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Robert Armstrong: Hawaii State House District 28


Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 13 Primary Election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions about where they stand on various issues and what their priorities will be if elected.

The following came from Robert Armstrong, Democratic candidate for state House District 28, which includes Sand Island and Chinatown. The other Democratic candidates are Ken Farm and Daniel Holt.

Go to Civil Beat’s Election Guide for general information, and check out other candidates on the Primary Election Ballot.

1. What is the biggest issue facing your district, and what would you do about it?

Biggest issue: the fear of crime. While Honolulu’s numbers are still relatively good and Chinatown is certainly improving, my neighbors unfortunately sense they are not as safe as they used to be in the center city of Honolulu.

There are multiple reasons for this: the feeling of isolation resulting from the Covid-19 lockdown, a significant homeless population who appear more mentally unstable or addicted, some news media outlets who just focus on the day’s violence and not the root causes of the problem, a 300-member-plus deficit in our City/County Police Department, the increased use of more serious drugs such as methamphetamines and fentanyl on the streets, and the lack of resources for addiction, housing and mental health.

I am committed to working on these issues and hope we can find real solutions with government, business and the nonprofit communities working together.

2. Many people have talked about diversifying the local economy for many years now, and yet Hawaii is still heavily reliant on tourism. What, if anything, should be done differently about tourism and the economy?

I worked in tourism for several years and generally feel the effort to cater to a more affluent, global tourist is a good idea but extremely limited in its scope. I think while we will always be a “resort” location, not enough work has been placed or attention paid to making Hawaii an environmental, educational, cultural or an entry destination to all of the South Pacific.

By marketing us and others at the same time, we gain friends, advocates, strategy and income. We also will relieve the pressure on Waikiki. I also think we could make Chinatown much more atmospheric with larger sidewalks, self-cleaning (European-style) toilets, lantern lighting and neon signage.

I can bring some much-needed focus back on Chinatown, where we need to enact tax breaks, business incentives and a master marketing plan to bring folks back downtown and to the heart of our community.

We have and continue to neglect our state’s infrastructure such as airports, harbors and roads. Our facilities must be a cultural and transportation dream, efficient and affordable, with multiple flights to neighbor islands and our South Pacific partners daily.

Our port has only one ingress and egress point, which makes expansion nearly impossible. We should be the shipping, technology and tourism gateway to all of the South Pacific.

3. An estimated 60% of Hawaii residents are struggling to get by, a problem that reaches far beyond low income and into the middle class, which is disappearing. What ideas do you have to help the middle class and working families who are finding it hard to continue to live here?

This is an extremely important issue and is a companion to bringing small business back to Downtown, refurbishing Chinatown, expanding the economy, reducing crime, addressing our infrastructure and building new housing. We need to think differently and cohesively to address these problems and identify why our islands are losing younger population groups.

While I know many great minds have commented on this subject, let’s call a summit of researchers, economists, builders, officials and citizens on this issue after Election Day and see how we can build ourselves out of this problem. Like in Waikiki, we should identify every available piece of land on which we could build in the Downtown-Chinatown-Liliha neighborhoods and get to work by reducing bureaucracy, supply chain issues and small-time thinking.

We also have to honestly address income. While the government cannot mandate wages, we can lead. An $18 minimum wage in a few years is nice but I believe we need to get to $25 by the end of the decade with legislation now. We need to put pressure on public authorities to pay teachers, law officers and public employees more and mandate that starting salaries be listed on job notices.

4. Hawaii has the most lopsided Legislature in the country, with only one Republican in the Senate and only four in the House. How would you ensure there is an open exchange of ideas, transparency and accountability for decisions? What do you see as the consequences of one-party control, and how would you address that?

I’m not overly concerned as this is the will of our voters. First, the other parties offer few, if any, better ideas and until the GOP renounces the criminal actions of their former president, there is little hope their ideas will “catch on” here.

Second, many candidates with a “D” behind their name are not really “party-members” and don’t willingly adopt the platforms passed at their recent Convention (let alone attend). If anything, Democrats in Hawaii have a very wide range of ideas and issues, similar to what other states have in two or three parties.

Third, I am all for transparency, ethics and accountability and hope I am witness to many key reforms in the Legislature next January. Voting in new representatives is one key component but also limiting, if not eliminating, third-party political action committees and in-session fundraising.

Frankly, we need public financing and a full-time Legislature to solve the problems you raise in this question.

5. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?

