Rep. Gene Ward: ‘Reform Proposals Will Be Very Disappointing This Session’ - 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

The veteran GOP lawmaker thinks the one-party dominance of Democrats is a hindrance to efforts to bring more transparency to the Legislature.

Gene Ward is one of the few Republicans in the Hawaii Legislature — they are outnumbered by Democrats 45-6 in the House and 23-2 in the Senate — but he is a familiar one, having served there for a 24 years.

In the following conversation, which was edited for length and clarity, the Hawaii Kai lawmaker talks about being a perennial member of a tiny minority in the House of Representatives.

It seems like the Legislature can be a frustrating place to serve if you’re not in leadership, and especially if you are in the minority party. Why do you continue to do it?

I continue to do it because I really believe in what Republicans believe in. I used to be a Democrat, a Kennedy Democrat, but then Ronald Reagan came along and said just about everything that I believe in from free markets to free people. 

Also please remember a lot of bills have Republican fingerprints. It will be introduced by a Republican, not pass, and then one or two sessions later, appear as a Democrat bill and pass or at least get a hearing.

What’s an example of that?

Removing the GET tax on food and medicine. This concept originated with Republicans and has been introduced continually for the past three decades and was always introduced in one form or another as a way of helping the poor, as well as taking away the stigma of greed that our government had to have a tax even on the food that keeps us alive, and on the medicine that heals us.

Fast forward to the 2022 campaign of Josh Green, now Gov. Green, who I spoke with last week so see if he was staying the course and not abandoning his campaign promise to eliminate the GET tax on food and medicine. He said it’s still his intent not to back down.

Also, during the peak of the pandemic, the Legislature was poised to soon receive its designated pay increase while others were losing their jobs and the Legislature had already refused consideration of any minimum wage increase.

Representative Gene Ward speaks during house floor session. April 8, 2021
Rep. Gene Ward distributed copies of his proposed floor amendment to defer legislative pay raises for a year during the pandemic in April 2021, but withdrew it when the House approved Speaker Scott Saiki’s amendment to defer them for two years. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

I took to the floor with an amendment that postponed any pay raise for an additional year. When Speaker (Scott) Saiki learned of my amendment, he immediately introduced his own amendment on the same day, but his amendment said that the pay increase would be postponed for two years. His was heard first and unanimously passed and I withdrew mine, but oh, did I get flack from some Democrats and Republicans saying my amendment forced Speaker Saiki’s hand to double down on the pay raise postponement.

Do you feel you and your fellow Republican legislators are treated fairly?

Yes, and no. Yes, in that most elected officials are nice as well as sharp. But there is a type of political racism practiced at the Capitol. Some Democrats look at Republicans as if they are a lesser species. It’s odd. I pity them. They don’t see a human being in front of them, they see a political party — which is an odd way to view the world.  

One hundred years ago, the Republicans owned and ran everything; now the Democrats are doing the same. This is not a good mix for democracy to prevail.

No one should always get their way in a democracy, just like in a marriage between a man and his wife — there has to be power sharing and compromise. But with a supermajority of Democrats, Republican votes are not needed so much as our voice is very needed because most Democrats just vote with their leaders and go along to get along — and keep their titles and leadership positions.

Let me be cynical for a moment. If the Republicans had the majority in the Hawaii Legislature, do you think they’d really be any more transparent or accountable than the Democrats are now?

Hey, if we had 60 years in office, I would think we could be a bit more magnanimous. Definitely, for sure.

Many people feel that some politicians join the Democratic Party because it gives them a better chance of being elected in Hawaii, and that as a result, we have some pretty conservative Democrats serving in the Legislature. Do you agree with that?

Some Democrats are actually Republicans, but they vote Democratic to stay in their positions of power. It makes it more difficult to get candidates who really believe in what Republicans believe in, rather than, “Hey, what are my chances of winning?” So the probability of winning causes that.

I am friends with the Republican political leaders in the South where their red supermajorities are even bigger than Hawaii’s and they have a hard time keeping Democrats from converting to Republicans in order to get elected.

The governor has said he’s inclined to sign reform bills coming from the Legislature. How do you view the prospects this session for reform proposals coming from either the state standards commission or other sources?  

I think there is going to be a lot of head-fakes and obfuscation on why the Democrats stood up the standards of conduct commission but then bailed out on doing anything about it.

There is a type of political racism practiced at the Capitol. Some Democrats look at Republicans as if they are a lesser species.

Rep. Gene Ward

Take term limits for example. The commission recommended it, and surveys show that over 70% of the public are for term limits, but I think Democratic leaders in the Capitol are going to slip out the side door on this one, and say something like they just couldn’t get the votes.

DItto changing the power structure of committee chairs, the Sunshine laws, as well as how bills are heard in committees. Reform proposals will be very disappointing this session if I’m reading the tea leaves correctly.

Your bill, HB 1173, would establish a statewide citizens initiative process, as well as processes for referendum and recall at the state level. Why did you introduce it?

I introduced this bill for my first three to four terms in office and it never had a hearing, but it always had interest from the public. The last poll indicated the Legislature has an 18% approval rating, and IR&R is a way to yield some power to the people.

I think the standards of conduct commission discussed this issue, and frankly I was encouraged to bring back the conversation. Most legislators are afraid of what the people will do if we give them too much power through this democratic safety valve.

How would it change the Legislature, and Hawaii in general, if it were approved?

You mean when we’re not afraid of the people, how is it going to be different? Well, we’ll probably have term limits. There might be even perhaps boards of education by county rather than statewide the way it is right now. We don’t have enough proximity of the people to their schools.

We’d probably have an uptick in some Hawaiian issues as the Hawaiian community is getting beyond a cultural renaissance to what I believe now is more political and economic. There would be more legislation to get Hawaiian homes not only effectively managed and operating, but more funding.

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Of course, the folks who don’t want this always point to the possibility of special interests taking over this process. What do you say to that?

I mean, it’s fear-mongering because they want the status quo. Look, everybody who’s come to Hawaii has got a seat at the table. Everybody’s economically well off except the indigenous Hawaiians. So anybody who’s got a vested interest in keeping all the economic, political boundaries as they are, that’s all, to me, their self-interest.

Since when are we afraid of the people? Since when are we afraid of the Jefferson notion of the common sense, for the common good, of the common people?

Sen. Karl Rhoads has introduced a bill expanding public support for campaign spending. How do you feel about it?

I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it will dull the donations of special interests. The way it is now, most legislators struggle to raise $30,000 to $50,000 to get reelected, but most committee chairs and majority leaders rake in $100,000 to $200,000 in a single campaign season. Money talks, and this bill will mute it to some degree.

But it will put the burden on taxpayers’ backs to pay for our elections, something that not too many people I know are keen on.

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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

Latest Comments (0)

I have never been a fan of Rep. Ward, his stance on proposals have caused a lot of issues with both parties wanting to get things passed, so what I'm basically saying is with what Rep. Ward is saying about disappointment should be considered by others as encouraging.

unclebob61 · 7 months ago

The real threat of citizens initiatives is that it would ruin the lockstep dynamic. At the moment most initiatives are simply copying ideas from other blue states, NGOs, big business donors, etc. Citizens don't feel like they have a chance of influencing the process so they give up. With citizens initiatives it would become obvious very quickly that some of those policies are deeply unpopular, and the politicians who insist on pushing them would get called out.

Brandon · 7 months ago

It's definitely clear which direction reform is headed and I appreciate Rep Ward's candor in the matter. It would be great now to get Democratic Leader Saiki's point of view on the progress of the bills.

surferx808 · 7 months ago

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