About the Author
Born and raised in Hawaii, he cut his teeth on politics and nonprofit advocacy in the Golden State. Now he’s back.
Nikos Leverenz has been pushing for government reform since his return to Hawaii in 2017. Before that he got an inside look at California’s government as both a legislative staffer and an advocate for nonprofits. He has no qualms about pointing out areas where he thinks that state’s government performs better than Hawaii’s.
A frequent visitor to the State Capitol, where he recently testified on three consecutive bills before the Senate Judiciary Committee on widely disparate topics, he also works for the Hawaii Health and Harm Reduction Center and the Drug Policy Forum. In an interview edited for length and clarity, he talks with Civil Beat about reform issues.
You were a member of the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct that met in 2022 to propose ways to increase transparency and ethical conduct in Hawaii government. What do you think is the biggest reform proposal that was approved last session?
One of the most important things that the commission proposed, something that I worked on, is the online voter guide. This is something that should have been done a decade or more ago. I think that it happened because of the commission — I don’t know if it would have happened otherwise, to be honest.
I also think our state needs to endeavor to go above and beyond the requirements of federal law in terms of language access for our online voter guide and engage some of our Pacifica communities. Maybe we can have it in Korean as well.
What do you think is the biggest reform proposal that didn’t make it last session?
Well, you want to talk about term limits?
Coming of a political age in California, I’ve seen term limits in operation. Term limits actually, I think, operated beneficially to the state insofar as that it got more women in Sacramento, it got more persons of color in Sacramento, we got more people who were gay and lesbian in Sacramento. And we got more people from local government in Sacramento. So I saw some really great legislators who were there that might not have been there, but for term limits.
How do we get more underrepresented groups into public office?
That said, I think we lost some really good legislators. Maybe they were there for too long, but they certainly had a lot of institutional expertise.
I think that term limits are an imperfect response to some of the problems that face government here and elsewhere. I think sometimes a lot is lost in terms of, I don’t want to say institutional memories, but just what the role of government should fundamentally be about and what the charge of government should be about, and that is to make policies that improve the lives of the people of the state.
You didn’t mind then, that legislative term limits didn’t make it last session?
No, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be asking, how do we get more women elected? And fundamentally, I think the Democratic Party really has to make an effort to get more women into elective office.
How do we get more underrepresented groups into public office? And that includes Filipinos. That includes Native Hawaiians. How do we get more LGBTQ members elected to office?
That seems like a good segue into the fact that on Tuesday you testified in favor of a bill for full public funding of election campaigns. Why do you think that is important?
Fundamentally, public financing will level the playing field for all candidates. And getting rid of the obligation of politicians to raise funds from individual, private donors frees up their time to actually engage in policymaking, which is what their primary duty is and should be.
That said, in the era of Citizens United you are always going to have the political action committee mechanism and the independent expenditures. So that needs to be more regulated. For example, it was really surprising to me that broadcast advertisements here, whether they’re TV or radio, don’t have verbal disclosures about who is funding it. You see it in the fine print afterwards.
This is part of the landscape in California, to have that level of frontline disclosure for viewers and listeners. And I think something like that really needs to be done here.
The current system is ludicrous in a state where we have a party that is so dominant running against a very anemic Republican Party.
We also need to continue to think about ways we can improve voter access and voter participation
When (Rep.) Nadine Nakamura talked about all of the millions of dollars that would go to Republican candidates under this bill, my first thought was, well, let’s have public campaign financing, but let’s also have a top-two primary (the top vote-getters advance regardless of party), the way we have in California. The current system is ludicrous in a state where we have a party that is so dominant running against a very anemic Republican Party. Let’s have general elections that actually mean something.
We have a very short window here between the primary and the general. And I don’t necessarily disagree with that. I think campaign seasons are generally too long. But let’s have a more robust discussion in those critical two months.
What reform measures failed last session that you supported?
There were other measures that I floated, and that I think Janet Mason (of the League of Women Voters) was supportive of, like campaign dollars should have to be spent on campaigns.
It gives rise to the appearance of impropriety when an official or a candidate uses campaign dollars to provide private scholarships to folks. Really? If somebody wanted to give to charity, they can give to charity. I’m not saying that our schools or our libraries don’t need more money, but there are other mechanisms for that.
And at the same time, we’re still one of the states that don’t view child-care expenses as a legitimate campaign expense. You want to talk about a barrier for women running for office? Women are still the primary caretakers for children. That really has to be looked at.
