Danny De Gracia: Want To Make The Legislature Better? Show Up And Push Back - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Danny de Gracia

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at dgracia@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @ddg2cb.

Now that committee hearings are live streamed and archived on YouTube, gutsy questions that lawmakers struggle to answer can be shared with thousands of viewers.

Longtime observers of Hawaii politics have come to know that in downtown Honolulu’s Big Square Building, representatives and senators reign as legislative barons.

Often saying things, doing things or enacting things that run afoul of public opinion or common sense, there is an atmosphere of patriarchal “you’ll do this, because we said so and it’s good for you” deterministic lawmaking by committees and legislative leaders during session.

We often think that this is benignly the product of an incumbent being in power for too long or a legislator being out of touch with the public pulse. But then when we find out about scandals like those involving the former Senate Majority leader, J. Kalani English or House Finance Vice Chair, Ty Cullen and we begin to realize that clearer transparency and deeper explanations are needed in the way the Legislature operates.

Now, as a former committee clerk, I’ve been in many closed door meetings, advised many chairs and written many proposed amendments for legislators over the years. I’m familiar with all of the tactics and shortcuts, I’ve seen how horses are traded, how lambs are sacrificed and how scapegoats are exiled on the way to getting those fancy governor’s signing ceremonies at Washington Place.

But one thing that I have scarcely seen in all my years in politics is a proactive, assertive and engaged population pushing back against legislative barons.

If we want more accountability and transparency, the public is going to have to force the issue in a visual, memorable way. Forget about committee chairs agreeing to play nice. Forget about Supreme Court rulings demanding an end to gut-and-replace. Forget about training seminars, ethics pamphlets or any of that passive stuff that gets lip service.

Want to make the Legislature better? Then it’s time for us to show up to hearings and push back against bad legislators and bad bills with assertive testimony.

Lawmakers rule the State Capitol but its time for the public to reclaim our territory. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat 2016)

The Power Of Leveraging YouTube

Thanks to the pandemic, nearly every hearing and information briefing held at the State Capitol is now streamed live and archived for later viewing on demand on YouTube. Why is this important? Because if a member of the public attends a hearing in-person and offers dynamic testimony that brings to light an important issue or shames a badly behaving chairperson, that hearing’s video can be seen and shared by tens of thousands of locals.

In the past, you had to hope that Capitol TV filmed a hearing, or that someone brought their cell phone to the hearing to video the event. Now, with hearings automatically on YouTube, the public can have a deterrent effect of using every public event at the Capitol as an opportunity to confront legislators, ask difficult questions and divide committee members enough to stall a bad bill or refuse a questionable proposed amendment.

The only catch? You have to be willing to show up, and you have to be willing to be assertive in committee.

This is not an easy assignment, which is why, so far, few people are doing it. It takes guts to show up to a committee and during one’s testimony flip the script by asking “Mr. Chairman, if you’ll permit, I’d like to ask the bill introducer, who also sits on this committee, did they introduce this bill because so-and-so contributed to their campaign last year?”

Even though chairs may protect their members and refuse an answer or stonewall a testifier, they aren’t prepared or used to that kind of blowback. Imagine what would happen if some testifier asked, “Why is it when this senator isn’t around and doesn’t return any of my phone calls that’s perfectly fine, but when one of us does it on the job, that’s a justification for them to deny telework opportunities to everyone else?”

We have to seed doubt, division and a moment of pause into committees with powerful hearing encounters.

Committee members don’t like being shamed live on YouTube, especially when there’s the risk the event could go viral and a single gutsy member of the public could turn these legislators against each other as they scramble to cover their butts.

This kind of citizen tactic is extremely rude, very disruptive and also very awesome and very necessary in the era we’re living in. They’ll say you have “no aloha” if you do this but I say they’ll get “aloha” when they start showing us some humility and honor in office.

‘Temple Of Democracy’

Chinese author Sun Tzu famously suggested that war is a moral contest when he wrote that all battles are won and lost in the temple before a battle. The State Capitol’s “temple of democracy” is where our transparency and accountability war will be won (or lost) by the citizen public.

As I have written before, many of these committee chairs arrogantly think themselves to be mini-members of U.S. Congress, wielding the power of the pen and the power of the purse over all of us. If that’s how they want to act then let’s give them a little playback and turn their hearings into dramatic events like the old school congressional hearings of the 20th century where bold testifiers shamed or talked back to pompous lawmakers.

Army Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. rebuked racist congressmen during a hearing in World War II. Boston lawyer Joseph Welch ended Sen. Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt and career in a hearing by asking, “Have you no sense of decency?” Howard Hughes won public adoration by humiliating Sen. Owen Brewster over campaign contributions during a hearing.

We remember these events because these people spoke up dynamically.

How do you punish corruption? How do you rebuke stupid? How do you motivate legislative lethargy?

We’ll do it when we turn their hearings into comeuppance events. Too long have we been forced to be the “bad doggy” in the corner and just accept legislative tyranny. Well, members of the public, it’s time to show up and bark back.

They’re counting on Hawaii being passive and staying passive. Let’s show these arrogant legislators for the first time, they’ve counted wrong.

Read this next:

Beth Fukumoto: Politics Has Made Me More Passionate About Hawaii

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About the Author

Danny de Gracia

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at dgracia@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @ddg2cb.

Latest Comments (0)

The bill is deferred to another date then POOF ! it is gone. Hocus pocus. I like it when I come in to testify, the committee chair sits back, looks at the other committee members then wonders what I am going to unleash. MY member base who sends me to lobby is 2,000 strong and contributes to various campaigns so they better listen. I come knowing not to waste their time either and am respectful of their position.

Leeward_Voice · 1 month ago

Thank you for your article. I agree, we need to push back! But be aware! Once you are labeled by legislators as "a problem," you will be blackballed and blocked! Literally, their clerks know your name and block and ghost you! I’ve been there, done that! I had an experience with a Representative who actually graded me a "D- " after testifying because I didn’t say exactly what he wanted me to say. I was embarrassed because he did this in front of his office staff and others,Including my family and friends, who were also there to testify and support. We went to his office to thank him. I didn’t expect to be graded and embarrassed! Now I’m black balled! Ugh!!

Voices · 1 month ago

Thank you Danny. I always stood up and ended up in trouble.

Shandylier · 1 month ago

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