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 Karl Rhoads, Democratic candidate for state Senate District 13, which includes Pacific Heights, Chinatown and Iwilei. His opponents are Republican Matthew Tinay, nonpartisan candidate Michelle Kwock and Kapono Souza 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 Senate District 13

Karl Rhoads
Party Democratic
Age 59
Occupation State senator
Residence Chinatown, Oahu


Community organizations/prior offices held

State Senate (2016-present); state House (2006-2016); Downtown Neighborhood Board (1997-2006).

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

The high cost of living is the issue that voters in District 13 are most painfully aware of. For years I have advocated for more affordable housing and had success in saving or building projects like Kukui Gardens, Senior Residence at Iwilei and the senior affordable complex on School Street. The reason I have focused on housing is that for most people this is their largest expense.

Many have forgotten that not that long ago Hawaii had a gas price cap law. I was not in the Legislature when this was voted on, but I support reinstating it. Oil company profits over the last few months have been unconscionable.

At the macro level, like every other district, the most severe problem is global warming. Global warming is already happening. More hurricanes, drought followed by rain bombs and rising sea levels are all going to change Hawaii in ways that are going to make it a much less pleasant place. With climate change, unfortunately we have already gotten to the place where all-of-the above is the answer. A carbon tax is the most effective way to address greenhouse gas emissions and I have introduced several bills to institute one.

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 pandemic highlighted the point that visitors are a mixed blessing. While their presence provides for many jobs, it also drives up prices, particularly the cost of housing. We need to look more closely at whether nonresidents pay their fair share through the transient accommodations tax and the general excise tax. I suspect they do not, especially if you look at indirect costs (like the high cost of housing) in addition to direct costs (like the upkeep of state parks). Real property taxes are levied by the counties and they may need to increase these for nonresidents.

Having said that, we still need to diversify the economy. Hawaii is already a leader in renewable energy and we have all the natural advantages: wind, solar, geothermal, fallow ag land and wave energy resources. We should strive to become world leaders in all the technologies involved. This is going to be a growth industry for decades and one with huge potential markets.

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?

As I mentioned in my answer to an earlier question, I have focused on affordable housing because it is generally a family’s largest expense. I have also sought to improve the quality of our public school system because so many middle-income families feel like they need to send their kids to private schools to ensure a good education. A higher percentage of parents in Hawaii send their kids to private schools than in any other state. If parents trusted the public schools, the cost savings would be substantial.

Another large cost driver is the price of owning a private vehicle. My wife and I have not owned a car in years and we save about $8,000 a year by not having one. I support alternate forms of transportation, all of which are cheaper than owning a car.

Finally, on the income side, I support unions. Unionized workers get paid better and unions act as a counterbalance to the unbridled greed of large corporations. Corporate America has tried for decades to stifle unions and discourage union membership and they have been very successful in this effort. The result is a shrinking middle class in Hawaii and everywhere else in the U.S.

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 Democratic Party has traditionally been much more philosophically and socially diverse than the Republicans. We still are. If you look at the range of opinion inside the Democratic caucuses in the Legislature it runs the gamut. In my view the only unifying theme in the Democratic Party of Hawaii is that of inclusion. There is a very strong sense from my colleagues that everyone, regardless of ethnic or social background, should get a fair chance in life. After that, we are all over the place on issues.

On the continent, the Republican Party under Trump has become the party of white nationalism. Is it any wonder that the Republican message does not resonate in Hawaii where 75% of the population is not white?

That does not mean that Democrats should take their majority party status for granted. As a party, you never want people to vote for you only because the other party is just not an option. You want to have a positive message and run the state well. We need to keep our own house in order if we are going to retain our dominant political position. More on that in my answers to later questions.

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

No. The commonly held view is that citizens initiatives are more democratic than the legislative process. I disagree. To get a question on the ballot you generally have to collect a certain number of signatures. Well-organized, well-funded groups are the ones who are able to do this. These are exactly the same groups that people complain have too much influence at the Legislature.

If you set the number very low (like to run for office), then you have a book to read before you vote and only a tiny minority of people will do this conscientiously. Even in California where you have to have a lot of signatures, the voting packet is huge and I doubt better decisions are made than would have been made at the Legislature.

