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 Valerie Wang, Democratic candidate for state House District 26, which includes Makiki and Punchbowl. The other Democratic candidates are Della Au Belatti and Kanzo Nara.

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

Candidate for State House District 26

Valerie Wang
Party Democratic
Age 35
Occupation Director of sales and account management, Kaiser Permanente
Residence Punchbowl, Oahu

Website

Community organizations/prior offices held

The Pantry by Feeding Hawaii Together, board of advisors; Bizgenics Foundation, board of directors; Rotary Club of Downtown Honolulu, youth services chair; City & County of Honolulu Department of Housing & Homelessness, volunteer; Hawaii Technology Development Corporation, volunteer; American Heart Association Hawaii, former member of executive leadership team; Aloha United Way, former member of Aloha Women United and Aloha United Way Society of Young Leaders.

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

I’ve knocked on 2,300-plus doors so far and the issue I keep hearing is the homeless/houseless in our neighborhoods. This is obviously a very complicated issue.

First, I wanted to share that most of the homeless in our district have been out on the streets for less than six months. However, many assistance programs only help the “chronically homeless,” which requires you to be houseless for at least 12 months. This is nonsensical because these are the people who could most easily get back on their feet with a little help. I would push to reform our programs.

Second, the homeless have created a family on the streets, and to be most effective we must help the entire community. Many of our programs today are tailored for individuals, not groups, which is why the village concept is so important.

I will continue the work I’ve already done with the city in pushing for more transitional housing, where we can provide full wrap-around services for the houseless to also include mental health services, addiction treatment, therapy, career counseling and coaching. The state can support and accelerate the building of more villages by providing proper space and permits.

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?

We’ve conducted our own survey via our website, and of those polled, 72% believe Hawaii is too dependent on tourism and 40% do not want tourism to come back to pre-pandemic levels. Tourism accounts for about 25% of all jobs in Hawaii, and our reliance on this single industry became too evident when our unemployment rate jumped to 20%-plus overnight in 2020.

We have “talked” about diversifying our economy for far too long now, and after everything we’ve gone through in the last two years, it’s time to turn words into action.

While tourism will always be an important part of Hawaii’s economy and identity, we absolutely need to diversify our economy. Through properly developed tax credits tied to local payroll and job growth (i.e. the R&D tax credit), we should look at incentivizing job creation in the technology, film and TV, alternative energy and commerce industries.

With a shortage of 1,000-plus physicians statewide, and our growing supply issue around affordable housing, we need to continue growing our health care and construction industries.

In addition, we must also push for more workforce development programs, trade school attendance, and STEM programs to ensure we have the proper workforce for these industries.

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?

This may be our most important issue as this is the future of Hawaii.

When we talk about affordable housing, we must expand this definition into the 60-120 AMI range, which is the middle workforce class. A tax on unoccupied homes will stop our people from being priced out of their homes and will bring in more revenue to build affordable housing and possibly subsidize cost of living items.

We must look at our supply chain costs and ways we can reduce our costs of goods coming into the state. We must look at becoming less dependent on imports – we should further develop our agricultural land to feed our people and even export crops to the rest of the world. We live in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and 63% of the seafood we consume is imported. We must invest in our local aquaculture industry.

We must invest in and support both our small businesses and our union workforce. Through specifically designed programs, we can and must support both.

And finally, the government has a responsibility to overturn every process and look for inefficiencies and ways to save budget and redirect these funds into programs that help our communities.

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?

“The value of a diverse team is its capacity to challenge the norm or group think and thus boost organizational performance and improve decision-making,” said Yrthya Dinzey-Flores.

While I am new to politics, I am not new to leading teams and organizations. This issue is one of the main reasons why I’m running. Homogeneous organizations are dangerous because as we lose perspective, we fail to represent all people and all concerns, and we stifle all creativity and innovation.

We absolutely must have an open exchange of ideas, transparency and accountability. You do this by changing the culture. You do this by eliminating any “quid-pro-quo” expectations. You do this by making it OK to challenge status quo, and to speak up when something doesn’t seem right. You do this by creating a safe space to propose new ideas, to challenge house leadership, and to fail. Only by creating a safe space for failure can you then push for transparency and accountability.

This culture is not easy to change, especially if it’s been in place for decades, but it is possible – all you need is a few folks in office who are not afraid to speak up and to ensure all ideas are heard.

