Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 8 General 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 Mahina Poepoe, Democratic candidate for state House District 13, which includes Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe, Kahului, Paia, Haiku, Peahi, Keanae, Wailua, Kaeleku, Hana, Puuiki, Kipahulu and Kaupo. Her opponents are Republican Scott Adam and Nick Nikhilananda of the Green Party.

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

Candidate for State House District 13

Mahina Poepoe
Party Democratic
Age 34
Occupation Legislative analyst
Residence Molokai


Community organizations/prior offices held

None provided.

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

As a Native Hawaiian, the health and sustainability of our water resources is an urgent issue. In the recent past we’ve witnessed and experienced water shortages, polluted aquifers, degrading watersheds and legal battles between Native Hawaiian and corporate interests across the state. Without remediary and revolutionary actions to restore and safeguard our water resources, we risk a future of water insecurity.

The environmental and cultural impacts of water extraction must be thoroughly investigated and accounted for in the permitting processes. For surface water, I support the continued establishment of in-stream flow standards and prioritizing the water needs of traditional and customary practices. For groundwater, I would push to develop and adopt new sustainable yields that are inclusive of climate change projections, and traditional, customary, and environmental needs. I would also support a greater investment in watershed protection and reforestation.

Socially and economically, the disparity between the cost of living, the minimum wage, and the lack of available affordable housing are top of mind issues that require continued attention. Immediate actions that I would support include getting the minimum wage up to a living wage, creating affordable housing, and establishing anti-speculation policies and rent controls.

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?

Maintaining Hawaii’s dependence on tourism at status-quo is nearsighted and unresponsive to the public’s demand for tourism relief. Furthermore, tourism as a primary economic driver leaves us at the mercy of external conditions that are beyond our control, as proven by the pandemic. I support conducting an environmental impact statement for tourism, establishing a carrying capacity for tourism on each island, and providing more funding to the counties to manage tourism within their jurisdictions.

To reduce our dependence on tourism, we must keep moving toward regenerative economic diversification. Food self-sufficiency is both an economic strategy and a matter of survival. According to a DBEDT report, Hawaii imports more than 80% of its food. Replacing just 10% of those imports with locally produced food would keep $313 million in our local economy annually. The more imports we replace, the more money we keep in local circulation.

To ensure that this component of economic diversification is fulfilled, agricultural lands must be protected, resources to small farmers must be provided, more funding must be allocated to expand non-industrial agriculture, and indigenous Native Hawaiian agriculture and aquaculture must be supported.

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?

To relieve the cost of living stressors experienced, we should pay our residents a living wage and stop the commodification and speculation of land and housing. We need to create affordable housing that is kept affordable in perpetuity, and provide equitable access to quality health care, education, child care, senior care, and broadband connection in our rural 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?

Though the Legislature is primarily composed of Democrats, the individuals that make up this body are quite diverse. We know that candidates often cross party lines to increase their chances of winning.

Ultimately, what matters more than a candidate’s party affiliation is their character, their measure of morality in decision-making, and their commitment to working together for the benefit of the greater good.

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

The reason I started voting was to support a citizens ballot initiative that proposed a ban on the cultivation or reproduction of GMOs within the County of Maui and to vote for a mayoral candidate who supported this initiative. The initiative passed, but was immediately challenged and invalidated in court.

This was the start of my involvement in government. I fully support a state-level citizens initiative process.

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?

I’ve heard from people who are both for and against term limits for state legislators. On the one hand, establishing term limits would help to balance the distribution of power and would disincentivize elected officials from treating their positions as careers. On the other hand, establishing term limits would eliminate the ability of voters to re-elect an incumbent that they are satisfied with.

Personally, I do support establishing term limits for state legislators. In 2020, The Maui County Council placed a proposed charter amendment on the ballot asking voters whether or not council members should be limited to serving five two-year terms in total. The amendment passed with 68.5% of the electorate voting in favor of setting term limits for council members, so this gives us a good idea of where Maui County voters stand on the issue.

Following suit, I would support placing the topic of setting term limits for state legislators on the ballot to let the voters make the decision.

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?

As a community activist, I feel that public scrutiny is an important part of the governmental process, as this is how we preserve public interest and participation and hold officials accountable. Yes, I support requiring the Sunshine Law and open records law. I support banning campaign contributions during session, but remain concerned that this ban would not stop the same contributions (donations made in correlation to actions taken on specific bills) from occurring either before or after session. I would also support banning dark money infusions to super-PACs from mainland and statewide corporate interest groups.

Currently, state committee chairs have the discretionary power to kill a bill by failing to schedule it or by deferring it in session before it ever sees the “sunshine.” To alleviate this, all meetings and discussions that negotiate the fate of a bill should be public, inclusive of an opportunity for participation, and all deferrals should require a committee vote so that the public can be made aware of the individual stances of their elected representatives.

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 would definitely support opening conference committees to the public and implementing stricter disclosure requirements on lobbying and lobbyists.

In addition to what was mentioned in response to the previous question, the Legislature needs to be more accessible to neighbor island residents. To attend and provide live testimony at legislative meetings, neighbor island residents would need to spend $200 or more on airfare and ground transportation. The Legislature should permanently continue with hybrid (in-person and remote) meetings so that neighbor island residents can continue to participate without the burden of costly travel, and should improve the quality of hybrid delivery by using the Maui County Council as a model.

House District 13 includes the area of East Maui, the islands of Molokai, Lanai, and Kahoolawe, and the volcanic crater of Molokini. If elected, I will prioritize spending time in the communities across our district and will advocate for funding to staff offices in East Maui, Lanai and Molokai to ensure that resources and accessibility to the Legislature are provided to residents in our most rural areas.

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?

It’s important to acknowledge that divisions do exist and although absolute consensus makes things easier, it can be an elusive goal. When there is disagreement, all sides of an issue deserve to be heard and discussed in a manner which is fair and respectful.

At the end of the day we are each individually responsible for our own self awareness and actions. Taking the time and consideration to meet others where they’re at and without judgment can go a long way in bringing people together 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.

Outdated technology and economic disparity are systemic issues that were exposed and have existed long before the pandemic occurred. Many of the issues we face are complex and interconnected in nature, yet are often treated in a siloed and compartmentalized manner. I would like to see our state incorporate problem-solving and decision-making processes that are comprehensive and holistic in approach and that do a better job at identifying and addressing the root causes of these issues. As we work to address our most pressing social and economic issues, environmental protection and natural resource regeneration must not fall to the wayside and should be prioritized with equal urgency.

Along that same train of thought, and for my “big idea,” I would initiate the discussion of granting environmental personhood to our water sources. Environmental personhood formally recognizes the rights of nature above extractive and commodifiable value and grants protections and legal rights to nature that are akin to that of a person. Examples of environmental personhood designations exist around the globe and are usually initiated by indigenous communities. In many cases there is no need to reinvent the wheel; what we need is the momentum to turn the wheel forward.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.