The three leading Democratic candidates for governor aimed stinging attacks at one another in an online forum Wednesday morning, part of what’s likely to be a fierce primary fight over their differing visions of modern day Hawaii.
Businesswoman Vicky Cayetano and U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele described a number of unresolved problems, such as a lack of affordable housing driving people out of the state, and pledged to deliver dramatic changes they say Hawaii must have to recover from political corruption and bureaucratic bumbling.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green, generally regarded as the frontrunner in the race, stressed his accomplishments during the pandemic, praising the state’s emergency response that saved thousands of lives. But he also acknowledged some chronic problems, pledging to build public trust and “restore hope to our state.”
Kahele and Green attacked each other’s history of political fundraising, an issue that is taking center stage in a campaign year that has already featured the federal indictment of former Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro and guilty pleas by two former lawmakers in cases linked to political fundraising.
All three candidates addressed the housing crisis during the hour-long forum on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight Hawaii” program, with Kahele declaring he wants to scrap plans to replace Aloha Stadium, and instead build 10,000 new homes in the Halawa area.
“Housing is the foundational underpinning of a strong and vibrant community” and critical to a strong economy, Kahele said. “Our failure to provide affordable housing for decades has left families broken. It’s leading to the brain drain, where the next generation is looking to leave Hawaii because they’ve lost hope.”
Kahele said he would issue a “100-day innovation challenge” to solicit new proposals to address the housing crisis, and to redevelop state and city parcels along the rail line to help provide thousands of units of workforce housing in the urban core.
Green said housing is the most important issue in the state and that the governor can launch a “moon shot” on housing to decrease regulations. He said he would use the governor’s emergency powers if necessary to reduce the “red tape” slowing the permitting process.
The shortage of affordable housing is leading to a shortage of nurses and teachers, and “we have to take on Airbnb’s. Illegal Airbnb’s are taking inventory out from our people … and houses that are not occupied in the state of Hawaii should be taxed very severely so, again, that housing gets pushed back out into the market,” Green said.
He said he would call on the Legislature “in emergency terms to take this on.”
Cayetano said bureaucracy and politics “are a chokehold on the projects that we have.” She blamed “a dysfunctional process that is layered with bureaucracy that takes eternity for any affordable housing to even be built.”
She pledged to work with the Legislature to declare a state of emergency to fast-track construction of affordable housing. She cited her housing plans as a pathway forward to promote workforce housing, rent-to-own and affordable rentals.
Green said he wants to impose a “climate impact fee” of about $50 per person on tourists as they enter the state to raise $500 million to $600 million per year. Tourists paid twice that amount and more for Covid-19 testing during the pandemic, which proves that visitors can absorb the extra cost, he said.
The fee “will decrease the number of tourists that would come in at the low end, so we’ll have fewer tourists overall with this additional revenue,” Green said.
The money from that fee should be invested in protecting the environment and coping with climate change, and also to fund other initiatives such as raising teacher pay and developing affordable housing and energy solutions, he said.
Cayetano said the state needs to diversify the economy to reduce the state’s dependence on tourism, and that requires improving the business climate. “Hawaii has probably one of the worst reputations as being a place to do business in, and we really need to address that,” she said.
Both Cayetano and Green suggested the state pursue “health care tourism” as a growth industry, while Kahele said the state needs to reduce the number of tourists below the 10 million-plus visitors who arrived in 2019.
One of the sharpest exchanges began when Kahele asked Green about a letter Green wrote to Gov. David Ige on Dec. 2 to advocate draining the fuel stored in the Navy’s Red Hill storage facility in the wake of a fuel leak that contaminated water used by thousands of families. Green proposed moving the fuel to facilities owned by Par Hawaii Refining.
Kahele said senior executives at Par Hawaii made thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Green, and said Green’s recommendation was “strange to me” because the state did not know the cause or scope of the fuel leak at the time. The state later learned more than 40 critical repairs need to be made before the fuel can be moved safely, Kahele said.
Kahele called Green’s plan “erratic decision making and a rush to judgment” that would have benefited his campaign donor Par Hawaii, and risked creating a worse disaster.
Green replied that he was acting governor when the disaster hit, and immediately visited affected families and demanded that the military stop operations and begin to drain the tanks. “To come up with a solution immediately is leadership,” he said.
Green said Kahele and other members of the congressional delegation later called for moving the fuel to a safe, above-ground location — exactly as Green had proposed. That was “leadership on the spot, I was far ahead of anyone else on that, and I’m proud that we made that decision,” he said.
It was “unfortunate and disappointing” that Kahele raised the issue of campaign donations because “your entire career has been built and predicated on taking money from special interests,” Green said. “The years that you spent in Congress, over 70% of your money came from corporate donations and (political action committees).”
When Kahele pressed Green on whether he accepted money from Par Hawaii executives, Green replied that he accepted donations from 3,865 people. “With thousands of donors, people have placed their trust in me, and I will work with anybody who will help solve a problem,” he said.
Green also remarked that Kahele received contributions from Dennis Mitsunaga and Milton Choy, who are both prolific campaign donors involved in recent criminal cases. “That’s probably the wrong people to take money from, and that’s where the congressman got his money from in the past years,” Green said.
On other issues, Green and Kahele said they do not support mandating vaccinations for public employees, while Cayetano said a mandate “makes sense for certain professions or certain jobs, like in hospitals.”
On the controversial issue of the Thirty Meter Telescope planned for Mauna Kea, Cayetano said she supports the project, while Kahele said he does not support it as it is currently planned. Green said “we should build big projects like the TMT in our state, but we should only do it if we can do it through a place of respect and trust.”
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