About the Author
In his dual roles as lawmaker and state party chair, Adrian Tam talks about why reform happens so slowly in the Hawaii Legislature.
Adrian Tam is not only one of the youngest members of the Legislature, but also the interim chair of the state Democratic Party. He was 27 years old when he accomplished the rare feat of knocking off an incumbent legislator representing Waikiki in 2020 and easily won reelection two years later.
In an interview edited for length and clarity, Tam says conversion to a full-time Legislature is the most urgently needed reform at the Capitol. He also addresses whether his party has an identity crisis because while its platform strongly supports reform, many Democratic officeholders do not.
You said during the last election that you supported some key legislative reform issues, including applying the Sunshine Law to the Legislature and banning acceptance of campaign contributions during session. Where do you stand on those issues now?
Still in support. When it comes to campaign contributions during the legislative session, I’ve always wanted to be fair. So if we’re going to ban campaign contributions, we should ban campaign contributions to all candidates
If the main reason is that we want to get rid of that influence of money, applying the ban only to current legislators is not going to stop someone from threatening an incumbent to donate to their primary challenger or the general election challenger, if that incumbent doesn’t do what he or she wants them to do.
If we’re going to do campaign contribution bans, it should be across the board.
Regarding applying the Sunshine Law to the Legislature, would that mean a longer legislative session?
Oh, yeah. I support a full-time Legislature. And the reason why I support one is because I think it’s ridiculous that if Jan. 24 was the last day for us to introduce bills for this session, and a constituent has a good idea and they come to me on Jan. 25, I need to tell them to wait until January 2025 to introduce that good idea.
That doesn’t make sense. Legislating is not a part-time gig and neither is constituent services.
You also told Civil Beat last year that you supported term limits for legislators. Is that still the case?
I think it just makes sense in a way, but I also see the other side of not having term limits, which is, institutional knowledge that stays. And you don’t want staffers and lobbyists to become more powerful than those that are in elected office, because incumbents will come and go.
I also don’t think that a district should be forced to get rid of someone that they might like simply because of a technicality, that they served so many years. You know, if an incumbent is not doing well and a strong challenger comes along, that strong challenger will have a chance. And that was the case for me in my race in 2020.
Is there is there a middle ground — maybe having term terms, but a big number like 16 years?
I think it would be pretty much a big number, like somewhere around 16 years. But I do understand the need for new perspectives and the ability to have some fresh blood in office.
You were actually elected to the House at the age of 27. Could term limits hurt you personally in terms of your political career?
I don’t know. Eventually I will leave. But I don’t know the answer to that question actually. I don’t really think of this job as something for myself. I think of this job as being for District 24 and for the people of Hawaii.
Where do you stand on full public financing of campaigns?
I’m generally supportive of it right now. I think that overall, the bigger question has to be focused on Citizens United (a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing unlimited election spending by corporations and labor unions).
We can do as many reforms on the state level as we can, but it’s going to be really difficult to change how we approach issues if Citizens United is not overturned at the federal level.
There’s been a lot of conjecture that because of what’s happened with wildfires, and because of the housing shortage being so front and center, that reform issues may not get as much attention this session as last session. Do you think that they should?
I think the priority has to be the Maui wildfires. But I think one reform that will really help is a full-time Legislature. Because when the Maui wildfires hit, it really felt like we were stuck because people were asking us to call for a special session. People are asking if you’re proposing bills and all this.
We formed these working groups, these bipartisan working groups to address what happened and how do we improve and be more proactive. And they were helpful. But now we’re at this critical juncture where we have four months to basically put these bills into law. And sometimes they may take more than four months to have the best possible bill.
So that’s the main one that I wish we could pass, if we can pass a reform bill.
In December you became interim chair of the Democratic Party of Hawaii after concerns that the previous chair wasn’t filling party officer vacancies, and was kind of failing in fundraising. How has it been going? Have you been able to make some progress in those areas?
Yes. We have made a lot of progress in terms of fundraising. The biggest progress that I’ve seen is a boost in member morale.
“Legislating is not a part-time gig and neither is constituent services.”
More people are serving on committees right now, working for or getting involved in the Democratic Party. And as a result, people are investing in the party now with their time and their energy and their resources, and I’m really happy about that.
At the last state party convention, back in 2022, delegates supported some pretty significant reforms in the party platform and in resolutions, including a lot of the ones we’ve already been talking about, and that you support as an individual legislator. Do you think at the next state convention that the delegates will display similar support for reform issues?
I don’t see why they wouldn’t.
Even though the state party as a whole supports reform issues, obviously a decent number of Democratic legislators do not or otherwise they would have been adopted before now. How important is it that Democratic legislators support the party platform and resolutions, or at least explain why they don’t?
I think that you just have to approach it with an open mind, and that’s something that they have been doing. And to have that direct communication with the party and themselves to ensure that things are done correctly when it comes to reforming our government.
Reforming our government is not an easy lift. It is quite possibly one of the most complicated parts of legislating. You’re talking about changing something that has been done in a certain way for so many years into something different. A lot of us are really just trying to make sure that Hawaii is ready for that, and we’re testing the waters to make sure that these reforms can be put into place.
So I understand where the Democratic legislators are coming from. But I also understand why the party is taking a significant stand when it comes to reform, because change is needed for a lot of things. And we saw it with Covid, and now we saw it with the Lahaina wildfires. And it’s just up to us to really put in the work to ensure that we do it correctly and the right way.
The party’s current bylaws spell out that Democratic candidates are supposed to be supplied with a copy of the platform and resolutions within seven days of the filing deadline, and they then have 14 more days to submit candidate statements explaining whether they agree or disagree with the party stand. Do you see that same process playing out this election year?
Yes. Candidates will be getting a questionnaire on our party platform. I don’t see that process changing unless the next chair decides that this is going to be something that we don’t do anymore. But as of right now I don’t see it changing.
And you’re sticking with the plan of being chair only through the state convention in May, right?
Correct. Our constitution basically prohibits candidates from becoming chair of the party.
“Reforming our government is not an easy lift. It is quite possibly one of the most complicated parts of legislating.”
The bylaws also call for those Democratic candidate statements to be placed on the party website until the general election. Do you see that process staying the same as well?
Which is interesting because it does allow the public to get some idea of where these candidates are coming from on some of these issues. Many of them respond to Civil Beat’s candidate Q&As, but some of them don’t and it’s a little harder to pin them down on some of these issues.
I can’t speak for the other candidates. Of course when we put out these questionnaires, they have a choice whether they want to fill them out or not.
In the past have most candidates submitted the statements to the party?
I think a lot of them do. I’m not sure.
Is the main ramification of not submitting a candidate statement that you’re not necessarily going to get the party’s financial support for your campaign? It seems like that would be a concern to some candidates but not others who already have big campaign warchests.
I think the main ramification is that the party members will pretty much not know where you stand on these issues, whether or not you support the platform. I’m not sure about resources going to candidates. The party has always tried to provide as much resources as we can to candidates in the general election.
You’re not aware of any Democratic candidates not qualifying for that financial support?
I’m not aware of that. I haven’t been in those circles yet.
Obviously, the Democratic Party has long dominated elections in Hawaii. One result is that politicians of all persuasions tend to join the party. Do you think that this practice undermines the party’s values?
Yes and no. In some cases where the party is taking a very clear and vocal stance on some issues and some Democrats are not generally supportive — there is that. But we continue to be a very diverse party. As party chair, I’m here to mainly facilitate and to be a bridge with the party and the Legislature and our candidates.
I think the main thing is for the legislators to really represent their constituents at the Legislature. I think that’s my main focus and that’s what I really want for our legislators.
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