Rep. Amy Perruso: Don't Underestimate How Important Reform Is To The Public - Honolulu Civil Beat


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Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at rwiens@civilbeat.org.


High school social studies teacher Amy Perruso is beginning her third term in the House of Representatives. She thinks if reform measures are ever to get serious consideration in the Legislature, this is the year.

In the following conversation, which was edited for length and clarity, Perruso talks about the prospects for various proposals and speculates that some of her colleagues may be underestimating the public’s desire for real change in state government.

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With recent high-profile scandals involving legislators and other public officials, it seems like some real momentum has been building for better transparency and accountability at the Legislature. Do you expect the 2023 session to be a big one for actual progress on reform issues?

I am very hopeful because we have 31 pieces of legislation that we have already promised will be introduced and will be heard, at least by the Judiciary Committee. So I feel confident on the House side that most of the recommendations have been received favorably.

And you know, it’s almost my view that the recommendations (from the Special Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct) may not have gone far enough, because I am deeply concerned about the role of money in politics. I very much support the bill that Karl Rhoads is introducing in the Senate around clean elections.

So I think there is momentum, and I think it’s a window of opportunity. I am afraid that if we allow this moment to pass, we’re not going to have a similar kind of momentum in the subsequent years. So I really hope the public is kind of prepared to come in and testify and to help the legislators understand how important they think this is.

Do you think we’ll actually get to the point of committee votes on these 31 proposals from the standards commission?

I do, because if they’re heard by the committees, which is what the leadership has said will happen in the House, then we are going to have votes in the relevant committees. The Senate is a bit out of my purview, and I’m not sure what the sentiment is there.

Which reform issues do you think are most likely to lead to real results this session?

Let me answer that a different way. I think we are going to have the most difficult conversations around transparency. The Sunshine Law is going to be tricky because it means that anytime we have any conversations about legislative proposals, then we’ll have to (public-)notice those meetings.

I am concerned, and I think some of my colleagues are concerned, that it will hamper progress. And frankly, I think that we already struggle with the shortness of the session. So I would feel a lot better about being governed by the Sunshine Law if we also made the Legislature full-time because we so often are unable to pass, like, pretty basic legislation just because we run out of time.

I support term limits, but I support term limits that don’t grandfather everybody in. I want people to start from where they’re at, basically, so that if you’ve already served 20 years, then you will have termed out. For it to be impactful at all, if we say, “OK, starting now 16 years from now — that’s ludicrous, you know?

Do you really think that a term limits proposal without grandfather clauses would ever have a chance in the Legislature?

I think it should.

Rep. Amy Perruso says many of her constituents feel strongly that the Democratic Party has become complacent about corruption. She believes the time has come to change voters’ perception by enacting real change. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

Regarding the standards commission, are there any areas where you thought they kind of struck out, or where you would like to have seen more?

I didn’t really see the commission re-examine the election rules, right? Or the statute governing campaign finance. And I think there’s language in there that needs to be revisited, because if you think about sources of corruption in the building, it’s not just that we might be having conversations in private. For me, the fundamental issue is the role of money in politics.

So the only way to really get at that is to look at how we are financing our campaigns. And while we can’t undo Citizens United, we can at the local level create provisions that make it really uncomfortable for big corporations to spend a lot of money backing particular candidates.

So I just think that if we underestimate this cynicism and this alienation, we Democrats do it at our own peril.

And I think we can put into effect stricter laws around how soon that money has to be used and what happens if they don’t use it in that immediate election. I think it should go to the elections commission, and we should be using that money to publicly finance campaigns. And that, I think, would really disincentivize big money coming into politics.

And it would actually undermine their objectives because, if it’s not used, it will be used for people who are very likely not indebted to big money. So I think we can be smarter at the local level if we really want to get money out of politics. We have some tools available to us that I don’t think we’re using.

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Any other thoughts on the standards commission?

I felt like they had really robust debate around most topics. The one thing I would mention is that I saw them during the process of their deliberations, which thankfully were public, already foreclosing on possibilities by arguing that they didn’t want to propose any changes that legislators might not find palatable.

And I think the audience should not have been legislators. The audience should have been the public. Legislators serve at the will of the public, so I think that they could have, should have been willing to entertain stronger policy options. I just found that they were too interested in the question of what’s realistic and what will get passed. And I think that oftentimes, you don’t know what’s possible until you try it.

Have any of your legislative colleagues suggested that you tone it down in terms of reform?

No, because they don’t have to. They know that the progressives are but a small group within the body. We haven’t been asked to tone it down, to not speak our minds, because they know we don’t have the votes.

About 240 candidates answered Civil Beat’s Q&As last year, and you were the only one who called the need for government reform the No. 1 issue facing your constituents. Why did you say that?

I said that because I have been knocking on the doors, and this is a Democratic stronghold, Wahiawa has been in Democratic hands for as long as we have been a state. The community is troubled by the corruption question. And I can’t explain why my colleagues are not hearing the same thing from their communities.

I have had community members with tears in their eyes saying they can no longer vote, no matter what, no matter how much they love me, they can no longer vote for a Democrat because we have become complacent and corrupt. And so for me, knowing this community, knowing the people I’m talking to, they’re intergenerational community members. They understand the values of the party. They’re good, decent people.

And once you have those conversations at the doors, it’s like nothing else was as emotionally charged. There were other issues that came up. We had other conversations, but nobody was crying. Nobody was saying they were going to sever lifetime relationships, relationships their parents have had with the party.

For some people, that was it. That was the end of the relationship.

And this was different than what you heard in your previous two campaigns?

Yeah, I mean, there was already this kind of cynicism, right? And I think a lot of the reason people voted for me was that I’m a progressive and I pushed back against corporate money and corporate involvement, and I’m a teacher, and I think that’s one of the reasons I was supported against someone who represented the status quo.

So I just think that if we underestimate this cynicism and this alienation, we Democrats do it at our own peril. And I don’t want to be a part of that.


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About the Author

Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at rwiens@civilbeat.org.


Latest Comments (0)

Thank you very much for this insightful article.I noticed that when Rep. Perruso was asked "Do you really think that a term limit proposal without grandfather clauses would ever have a chance in the Legislature?" Rep. Perruso did not answer the question directly, and chose instead to reply "I think it should." From my understanding, there is a distinct difference between answering a question directly, either yes I do, or no I do not, and then adding "I think it should", and choosing instead to respond with "I think it should."

markbradley · 1 week ago

It’s nice to see term limits discussed with realty-based concerns. Thank you Rep Perruso for having rare integrity and sense in the Leg, where corrupt motivations and bully-based hierarchy rule. It’s welcome. "I support term limits… that don’t grandfather everybody in… so that if you’ve already served 20 years, then you will have termed out. For it to be impactful at all, if we say, "OK, starting now 16 years from now — that’s ludicrous, you know?Do you really think that a term limits proposal without grandfather clauses would ever have a chance in the Legislature?I think it should." Hear, hear!

RussellR · 1 week ago

Oh, if we only had a legislature fully of Amy Perrusos! But thanks for the one we have!

Dator · 1 week ago

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