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Take any article written by Allison Schaefers with a grain of salt.

While going about my day yesterday, I was contemplating what I should write about this week. With the legislative session receding in our rear view and election season still months away, I wasn’t sure what to do. Then the heavens opened and dropped in my lap this nonsense trying to pass itself off as journalism.

Is it a Paid Ad, or a News Article?

In yesterday’s issue of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, there was an article entitled “Host uses short-term rental as path to homeownership”, by Allison Schaefers. Curious, I read the article to almost immediately see it for what it is; propaganda advertising meant to support a pro-short-term rental position. The piece tells the story of a woman who bought a house no one else wanted, fixed it up, and began renting it as a short-term rental in order to save enough to buy her own home.

From the outset, it’s clear the “reporter” stakes out a position in support of this illegal activity, but then we come to the fourth paragraph:

Rovito bought the four-bedroom, three-bath, 2,000-square-foot home in 2017 for $1.6 million and invested another $200,000 to make it livable. Then she began renting it on vacation rental sites for anywhere from $400 to $800 a night depending on demand. She also donates the use of the home to student groups and nonprofits with ties to Hawaii.

Did you catch the oddity? This seems to be directly in conflict with the title of the article; short-term rental as a path to homeownership? Umm… well, it would seem she already owns a home, one on which she spent $1.8 million. I know children who could spot this blatant contradiction, but either the intrepid “reporter” who drafted this is either incredibly dim, or she isn’t so much a news journalist, as she is an advertising copy-editor for Airbnb. I’ll let you decide, so let us move on.

It Would Seem Our Subject Has No Trouble Buying a Home

A friend of mine who similarly finds this kind of “reporting” offensive, took the time to dig a little deeper. He looked at the tax records for the property which show it’s owned by a trustee who used to work at Hawaii Pacific University.

My friend also found fault with the article’s claim that this self-starter has lived in Hawaii for 20 years. Proving social media can bite anyone in the ass, online searches seem to indicate she actually lives in Washington, D.C. In addition to being a lawyer, it appears she’s actually an owner of a short-term vacation rental business, with multiple properties in Honolulu, D.C., and Utah.

Because I know some people can be particularly nasty, I won’t post links to her social media here, but she’s named in the Star-Advertiser article. So if you’re inclined to take the time, you can find her on your own.

A Shining Example of the Ailing State of Journalism in Hawaii

Wanting to give our “reporter” the benefit of the doubt and an opportunity to correct her reporting, my friend sent an email to Allison Schaefers pointing out all these… inconsistencies. Flaws? Her response, it should go without saying, leaves more than a little to be desired:

Thanks for your feedback.
Although Brynn Rovito’s name is not on the property tax record, she is purchasing the home through a deal with the owner.
Allison

That’s it. Nothing about her vacation rental business, nor the fact that she might not even live here. Disappointing, to say the least, but it leads me to the only reasonable conclusion; she knew all this when she wrote her article and simply wasn’t interested in portraying her subject honestly.

With so few truly reliable local news sources in Hawaii, that this is what is considered journalism is shameful. We need to expect… no, demand more of our news outlets.

 

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Teachers rally for more education funding.

It’s been a long couple of weeks. I sit here on this Thursday morning, sipping my coffee and contemplating the 2019 legislative session. On this last day of session, I thought it would be good if I shared some of my reflections with you.

It’s a bad-news, good-news situation. And while, in my humble opinion, the bad far outweighs the good, there are shiny spots and reasons for hope.

The Bad

On an almost unprecedented scale and in spectacular fashion, our elected officials failed. They failed to move the state forward on critical issues relating to climate change, public education, cost of living, homelessness, or affordable housing.

While childish quibbling and petty fighting is standard fare at the Legislature, our elected “leaders” out-did themselves. Ego-bruising and score-settling seemed to be the primary motivators this year. