Hawaii’s Bully-Based Legislative System - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Russell Ruderman

Born and raised on U.S. Army bases, Russell Ruderman attended Penn State University and holds a B.S. in biology. He began working in the natural food business in 1975, and was among the pioneers of the modern natural foods industry. In 1998 Ruderman founded Island Naturals Market and Deli in Hilo. Now with three stores including Pahoa and Kailua-Kona and over 200 employees, Island Naturals is committed to supporting local farmers and producers. He served as state senator for Puna district on the Big Island from 2012 to 2020. His focus was on the environment, economic justice, and helping Puna recover from a series of disasters. Ruderman lives in Keaau.


It’s the reason the Legislature serves special interests and fails to serve the public good.

It’s refreshing to finally hear stories being told about the bullies at the state Senate. The situation is worse than one can imagine, and was the reason I could not continue serving in that body.

I remember a telling example from a few years ago. I was listening to the new Senate president in his first address at the start of his first year.

After having overthrown the previous president in a coup, new President Ron Kouchi joked about his life as a bully: “As I thought about what to say this morning, I looked at Senator Harimoto, and, quite frankly, when I first met him, he impressed me as the kind of guy I would’ve taken lunch money from when we were in high school. Then … I found out just how strong he is, and realized I never would’ve gotten his lunch money from him.”

That’s from the Senate Journal, Jan. 20, 2016 — opening day. Humorous story, eh?

What struck me was the nonchalant description of himself as the schoolyard bully, as if it were normal and acceptable. I was also surprised that most of my fellow members of the Senate accepted this as normal: “Of course anyone who can be a bully will be one.”

Not the world I choose, but the world of local politics.

Notably, the self-described bully was picturing himself picking on the smallest member of the body, my friend Breene Harimoto. The bully himself was possibly the largest member, twice Breene’s size. Classic bully behavior, and he’s still at it.

The bully tactics didn’t end in the schoolyard, but continue to this day in the Senate. The bully is now president, and a majority of senators owe their allegiance to him in a self-perpetuating, self-serving system. No transparency, no term limits, no consequences.

The big bully empowers and enables the mid-level, lieutenant bullies. They need each other. They are motivated by hidden influences and an obsessive sense of vengeance against those who have not bowed to them. These include the obvious, such as Sens. Donovan Dela Cruz and Glenn Wakai.

VIce Chair Education Breene Harimoto listens to testimony during education committee meetings.  4 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The late Sen. Breene Harimoto had a long career in public service. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015)

This can be clearly seen in the recent Scott Glenn retribution. He did not bow to the shockingly corrupt efforts of those two to push Honua Ola. Wakai and Dela Cruz sent inappropriate letters pressuring the PUC on Honua Ola among other efforts, and it was Wakai and Dela Cruz who led the charge to oppose his nomination.

And then there are the enablers, who do as the bullies say. They also need each other. They obey to keep a position of importance such as a chairmanship, and to avoid punishment in the form of their bills and funding being blocked.

These seemingly nice people are not bullies at heart, but have made a devil’s bargain with the bosses and the net effect of their service is to enable and perpetuate the situation we have today.

A true story as an example: Once I was trying to get votes for a simple, reasonable bill which “leadership” did not support. A likable fellow member wanted to support it but she told me, “When I was first starting out, Kouchi helped me with my first fundraiser, so I can never disobey him.”

You see how it works — a little political muscle by the bully, and the new kid is in his pocket for life. Accumulate a few of these and you win the game.

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This senator still serves and obeys the same master, many years later. In fact, the Big Bully, the Lieutenant Bullies and the Enabler Bullies, as described here, are still in the exact same position eight years later!

Term limits, anyone?

For me and a very few others, selling our souls in this way is not an option and thus success as an honest legislator in the bully-based system was not a possibility.

This control by a few takes the place of an honestly functioning Legislature and a government that addresses our urgent needs. This is the reason the Legislature serves special interests and fails to serve the public good. It’s a perversion of democracy and harms each of us every day.


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About the Author

Russell Ruderman

Born and raised on U.S. Army bases, Russell Ruderman attended Penn State University and holds a B.S. in biology. He began working in the natural food business in 1975, and was among the pioneers of the modern natural foods industry. In 1998 Ruderman founded Island Naturals Market and Deli in Hilo. Now with three stores including Pahoa and Kailua-Kona and over 200 employees, Island Naturals is committed to supporting local farmers and producers. He served as state senator for Puna district on the Big Island from 2012 to 2020. His focus was on the environment, economic justice, and helping Puna recover from a series of disasters. Ruderman lives in Keaau.


Latest Comments (0)

Mahalo Russell! Yes, sad that so much of our politics from very top to bottom feeders and Trump-like wannabes in our state legislature is lodged in seventh grade ego trip dynamics. But, by now we (mature folks) know how to defeat them! 'HULI' the system at every opportunity!

MarkT · 2 months ago

What a great article. It's a shame that it recommends a lousy fix. Term limits are disruptive and almost necessarily subvert the will of the voters. If we keep electing bullies, the answer isn't term limits -- it's better-informed voters.

rs84 · 2 months ago

Term limits are a bad idea in the legislature. Good legislators need to be kept in office as long as their constituents want them. Who's fault is it that bullies keep getting re-elected? The voters in those districts, of course. Since name recognition is a huge motivating factor at the polls, a huge number of voters don't even know what their legislators are doing.If you want Dela Cruz out, start targeting his constituents NOW with education campaigns about all the awful things he's doing, and how others in Hawaii look down on the people in his district for continually re-electing him. Someone could start a FB page called, "Dela Cruz the Bully," and just post something every time he does something that screws over large segments of the Hawaii citizenry.Education is the way to combat ignorance. Always has been. Always will be.

Vanessa_Ott · 2 months ago

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