Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 8 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 Glenn Wakai, Democratic candidate for state Senate District 15, which includes Sand Island, Ford Island, Keehi Lagoon, Kalihi Kai, Salt Lake, Aliamanu, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Pearl City and Waipahu. His opponent is Republican Lorene Godfrey.

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 15

Glenn Wakai
Party Democratic
Age 55
Occupation State senator
Residence Salt Lake, Oahu


Community organizations/prior offices held

State senator, 2010-present; state representative, 2002-2010; board member, Aloha Medical Mission; board member, Japanese Cultural Center; honorary consul, Republic of Palau.

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

The high cost of living. I have introduced legislation to reduce taxes, grow the economy by moving away from low-wage jobs to those sparked by innovation, push for more utility-scale energy projects to reduce everyone’s energy bills, and embrace new affordable housing projects in Salt Lake.

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?

Tourism is our sole goose laying golden eggs. In the past, we’ve measured its success by heads in beds. Today, its success needs to be gauged by resident and visitor sentiment. Getting HTA to collaborate with other government agencies will be key to addressing pain points such as traffic, crime, trespassing, overcrowding and short-term rentals.

Hawaii needs to nurture new “geese” by focusing on our strengths, not our weaknesses. I have been advancing a “Triple A Economic Plan”:

— Alternative energy (we have so many renewable opportunities and no clear strategy).

— Aquaculture (let’s look to the ocean to provide us food and jobs).

— Aerospace (the lunar terrain of the Big Island makes it a prime spot to prepare to one day inhabit another planet, and our proximity to the equator makes us the perfect site to launch satellites, via drones).

In all three areas, Hawaii can and should be a global leader.

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?

Reduce taxes and monetize state lands. This past session I passed a bill to get rid of the general excise tax on food and medicine. With our huge budget surplus, this was the ideal year to reduce the costs of essentials for our working families. That bill failed to make it across the finish line.

The state should stop digging deeper into people’s pockets and instead, create more pockets. We can do this by better monetizing our lands. The New Aloha Stadium Entertainment District is a prime example of efforts to entice private investments, to turn a 98-acre parking lot into one of the most lucrative assets for the state. 1.8 million visitors to the Arizona Memorial can be lured across the street to spend money. Tens of millions of dollars in lease payments can then be used to improve our roads and pay for teacher raises.

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 embrace differing points of view and debates. There are a lot of lively discussions within the Democratic caucuses in the Senate and House. Is it the Democrats’ responsibility to help Republicans build their base? Any discontent with a super-majority party is due to alternative perspectives that do not resonate with the public. If we had four equally represented parties in the Hawaii Legislature, would everyone be happy?

The key is to get good, honest and diligent people in public office; no matter what their party affiliation. Five years ago, long before Covid-19, I was the first senator in Hawaii promoting remote testimony of my hearings. The hope was to bring more transparency and accountability to the Capitol. Now all hearings are streamed live and archived. The public has every opportunity to participate — the responsibility is on them to do so.

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

No. Referendums have turned into a disaster in California. Money and politics are always messy. Special interest groups often take over issues by bankrolling the public messaging. Corporations or tycoons have an enormous opportunity to set policy through their checkbooks or Venmo accounts.

I have introduced many controversial bills on behalf of constituents because it’s the only way their ideas can be debated. Those individuals can then grow support for their proposal and get it signed into law.

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. The public has choices. If I like a certain type of car, or airline and choose to be loyal to them, should government say I need to pick a different car or airline every eight years? The public has every opportunity to put an end to any candidate’s aspirations.

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 am accountable to my constituents. I respond to their emails, calls or social media messages. I don’t always agree with them but explain my position. As a former journalist, I am all for open records and have called for numerous audits.

This year, I voted in favor of banning fundraisers during the legislative session. If the public really wants money out of politics, let’s go down the road of publicly financed elections. That way everyone, incumbent and challengers will have the same amount of fuel at the starting line. Will the public then gripe about their taxes being used to elect someone they don’t like?

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?

Continue to hold hearings in person and on-line. Conference committees are already open to the public. We do not need more mandates on those who lobby, we need enforcement of lobbyists who don’t register.

All new language in bills have to sit for 48 hours, perhaps that could be lengthened to allow more public discourse.

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?

I am all for gathering different voices to work toward a compromise. We need reasonable people to come to up with acceptable solutions. Too often we have polar opposites that have no intention of negotiating; thus, we have paralysis.

For acrimonious ideas, lawmakers often set up task forces so the stakeholders can make recommendations the following year. That often leads to good outcomes. In all cases, there needs to be a timeline toward resolution, or the status quo always wins.

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.

Bring down the silos in state government. It’s dysfunctional because department mission statements clash. The Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health are focused on regulating businesses. The Department of of Business, Economic Development and Tourism is tasked with promoting them. They don’t work for the greater public good.

Enterprise Technology Services should be coordinating all of government’s IT needs, but various departments with no tech expertise fight to set up their own systems. This lack of coordination leads to an incredible waste of time and resources.

In a corporation, accounting, finance, marketing, customer service and distribution are all working toward the same goal. We need government to function like a business.

The next administration needs “cabinet level connectors” like a food coordinator, climate change champion, tech guru or an economic dynamo. The public deserves better outcomes.

Not a subscription

Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service. That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help keep our journalism free for all readers. And if you’re able, consider a sustaining monthly gift to support our work all year-round.