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 Michael Lee, Democratic candidate for state House District 50, which includes Moku Manu Island, Popoia Island and Kailua. The other Democratic candidates are Toni Difante, Natalia Hussey-Burdick and Esera Vegas.
1. What is the biggest issue facing your district, and what would you do about it?
As I have been walking door-to-door, meeting community members, the biggest issue that comes up is public safety. Residents are concerned about increasing crime rates, vandalism, dangerous driving and generally feeling unsafe in their neighborhoods.
If elected to the state House, I would work closely with neighborhood security watch groups to address suspicious activity and deter criminals. I would also make sure our parks are kept clean and well-maintained. I am deeply grateful to have the endorsement of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers (SHOPO) and I will partner with HPD to increase enforcement of our laws.
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?
The district I hope to represent has been heavily affected by overtourism, from illegal vacation rentals to busloads of tourists being dropped off in the middle of Kailua town. I support the efforts of HTA’s Kuleana Campaign and Mālama Hawaii. I also think we need to offer more regenerative and sustainable tourism opportunities for visitors.
One of the silver linings of the Covid-19 pandemic was the increased opportunity to telework and bring many of our young workers back home. I hope to increase this trend and support remote working opportunities for the next generation of local workers.
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?
ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) families are a large part of our community and we need to find new ways to help them thrive in Hawaii. I supported making the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) refundable and permanent; this mirrors the federal tax credit and will help working families to make ends meet.
If elected, I would also work closely with the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corporation to increase the number of affordable units for rent and purchase; particularly in the urban core of Oahu. Housing is the greatest household expense and we need to increase the supply of affordable housing for local residents.
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?
I treat everyone and their ideas with the same respect and open mind, regardless of their party affiliation. I will always have an open door to meet with community members and stakeholders on any issue.
I think the Democratic Party in Hawaii is a big tent, with many different perspectives and views; this makes us stronger as Democrats. If elected to office, I will base my decisions on facts and data, representing our community to the best of my ability.
5. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
I am open to a discussion about how a statewide citizens initiative process could work in Hawaii because I believe that people should have a voice in their government. I would be concerned about the influence of special interests and money in citizens initiatives, like we have seen in other states.
Hawaii also has a history of leading the country on many civil rights issues and we may not have been able to make these tough decisions if it was subject to a popular vote.
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?
This election there are more than 10 open House seats, roughly 20% of the State House of Representatives, where no incumbent is running. This is the case in my race, so we will have to elect a new state representative.
As a Kailua resident, I have seen many new legislators on the Windward side, even without term limits. I think that the case for term limits has its merits, but there is also a learning curve when starting a new job, so I would not want to preclude an experienced legislator from serving his or her community.
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 criminal conduct of former Rep. Cullen and Sen. English is unacceptable. We trust our public officials to conduct themselves with the highest level of integrity and that is how I will serve the communities of Kailua and Kaneohe if elected to the state House.
I look forward to the recommendations of the House Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct. We need to ensure that state laws and ethics rules contain clear standards, enforcement and penalties. I also support a thorough review of lobbying and campaign finance laws that will increase compliance and transparency. I am open to all suggestions and ideas to improve government accountability.
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?
I support all efforts to make it easier and more accessible for the public to participate in the legislative process. For example, allowing testifiers to appear via Zoom and recording committee hearings has greatly improved access for private citizens.
Not everyone can afford to take time off from work or fly over from a neighbor island. Such changes have helped create accessibility for the public. If elected to the state House, I will hold regular town hall meetings to hear directly from the community about issues that affect their lives. I’m working hard to make sure that I speak to as many voters as I can to understand their needs and how to best represent them in the state House.
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?
As a professional mediator, I would use my background in conflict resolution to help my colleagues work together in true lōkahi. We often make the mistake of assuming lōkahi comes as a result of working together when actually it is rooted in the beginning of a relationship.
Finding true lōkahi occurs when different parties are able to acknowledge their common ground before starting a dialogue. Many parties in conflict lose sight of this. While their approaches may differ, their end goals are often the same. Acknowledging this from the beginning will help produce respectful and objective dialogue and hopefully more effective legislation.
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.
One of the biggest lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic was the importance of closing the digital divide. With everyone working and learning from home, our internet connection and speed (or lack thereof) became a choke point for access to the outside world.
Hawaii’s interisland internet connectivity is overdue for an upgrade; it is over 20 years old. We need to build more capacity and redundancy, to ensure that everyone can have access to high-speed broadband internet.
I also believe that if we can provide this critical infrastructure, it will be a backbone to support a diversified economy, high-quality jobs and reverse our brain drain. We can also give our students the best access to digital learning platforms and help them to compete on the global stage.
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