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Candidate Q&A: State Senate District 24 — Jarrett Keohokalole


Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 8 General 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 Democrat Jarrett Keohokalole, Democratic candidate for state Senate District 24, which includes Kaneohe, Puohala Village and Kailua. His opponent is Republican Antionette Fernandez.

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

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

The most immediate issue facing the families of Hawaii is that it is simply too expensive to live here. Coupled with a lack of economic opportunity, the shortage of affordable housing is making it too difficult for young people, families, and kupuna to survive in Hawaii.

There are obvious steps we can and have taken to immediately address this problem. Raising the minimum wage, which we did this year, will help working people immediately. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been dedicated over the last four years to subsidize affordable housing, culminating this year in the historic appropriation of $600 million to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands — of which every home they build is affordable and houses a local family.

We also need to work together at every level of government to coordinate the development of infrastructure to accommodate more housing construction. This needs to happen with an eye on allowing for higher-density projects to be built in our urban areas, while maintaining our rural and agricultural lands.

In the long term, our biggest challenge is that we can’t seem to get big things done. We desperately need to set a new direction that emphasizes fixing what’s broken, fostering competitiveness in our economy, and mobilizing our education system to train the next generation of problem-solvers.

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?

We need to diversify for two reasons:

— Our communities and natural resources are overwhelmed with visitors,

— We can’t afford not to. We are quickly running out of room to accommodate tourists. Communities like Haena on Kauai and Lanikai on Oahu simply can’t handle any more visitors. There just aren’t enough lanes and parking stalls to hold everyone who wants to come.

State-driven support for diversification can work if properly structured to support, and not dictate, promising opportunities. This starts with maintaining and developing infrastructure that will allow the workforce to be more productive. For example, this year I joined a group of legislators who worked together with the administration to draft a plan to deploy money from the federal infrastructure bill toward broadband development. Broadband is critical to our continuing economic competitiveness.

Let’s work together to develop a workforce that is nimble and entrepreneurial. We don’t know what the next major industry or industries will be. And until we do, we need people who are committed to stay here, take chances, and innovate until our economic path forward emerges. This will require us to build a culture where competitiveness, resiliency and innovation are rewarded, and we can leverage our state and federal resources to do just that.

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?

Efforts we took legislatively this year like raising the minimum wage and providing a tax refund to residents will help those who are having the most difficulty dealing with rising prices. However, this discussion must start and end with developing affordable housing to address our estimated 50,000-plus unit housing shortage. To get there, we need to develop infrastructure that will make affordable construction viable and address the delays in the development process that make building take so long.

We also need to dismantle the troublesome incentive structure that has led to so much speculative luxury development, including the flipping of middle-class homes in our communities into vacation rentals or luxury nonresident second homes.

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?

As I wrote here in 2018, technology has presented us with the opportunity to shine a light on the legislative process. During my time in office, I strongly advocated for live-streaming of all legislative action and worked in the Senate to make that happen. During the pandemic shutdowns in 2020, I worked with the Senate president and clerk’s office to pilot remote hearings on Zoom, which led to the entire 2021 legislative session being conducted – for the first time – online.

Today, hybrid hearings allow for remote testimony from anywhere via Zoom. All proceedings are live-streamed, and permanent recordings of legislative matters are available on YouTube. The Legislature’s website now features easily accessible links to recordings of hearings and votes on every bill. I see this as the beginning of this transition, not the end.

One-party control is not ideal. But the loss of Republican seats in the Legislature is less about Democrats and more a reflection of how the Republican Party is viewed by voters in Hawaii.

Ultimately, my priority is getting things done to improve the lives of Hawaii residents. Whether it means working with members of the Democratic, Republican, Green or Aloha Aina Parties, I try to always be open and collaborative, but forthright about where I stand on the issues.

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

As I wrote in 2018, I have concerns about a statewide citizens initiative that unfortunately often allows special interests to avoid the same scrutiny that our normal process affords.

Our founders created a representative democracy for a reason. By and large, it has worked. The way to make it better is to improve our legislative process, not circumvent it. Using technology to open access to our legislative processes will achieve the same purpose more effectively.

