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 Michelle Kwock, nonpartisan candidate for state Senate District 13, which includes Pacific Heights, Chinatown and Iwilei.
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?
As someone who frequently walks and bikes in state Senate District 13, I encounter many keiki and kupuna on the streets. While the healthier, more mobile residents are out and about, we must not forget our homebound, often invisible, neighbors who need 24/7 assistance. Ensuring that those who require extra care receive the help they need without feeling burdensome on their families and friends remains a huge social issue.
According to DBEDT, the age 65 and over population is projected to increase to 22.6% of total population by 2030, forcing many working individuals to give up employment in exchange for their new role as caregivers.
While the state launched the Kupuna Caregivers Program a few years back in support of our caregivers, its requirement of maintaining employment of 30 hours per week disqualifies many who may not be able to leave the sides of their elderly parents or family members and who may not be in a profession where working remotely is an option.
Caring for our children means requiring employers to provide or subsidize child care for age 5 and under as well as guaranteeing acceptance into state funded pre-kindergarten programs.
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?
The reality is tourism is here to stay due to the appeal of Hawaii’s natural landscape. However, Hawaii could emphasize ecotourism by educating visitors about our native species at our parks and beaches, promoting bird watching throughout the islands, and offering cultural classes like hula and lei-making. Visitors are encouraged to use bike-share and purchase locally made products such as those featured at the Made in Hawaii Festival. The state could support the younger generation to become entrepreneurs and assist with marketing efforts. How about an online booklet listing local vendors and giving people a small discount after spending a certain amount at each vendor?
As the economy shifts to working from home, the construction industry will bloom by repurposing abandoned office and retail buildings into workforce housing and coworking spaces. In the process, each building is required to become LEED-certified, which simultaneously helps Hawaii achieve its 100% renewable energy goal by 2045. Meanwhile, electric vehicle charging stations are added for the convenience of owning electric cars and bikes.
Finally, the state needs a beautification program by hiring additional workers to clean up graffiti impacting local businesses, cut weeds blocking one’s view of the road, and pick up litter like cigarette butts and plastic wrappers off the ground.
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 has been an age-old issue for long-time Hawaii residents, that increasing costs of imported goods and housing prices have made it difficult to make ends meet. Unfortunately, the increased costs of living also adversely affected our younger generations who went to the continental U.S. for school or for work and are not able to find their way back due to lower pay and limited affordable housing back home. Ideas that come to mind include getting rid of paying general excise taxes on medical services and healthy foods like vegetables and fruits, increasing telework opportunities to save on commuting costs, and subsidizing both keiki and kupuna care.
I support increasing taxes on high earners and non-Hawaii residents who own a vacation home in Hawaii, then using the funds to assist first-time homeowners. Meanwhile, renters will continue to receive financial assistance if they meet income eligibility.
Currently, the Hana Career Pathways program at the community colleges is a good start to train people in high demand areas and guarantee interviews with local employers. In the long run, high school and college curriculum gets revamped to align with the job market so that every graduate is employable.
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?
To have an open exchange of ideas, I feel it is necessary to establish an open space especially for this purpose. By keeping conference rooms open throughout the day at the Hawaii State Capitol, people of different backgrounds can come together and chat with each other. These conference rooms are arranged in the style of a living room with comfy couches and refreshments available for the participants. When people feel relaxed and are in a safe discussion environment, it will facilitate an easier exchange of ideas. Students are also encouraged to stop by to meet others and learn about internship opportunities.
When one party dominates the Legislature, we are more likely to encounter group think where everyone is in consensus regarding a decision instead of expressing their doubt regarding unintended consequences. To avoid the potential of burning bridges due to internal disagreements, legislators within a committee have the option to submit their conflicting thoughts in writing regarding a bill to the chair/vice chair anonymously.
Throughout the year, legislators could engage in team building activities at retreats to get to know one another on a more personal level. Legislators might be in different parties, but they share a common underlying goal, and that is to serve to our best capacity for Hawaii’s people.
5. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
I will support a statewide citizens initiative process if those involved are not motivated by greed and the outcome is beneficial to the greatest number of people. There are a lot of knowledgeable citizens in this state and allowing this process may encourage them to participate in discussions that could result in positive changes.
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?
I don’t believe term limits are needed because some of our current state legislators truly understand their district and their constituents’ worries and needs; their continued presence in office will enable them to strengthen relationships between themselves and community members as well as with other legislators to secure funding for important projects.
If residents find their legislator is neither accessible nor made efforts to reach out to community members, then the legislator will naturally be at a disadvantage at the next election.
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?
Yes, to banning campaign contributions during session. In fact, I am not accepting any campaign contributions.
Accountability is when each legislator attended ethics training and reported conflicts of interest before their involvement in any committee. It is also about constant reminders that one is representing the people through visible methods like stickers, photos and in-person discussions. Perhaps the chair and vice chair of each committee get rotated so the same legislator is not in the same seat for more than two years to prevent power corruption.
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?
The Legislature has a website at capitol.hawaii.gov to inform the public, but not everyone uses the internet to obtain information. Some legislators send updates via email and mail though the public may be too busy to read up on bills that affect their livelihoods. Informed individuals cannot commit to attending hearings and drafting testimonies online.
Instead, legislators should diversify communication platforms and methods targeting the public of all ages. This includes using social media such as Instagram and Twitter for the younger generation and hosting in-person socially distanced events at community parks and recreation centers for the older generation. Anyone with technology and transportation barriers is welcome to write letters and call with their concerns and suggestions.
8. 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?
It is important to engage trusted messengers who also serve as storytellers in their communities to reach citizens on different issues and accept feedback that goes back to the legislators. Because legislators could not be available at multiple engagements at the same time, these trusted messengers help bridge gaps in communication. Trusted messengers are usually leaders of various nonprofit organizations.
Arts, musical and lecture events with a question-and-answer session component that are open to the public tend to attract a broad audience and help bring people together. If the government provides funding for these events, organizers can lower entrance fees and record these sessions for those unable to attend in person. Kudos to the annual Hawaii Book and Music Festival for being a model.
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.
My one big idea for Hawaii is implementing participatory budgeting by which a portion of the state budget is allocated for community spending. While I explained the process occurring at the city level in a written piece, I could see it also taking place at the state level with a bunch of small improvement projects becoming reality in a short time period.
Residents are tired of waiting for large construction projects such as the rail to finish. In the meantime, let’s focus on addressing community issues that could be taken care of quickly first. Therefore, I strongly recommend participatory budgeting to gain community input concerning usage of funds.
Sign up for our FREE morning newsletter and face each day more informed.