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 do not support term limits for legislators (or for county council members for that matter). The primary reason is that there are no term limits for civil service employees or even for political appointees. Term-limiting legislators simply transfers more power to the executive branch, which is already far and away the dominant branch at the state level and the federal level. Knowledge is power and a civil servant with 20 years of experience simply knows more than a legislator who has been in office for six or seven years.

Civil servants already have a knowledge advantage because they have the luxury of specialization. As a legislator you need to know something about a whole variety of topics. The Legislature is one of the last places being a generalist is helpful.

Some argue that term limits will diminish the influence of money on politics. I do not see how. Those running for office need money to run. In fact, those who are running for the first time need money more than those who have been in office because they, in essence, need to buy name recognition. If anything, this makes them more susceptible to special interest influence.

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?

I have worked for years to make voting, campaign spending and the legislative process better and more transparent. I have played key roles in passing same-day voter registration, vote by mail, and ranked choice voting.

Our opens records law, the Uniform Information Practices Act, applies to the Legislature and always has (Hawaii Revised Statutes 92F-3). The Sunshine Law does not apply. I am open to changing that. My guess is that it would not change legislative results, but decisions would take longer. The Honolulu City Council is covered and they meet all year and hear many fewer bills. Being able to meet in private makes it easier to work out compromises quickly.

As an incumbent, banning fundraising during the legislative session would be to my advantage.  Challengers generally start an election year with nothing in the bank. In contrast, I had $110,453.96 on Dec. 31. Banning fundraising from January to May would virtually assure incumbents’ victories. Ballots arrive in late July. That leaves 10 weeks between the end of the Legislature’s regular session and when people start to vote. It would be very difficult to raise the kind of money you need to win in that window.

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?

Contrary to popular opinion, the Legislature is remarkably open already and ironically, the pandemic helped make it that way. Now, instead of having to go to the Capitol to testify verbally, you can testify online.

The real chokepoint on accessibility is time. Most people do not have time to sit waiting for their zoom time to come up nor do they have time to ask for a meeting with their legislators. These time constraints are exactly why interest groups hire lobbyists who get paid to sit in hours-long committee meetings and go to appointments with legislators.

Conference committees are open to the public and are announced in advance. What are not open are private meetings between legislators, see my answer above about the Sunshine Law.

I support stricter disclosure requirements for lobbyists. You can already see who they are working for online, but additional information about what bills they support or oppose would help improve transparency.

With regard to internal rules changes, we could require earlier public notice for committee hearings and conferences. Lack of transparency derives from not being covered by the Sunshine Law, which I discussed earlier.

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?

People have to want to behave civilly. Unfortunately, civility does not seem to be a virtue in politics anymore. The way forward is to have honest, depersonalized arguments. Admittedly, this is hard to do. Honest meaning you are trying to learn from the argument and change your views if the facts demand, not just score political points or make someone else look bad. Sometimes making accurate statements does make others look bad, but you should look bad if your position doesn’t make any sense.

The corollary of this is that you can’t assume that your opponent is corrupt or has nefarious intent. You have to assume they are acting in good faith and have the best interests of the state in mind.

The other aspect of this question is something philosophers have argued about for thousands of years. How do we know what is true? What sources of information do we believe? It is very hard to have an honest argument if you aren’t allowed to challenge the other person’s facts and assumptions.

Politics is a proxy for war. Let’s behave like adults and be sure politics doesn’t lead to an actual civil war.

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.

The number of people right on the financial edge before the pandemic began was way too high, as was well-known. When the pandemic hit many had no reserves and quickly lost their jobs and with their jobs their health care insurance. In some ways, those who didn’t lose their jobs were in a worse spot because many had to go in to work despite the health threat and they were at the mercy of their employers to take time off to avoid infecting their kupuna or other vulnerable household members.

The one big idea is that we need to take to heart the years of expressions of concern about those in the bottom 40% of wage earners who struggle even when times are good. Specifically, untying health insurance from employment needs to happen. Paid family and medical leave (like every other industrialized country in the world has) needs to be implemented.

Finally, everyone should have a preexisting unemployment account where you can simply notify the unemployment office that you are unemployed and the benefits begin. If there are disputes, they can be resolved later, but access to the benefits immediately would take pressure off someone who has just been laid off.

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