One reform that gets talked about a lot is lengthening the legislative session. Where do you stand on a full-time Legislature?
I’m 100% for it. I’m happy to see Rep. (Adrian) Tam endorse it as well. I think given some of the issues that the state faces, one crisis after another, we sometimes need to take immediate lessons. The Maui fires represent a system failure on some level. I’m glad that the Legislature engaged in working groups to kind of unpack what needs to be done for Maui recovery, but we also need to take a hard look at why it actually happened.
Coming from California, where they have a full-time professional Legislature, there is a level of policy discussion that happens there that doesn’t happen here. We need a body like that state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office to issue clear, readable reports about the governor’s budget. And to also weigh in on other matters and to help the drafting of laws and legislation.
A full-time Legislature would also encourage individual legislators to carve out policy areas for themselves, even if they’re not committee chairs or vice-chairs. There’s a lot more entrepreneurial spirit in California in terms of a legislator taking an issue and running with it.
You actually ended up testifying on three straight proposed bills before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, including speaking out in favor of a measure that could result in keeping Donald Trump off the presidential ballot in Hawaii. You said you hadn’t planned to do that, so why did you change your mind?
I did it because I felt that it had to be done. I had sat there and listened to some of the testimony of the opponents, and I felt a real sense of disgust. You know, if you don’t believe in elections and the integrity of the electoral process, don’t run for office.
Hawaii, unfortunately, is one of the states that hasn’t engaged in substantive civil asset forfeiture reform.
I also wanted to name some of the extremist groups beyond the Proud Boys who were involved in that assault on the Capitol, the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers. And I was like, are these people really aware that they’re aligned with these groups and what they mean? You could feel the temperature rise in that room, and how people respond to it on both sides, both those who are offering the criticism and those who are receiving the criticism.
It’s disheartening to see a Republican Party in this state that once forwarded candidates and elected officials like Pat Saiki and Cynthia Thielen and now it’s just evolved into a circular firing squad.
In the next hearing you testified in favor of a bill to restrict civil forfeiture of property, and said you were representing the views of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, of which you are board president. Why is this an important issue to the Drug Policy Forum?
Civil asset forfeiture, despite its intentions in the ’80s to be used as a tool to combat large-scale drug trafficking, has been used basically by law enforcement to obtain revenue for itself. It’s a real manifestation of how our drug war has been used to undermine the civil liberties and the human rights of individuals.
Hawaii, unfortunately, is one of the states that hasn’t engaged in substantive civil asset forfeiture reform.
You are also an administrator with the Hawaii Health and Harm Reduction Center. If you were summarizing what the HHHRC is all about in just a few words, what would you say?
Well, our mission is to reduce harm, promote health, create wellness and fight stigma. We work with people who are living with HIV. We provide syringe access services. We also provide homelessness services and we provide transgender services to our trans community on Oahu.
It’s really astounding to see homelessness rates among our seniors increase. These are people who have never been homeless in their life.
Many of the people that we work with operate at the intersection of homelessness, poverty, chronic health conditions and interactions with the criminal legal system.
Why are we still criminalizing poverty and behavioral health in the state to the extent that we are? How can we better respond to a mental health crisis in a way that protects the integrity of the individual and the life of the individual in crisis as well as people around them?
Does the work of HHHRC relate to your support of government reform measures?
They’re very much related, especially when we’re talking about people who really don’t have a voice in the political process because they have challenges. And it’s not just people with behavioral health problems. So many of our folks here are struggling. It’s really astounding to see homelessness rates among our seniors increase. These are people who have never been homeless in their life. They’ve worked their whole life and now they’re on a limited income. They just cannot keep up with the cost of living.
And presumably government reform could lead to better ways of engaging these issues?
Yeah, especially to respond to an endemic housing shortage and a cost-of-living crisis that really hits most people hard. You can be making six figures here and you’re still scraping by.
My grandfather was a longshoreman and my grandmother was a waitress at the Royal Hawaiian. They sent most of their six kids to parochial school, and each of those kids moved up the socioeconomic ladder. Do families today still have that opportunity? No. Too many of our families here, particularly our Native Hawaiian families, are being priced out of paradise and moving to the continent.
Sign up for our FREE morning newsletter and face each day more informed.
Join the conversation
IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to submit an idea.