Yes. More democracy, more voices are always better. I also support a constitutional convention for Hawaii and believe it should be made mandatory every 50 years (at the least — we’re about at that point now). 

6. Thanks to their campaign war chests and name familiarity, incumbents are almost always re-elected in Hawaii legislative races. Should there be term limits for state legislators, as there are for the governor’s office and county councils? Why or why not?

No. While I deplore the “vote for the name” mentality some voters have in returning the same person to multiple offices (like my current City Council member, who’s been taking a public paycheck for 34-plus years), I am against term limits for all offices as they are undemocratic.

While I think voters are wrong to continue to resend the same people into government and expect different results, they should always have that right.

7. Hawaii has recently experienced a number of prominent corruption scandals, prompting the state House of Representatives to appoint a commission tasked with improving government transparency through ethics and lobbying reforms. What will you do to ensure accountability at the Legislature? Are you open to ideas such as requiring the Sunshine Law and open records laws to apply to the Legislature or banning campaign contributions during session?

As a former journalist, I know and used the value of the Sunshine Law, open records and transparency. As a future elected official, I will not forget that importance as the fourth estate should be the “check” on government’s “balance.”

I also believe as we move to a full-time Legislature, we need to eliminate backroom dealings, gut-and-replace legislation and non-transparent fundraising practices. We need to fully fund the State Ethics Commission, give it some teeth, and install a citizens ombudsman there. We need to expect (and train) lawmakers to follow Sunshine Laws and limit the governor’s ability to waive these obligations in an emergency. I would advocate for stiffer mandatory penalties for anyone who has breached the public’s trust.

To that end, I also propose establishing a third-party Legislative Press Office in the State Capitol whose task is to report daily on the goings-on at the Legislature and state departments with the initial goal of having a brief “end of the hour” update and a nightly wrap-up for print, online and broadcast. Eventually, I would hope this effort could grow into “The Hawaii Channel” as a sub-channel on Hawaii public television. I want to stress that this office will not be controlled (but initially funded) by the Legislature.

8. How would you make the Legislature more transparent and accessible to the public? Opening conference committees to the public? Stricter disclosure requirements on lobbying and lobbyists? How could the Legislature change its own internal rules to be more open?

This question is similar to No. 7. Certainly while we want to be Covid-safe, the Legislature did not open the Capitol in a timely fashion this year and it can be very difficult for the public to access even today. I think the complex needs to be rethought and committee rooms enlarged for the next 60 years because the space is not working now.

I am also someone who thinks public financing of campaigns is long overdue, which would eliminate the power of lobbyists and lobbying.

Further, if we had the courage to become a unicameral government (similar to Nebraska and more fitting for an island state), we would have less elected officials, less staff, less spending and more accountability. It is certainly worth studying and discussing.

9. Hawaii has seen a growing division when it comes to politics, development, health mandates and other issues. What would you do to bridge those gaps and bring people together in spite of their differences?

I am a listener and a networker instinctively. Both activities are not only informative for me but help to build coalitions and relationships with people who may disagree or with members across the aisle. To that end, my campaign treasurer is a local Republican and I consider several old-school GOP members such as Duke Aiona and Gene Ward to be my friends.

It is this orientation and approach that would help me lessen the divisions (at least in a small way) that exist here in Hawaii and hopefully bring people together toward a common bond of inclusivity and progress.

10. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed numerous flaws in Hawaii’s structure and systems, from outdated technology to economic disparity. If you could take this moment to reinvent Hawaii, to build on what we’ve learned and create a better state, a better way of doing things, what would you do? Please share One Big Idea you have for Hawaii. Be innovative, but be specific.

I think I have shared several big ideas in the previous nine questions but I think they all fall under one general rubric of moving Hawaii into a state of  “proactivity” instead of being satisfied with limping from one unresolved issue to another. Homelessness, the housing shortage, corruption, rail … these are all huge issues that have been festering for a long time, and perhaps because we have elected the wrong leaders, these issues continue to dog us and linger unresolved today. We deserve better.

As a future legislator in the center core of Honolulu, I know “how to score” when given “the ball,” so to speak. We need to elect energetic and innovative men and women with enough life mileage at solving difficult problems, of thinking broadly, and seeing big issues to their completion. They need to see politics as a “team sport” and not for one’s own self-aggrandisement, working for the betterment of society as a whole.

A public servant is someone who sees both words equally — service, and that every member of the public is a constituent who deserves my attention and response. I pledge to give that focus every day whether someone voted for me or not.


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