While it sounds like a democratic process, too often it is taken over by outside interests, which our current Supreme Court has further empowered to use their money to manipulate the message without restriction.  California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in 2008, is an example of this. The Michigan International Bridge Initiative was another, where one wealthy toll bridge owner almost succeeded in using a ballot initiative to kill a public bridge project that would have competed with his own toll business.

The citizens initiative vehicle has shown the potential to give special interests even greater access to the levers of power. We have too much of that already. I would like to focus on greater transparency in the legislative and executive processes, increasing opportunities for community engagement, and other initiatives that truly engage our local residents and families to get things done for our communities.

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?

As someone first elected in my early 30s, I appreciate the importance of new perspectives in the legislative process. However, I don’t think that term limits are the best way to accomplish that without again inviting in more opportunities for special interests.

Term limits for the legislative branch should be treated differently from the executive branch. The reality of our system is that it takes years for even the most competent legislator to learn the process, the issues, and develop the relationships necessary to craft policy, pass bills, negotiate conflicts and respond to emergencies.

Capping terms of elected officials also transfers power elsewhere. What is sometimes lost in this conversation is that bureaucrats, lobbyists and donors are not term-limited. In states with legislative term limits, these unelected individuals often end up as the keepers of institutional knowledge and influence.

Finally, while legislators set policy and appropriate funds, the executive branch actually spends that money and enacts those policies. For example, governors and mayors are directly responsible for hiring and firing employees, issuing or canceling contracts, and granting or denying permits, leases and licenses. Limiting the amount of time one individual can wield that type of patronage power makes sense. Limiting the expertise of legislators whose job is to provide checks and balances to that authority might not.

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?

I will commit to support and pass the recommendations made in the final report of the House Commission to Increase Standards of Conduct. That group has expertise and the mandate to make specific changes that can be applied to achieve the purposes for which they are intended.

As a commission external to the Legislature, they are also better situated to provide a transparent and thorough review of our rules and laws. Their specific recommendations won’t be viewed as self-serving legislative proposals that are all bark and no bite.

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?

Live access to legislative proceedings is critical. I am proud to be one of the legislators to have championed that effort, and it shouldn’t stop with what we have. As technology changes, and as we all grow more comfortable with the process, we should broadcast more, make the content more accessible and work to offer it on platforms and in formats that are continually more convenient to use.

Rule changes to allow for a more transparent and understandable process should follow. We should continue to innovate toward open and transparent processes that better connect our communities to their representative government.

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?

Effective legislative leadership requires statesmanship. That includes showing patience, respect and grace when dealing with allies and adversaries. It means winning without rubbing it in and losing without being petty or harboring animosity. We are a small community, and adversaries at one point in life could become allies at another. That only happens when people feel they are treated with aloha, which includes love, but also dignity and respect.

That is a high standard, one I myself have to continuously learn and reach toward. However, conflicts aren’t “resolved” when one side just prevails over the other. Bringing people together can do that. It’s hard to convince opposing voices that talking to each other is worth their time, but I have seen it work. In fact, it might be the only thing that works to resolve truly tough problems. That can’t happen unless we strive to treat each other right — as neighbors on an island should. I believe setting that type of example is a job requirement.

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.

The government’s role should first and foremost be to make the lives of our residents and communities better. That means approaching each question from the lens of our residents: What are their needs? What are their everyday challenges? How can we help them to thrive?

One important step is that each part of state government that everyday citizens interact with should be “app-ified” so the experience is as convenient as any app on our smartphones. Why can’t I pay my taxes, retrieve a birth certificate, and register my kids for school on my smart phone with the same ease it takes to buy just about anything on Amazon? Why can’t tourists pay extra to make reservations at all our popular attractions like they can at Disneyland, which will help control overcrowding and raise revenue for better management? We can do it. It just takes attention and effort.

Our state government is finally at the end of a transition away from our legacy IT (and some paper) systems to modern-day, cloud-based applications. That transition mostly covered back-of-the-house administrative functions like payroll. The next step needs to be modernizing the outward, public-facing systems.

This should include access to government budgets, decisions and all administrative and legislative proceedings in an understandable form.





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