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 Brandon Elefante, Democratic candidate for state Senate District 16, which includes Halawa Heights, Aiea, Waimalu, Kalauao, Waiau, Pacific Palisasdes and Pearl City. The other Democratic candidate is Bennette Misalucha.
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?
The most pressing issues facing my district are public safety and concerning crime levels, homelessness and lack of affordable housing, and building a strong, sustainable economy for the future of our community.
To address these issues we need to recruit, train and encourage more people to join the Police Department. We need to improve public safety by creating communities where people feel welcomed and secure. We need to build more housing with more housing tax credits and funding. And we need to secure the future of our state and insure our keiki can afford to live here by creating opportunities in the workforce for local families.
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 have to remember that we did diversify the economy once, when Hawaii moved away from a plantation economy. This is how we got to where we are today, with our major sectors of the economy including tourism, military spending and construction.
We need to support other sectors like start-up businesses, renewable energy, health, agri-businesses, education and creative media through incentives such as tax credits, new infrastructure, providing educational opportunities in these sectors to grow our next workforce, and making Hawaii a great place to do business.
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?
With many businesses allowing people to work virtually, this creates an opportunity for livable wages for our residents so they can continue to raise their families here. We can incentivize these businesses to recruit Hawaii’s own. In the same vein, we need to create good-paying jobs within the public sector, and encourage new technologies and industries to invest here and provide residents with options to work here.
We need to create more housing opportunities for the middle class and low-income households. One way we can do this is by looking at the low-income housing tax credit structure, and figure ways to increase this kind of tax credit to encourage more development of affordable housing. The state can also provide land to developers in exchange for building these affordable units.
One way we can create housing is to look into transit-oriented development around the rail stations. The state owns the majority of land around the rail stations.
Lastly, nothing happens without education and training. We not only need to invest in our University of Hawaii system, but we also need to think about ways to provide more training opportunities. We can invest in education and training by assisting students with child care, connecting them to transportation and encouraging paid internships.
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 have always worked with all of my colleagues, regardless of their party affiliation. I have done it at a national level, too, leading my colleagues as chair of the National League of Cities Large Cities Council.
It is important for views to be discussed in a respectful way in order to move Hawaii forward. In order to come up with solutions for the problems that we all face, we need to elect people who are committed to serve, and I truly believe that characteristic is not associated with a political party affiliation.
5. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
I do not support that type of initiative, as I believe what we currently have works. We have a neighborhood board system, and citizens are encouraged to reach out to their elected officials through multiple channels.
One of my favorite parts of my job as a legislator is meeting people in our neighborhoods, listening to their concerns, and helping them. It truly brings me great joy when I get a thank-you note or email, as it is how I know I’m doing the right thing.
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?
Yes, I’m open to the idea of term limits for state legislators. I currently serve in a seat that has a term limit. One useful thing about term limits is that it allows different people to serve their districts, bringing new ideas and solutions to the table.
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?
We need to do an assessment of our ethics laws, and legislative processes, and increase reporting requirements. Yes, I’m open to the idea of Sunshine Law applying to the Legislature, as I have had to adhere to this law for the past eight years. As elected officials, we are held to a higher standard by the public and there should be zero tolerance for corruption.
Ways we can do this are by strengthening our ethics and disclosure laws; fine-tuning our Sunshine Laws so that we balance the ability for our legislators and other board members to do their work while keeping government transparent; and providing more information to the public about each of our government agencies.
We do have campaign contribution laws on the books, and I see the issue as more of disclosing the contributions versus accepting legal contributions. In addition, the laws for conflicts of interest as it relates to voting can be reviewed. The bottom line is the public wants to know if your votes follow your campaign contributions. If you look at my record, I disclose contributions and relationships prior to voting. I also do not always vote in favor of the people who have supported me.
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?
I believe the public should have the opportunity to participate and weigh in during the legislative process, including conference committees. We could also livestream or televise all of our meetings as is currently done at the Honolulu City Council, which provides greater access to all.
The state Legislature has a wonderful Legislative Reference Bureau and Public Access Room. I think we should highlight what they do and show the public that getting involved in the legislative process isn’t as difficult as they think it is.
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 believe that my last eight years of experience as a legislator in key positions and chair on several challenging committees has taught me how to bridge gaps and bring people together, despite political divisions. I serve as chair of the Planning and Zoning Committee, and previously served as chair of the Transportation Committee, Public Health, and Public Safety Committee. I also chaired the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Committee which allocates all federal transportation and planning dollars for Oahu. This has given me a breadth of experience in working with all levels of government through actively collaborating with my fellow legislators in city, state, and federal government.
I support good dialogue and respect different viewpoints. I believe that with each piece of legislation, you have to involve the stakeholders in the community, business, and government, because good legislation isn’t written in a vacuum. Lastly, the relationships I have established throughout the government would serve as a key asset as I continue to advocate for the best interests of the community I serve.
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 would modernize and diversify our economy. We have depended on tourism for many years, and we will always need and welcome tourists from beyond our shores; however, we need to find new and creative ways to sustain ourselves. Hawaii and its people have so much to offer. I think we need to leverage the advantages of our location and population to become a leader in innovative industries like sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, creative media and community resiliency.
One big idea is to bring the Olympics here to our state.