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 Bennette Misalucha, Democratic candidate for state Senate District 16, which includes Halawa Heights, Aiea, Waimalu, Kalauao, Waiau, Pacific Palisasdes and Pearl City. The other Democratic candidate is Brandon Elefante.

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

Candidate for State Senate District 16

Bennette Misalucha
Party Democratic
Age 63
Occupation State senator
Residence Aiea, Oahu

Website

Community organizations/prior offices held

State senator since 2020; founding president, Women in Transportation-Hawaii Chapter; director, Chaminade University Board of Regents; chair, Filipino Complete Count Committee; director, Oahu Transit Services; secretary/treasurer, Precinct 34-1, Democratic Party of Hawaii; director and past president, Filipino Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii; past board chair, Girl Scouts of Hawaii; past director, Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii; past director, Filipino Community Center; director, Kauai Philippine Cultural Center; past director, YMCA; president, Congress of Visayan Organizations; director, Philippine Celebrations Coordinating Committee of Hawaii; past Community Advisory Board member, Hawaii Public Radio; past director, Friends of East West Center; past director, Oahu Arts Center; member, Honolulu Rotary Club; member, 2001 City and County of Honolulu Reapportionment Commission; past chair, Affiliated Chambers and Business Organizations Council, Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii; past assistant secretary, State Central Committee, Democratic Party of Hawaii; past treasurer, Young Democrats; past treasurer, Oahu Filipino Community Council.

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

It’s jobs, jobs, jobs. We need to connect students with opportunities that will set them up for success. 40% of Aiea High School’s graduates reportedly are not college-bound. While college is not for everyone, we should be providing skills training for these students and prepare them for the post high school labor market. Without vocational training, to support their families, they would need to juggle two or three lower-wage jobs due to Hawaii’s cost of living. This situation doesn’t bode well for the long-term viability of families and community.

Toward this goal, since last year, legislative colleagues and I have been pursuing partnerships with selected technology and private sector companies who are interested in setting up academies or certification models which will pilot in our two high schools. There are details that still need to be fleshed out but I hope to see these plans come to fruition shortly. I am excited about the possibilities.

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?

I know that people are looking for the proverbial silver bullet as a way to pivot from a tourism-reliant economy. The reality is that Hawaii’s strategic advantages are its natural beauty and fair weather. This means tourism will continue to be an economic driver for years to come, albeit it needs to be effectively managed.

Tourism should be the means to the end: making Hawaii a great place for our regular working families to live, work and play. Bottom line: Hawaii is a good place to visit because it is a good place to live. I know it is easier said than done. But it is imperative that we have this mindset.

So, what else can Hawaii do? We need to use broad strokes in creating incentives for expanding economic drivers. We can look to agriculture, science and technology, which have deep roots in the islands. Implementing incentives for these sectors will provide us with the first steps for a more economically diversified future.

I strongly believe that technology offers strong potential. There is a strong push to fund STEM programs in our schools and I believe these efforts will build a cadre of highly trained graduates ready to contribute to a digital economy.

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?

During this past session, the state Legislature sought to address these inequalities and passed a number of measures that would benefit our working families.

The most impactful legislation passed was the raising of the minimum wage bill as well as the measure making the state earned income credit a permanent and refundable event. In addition, we expanded public investments in housing and education including funding for pre-school facilities targeted at low-income families.

Undoubtedly, more needs to be done.

For example, there need to be policy changes to increase the inventory of affordable rentals, as well as affordable housing for working families. My understanding is that what contributes to this inventory problem is the permitting and development process. We should leave no stone unturned in ensuring that every family in Hawaii has a decent place to live where they can raise good families.

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?

We ought to acknowledge that within the Hawaii Democratic Party, there are many factions; it is a big tent that accommodates a broad spectrum of ideas and advocacies. This lends itself to free flow of ideas and robust discussions.

At the Senate, I have witnessed a concerted effort to allow a healthy exchange of opinions. The discourse is often heated but this rigorous vetting process results in good legislation.

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

While I support the intent of the statewide citizens initiative process, I do not support the process in practice. My reasoning is that citizens initiative, especially in this era of hyper-political, conspiracy-filled social media, has the ability to circumvent the democratic process.

The citizens initiative process may represent the will of some people, but it can also be used by special interest groups to circumvent the legislative process. Especially when backed by deep-pocket financing, the process favors those who are best at disseminating information, truthful or not.

It is for these reasons that I place my trust in dedicated, duly elected individuals who get to know their constituents and best represent their interests. It is our duty to educate ourselves and understand each matter before we cast a 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?

No, I am not in favor of term limits. Interestingly enough, research conducted over time suggests that term limits actually have an opposite effect on legislators. As legislators are nearing the end of their term, they become more focused on other matters, as opposed to serving their constituencies. This has been labelled as the “Burkean shift.”

I contend that as a matter of course, voters can exercise “term limits” as they choose their representative every two years, and their senators every four years.

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?

What I found sad is that the recent corruption charges have placed the entire institution under indictment rather than just the ones breaking the public’s trust. We are all deemed guilty by association, and it will take time before trust can be restored.

I would like to see what the commission proposes and would be open to opportunities to rebuild public trust.

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?

During the pandemic, as the Legislature continued to deliberate on the issues of the day, we went the extra mile to ensure that the legislative process remains transparent and accessible. Using technology, we were able to provide access to communities, especially rural areas, to participate in the deliberation and discussion. In addition, all the hearings were recorded and easily accessed on the Senate’s YouTube Channel. This allows any constituent to do additional research on a topic or vote.

I am in favor of ideas that will allow for more community engagement.  I believe the Senate internal rules can be modified to accommodate an open and transparent process as long as it is within the bounds of what the constitution provides.

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?

Good question. I have reflected on this even in our own community as we grapple and discuss a host of issues. First of all, I intend to model the way and create an environment where we can have civil discussions but at the end, we can still sit down for dinner and enjoy friendships and camaraderie. I think it is important to share stories; to share a meal, to understand people’s interests and persuasions.

When we see people, not as their advocacy, but as human beings, we are able to give them some leeway.  We then cease to polarize the issues and we can celebrate the ties that bind. I think for change to happen, it all starts with our neighborhoods. As we get to know our neighbors more, we can establish a solid foundation that can celebrate common ground, as well as 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.

I mentioned this in my questionnaire two years ago, wherein we moan about how Hawaii is in the middle of the Pacific and residents have this feeling, albeit self-imposed, that our geographic isolation has contributed to lost economic opportunities.

But the pandemic had shown us that geography is no longer the end all-be all. Silicon Valley can be Aiea or Pearl City. We can create a digital paradise here. We do not need to sacrifice our best graduates to the mainland to compete in the digital world.

With cloud technology, our graduates can live here while servicing a client in Europe. We need to work on attracting tech companies including dual-use companies, to establish virtual tech hubs in Hawaii. Our entire education system — from kindergarten to college — will need to support the effort. If we succeed, we would be on the road toward diversifying our economy in the truest sense of the word.

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