Luke spent years directing government funds as a lawmaker. Now, she hopes to play a greater role in deciding how those funds are spent. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

One issue Luke wants to tackle is pre-K education. In 2020, lawmakers passed a bill that sought to expand early learning opportunities for 3- and 4-year-olds in Hawaii. The law required the state to gather data on children entering kindergarten to determine where the expansion of preschool classrooms could be most effective.

But Luke said that data hasn’t been collected yet. She wants to help speed things up and also provide input on how $200 million appropriated by lawmakers for preschool classrooms could be allocated across the state.

Luke said she also wants to take a look at regulatory barriers that may be slowing down housing development in the state, and ensure that the $300 million lawmakers set aside for housing initiatives this year can be spent fairly quickly.

Another issue Luke plans to focus on is broadband, and ensuring federal funds set aside to expand broadband access in the state are directed to communities that need them the most, particularly in rural areas of the state.

Menor-McNamara: An Economic Playbook

As president of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, Menor-McNamara saw firsthand the pandemic’s impact on the workforce and the economy.

Hundreds of businesses were forced to close their doors during the pandemic, some did so permanently. And even as the economy recovered, job growth in the state was still expected to be slow.

Now the chamber president said she would make diversifying the economy and Hawaii’s workforce her top priorities if she is elected. She said she would bring together various facets of the community to come up with an economic recovery plan to shield the state against future downturns, or another pandemic.

“We won’t experience what happened in the last couple of years, where we didn’t have a playbook,” she said.

Chamber of Commerce Hawaii President CEO Sherry Menor-McNamara during launch of Hawaii on the Hill held at the Woodrow Wilson House, Washington DC. 7 june 2016.
Sherry Menor-McNamara wants to develop an economic plan to steer the state out of the pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

She said working with over 2,000 businesses in her role as chamber president as well as the Legislature could aid her in developing that playbook if she is elected to office

Menor-McNamara also said she would use the LG’s office to ensure that billions of dollars in federal funds coming down to Hawaii are spent effectively.

Over the next five years, Hawaii is expected to get at least $2.5 billion from the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. There’s also millions of dollars that the state can tap into through competitive federal grants.

While much of the last three rounds of federal relief funds were spent fairly quickly during the pandemic, Hawaii struggled to spend the slow trickle of infrastructure funds coming from the feds in the aftermath of the 2008 recession.

The 2022 election would be Menor-McNamara’s first time running for office. And although she hasn’t held office before, she does have some experience in government.

In the 1990s, she interned in the late U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka’s office and in the White House. She also worked as a committee clerk at the Legislature between 2001 to 2003. She’s been at the chamber since 2006 and was appointed president in 2013.

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