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

Yes, I support having a statewide citizens initiative process. This is a way for our community to be heard and for individuals, organizations and groups to get policies across when the local Legislature is stalling (or failing to act).

While there have been some examples where a citizens initiative process is vulnerable to special interest groups, it has also helped push through several initiatives that have helped the working class (for example Florida’s $15 minimum wage initiative in 2020, Missouri’s Medicare Expansion ballot measure in 2020). It is a great way to ensure key issues are voted on by the people they impact the most – the voters.

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?

Of the people who took our survey, 88% believe there should be term limits on the state Legislative branches.

While I agree that there is a lot of value that veteran politicians bring to each session, I also understand the public’s standpoint and concerns around corruption in the House and Senate. Term limits will make it easier for new faces to enter government and therefore hopefully more diverse representation and new and fresh ideas. There are also other ways to address the concerns we all hope to solve with term limits.

As a newcomer running against an incumbent, a bigger challenge is the current culture of “quid-pro-quo” within the government. Many organizations are hesitant to openly support new candidates due to fear of retaliation in the House. Additionally, session occurs during part of the campaign season, allowing incumbents to use their current position to subtly promote their campaigns.

There were several great ideas that floated through the House this year to address corruption such as limiting fundraising during session, third party auditor, etc. To no one’s surprise, none of these bills survived session. Which, going back to question 5, is why we should have a statewide citizens initiative process.

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?

Yes, I absolutely support increased transparency and communication, all to re-establish trust with our communities. This is why I’m running. I’m running on a platform of transparency, communication and trust – because our government has lost so much of it over the last couple of years.

I am in support of the Sunshine Law and open records laws to apply to the Legislature. I also am in support of banning campaign contributions during session, especially with what was uncovered in the recent scandals.

I believe all representatives should recuse themselves from voting on a bill if there is a conflict of interest, and other representatives should have the ability to identify potential conflicts that their peers may have, without fear of retaliation.

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?

Yes, to everything listed. Conference committees should be open to the public. There should be increased disclosure requirements on lobbying and lobbyists.

Furthermore, I think we need to push transparency even more by inviting the public into the process. In speaking with residents of our district, I’ve realized that many folks don’t know how bills are created or passed, or that they even have the opportunity to submit testimony in favor of or in opposition to a bill.

I’d love to create short, bite-sized videos, explaining to the public how session works and what role they can play. For key bills, I would love to actively market these bills to the public and encourage them to submit testimony (and/or vote!). I’d like to turn each bill into a simple graphic and/or short 30-second video so that our communities feel involved and a part of our lawmaking process.

By inviting our communities to be a part of the process, we will inevitably change the process to be more transparent and accessible to the public.

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’ve become so polarized. It’s easier to double down on your stance than it is to listen to an opinion that differs from your own – because then you might have to admit that you were wrong. Going back to question 4, this is why our government has become so homogeneous with representatives afraid to speak up and to challenge the status quo.

In speaking with folks who have opinions that differ from mine, we all want the same thing. We want Hawaii to be a great place for our children. We want to take care of the homeless. We want to feel safe. We want small businesses to survive but we also want everyone to afford to live. How we get there may differ, but our values are the same.

We must divert the conversation from the “how” and talk about our core values. This is where it starts. If we are aligned on our values, we can find a way to get there no matter how seemingly divided we are.

If you look at the endorsements we’ve received so far, you’ll see that we have been able to bridge these gaps and bring together organizations in spite of their differences.

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 can be more than what it is now. And our greatest opportunity is to invest in technology.

– New jobs, new industries: Hawaii can become a global leader in green energy by harnessing the gifts from the wind and sun and the very ocean itself. Hawaii can produce the next-generation geniuses and innovators by building the best education system in the world and ending the brain drain. Almost every single tech company based on the mainland has at least one employee working remotely from Hawaii. We can turn this into new, high-paying jobs, for our community.

Better Systems: When Covid-19 temporarily shut our state down in March/April 2020, our unemployment system broke. We should be investing in streamlined, automated systems that can process 150,000 claims without delays and without breaking. Our banks were able to successfully push through tens of thousands of Paycheck Protection Program loan applications within a couple of weeks; there is no reason why our state cannot also invest in the technology and systems to serve our unemployed workforce in the same way. Other technology-related opportunities include better data systems for contact tracing, reporting, etc., which will improve the state’s transparency and communication with the public.

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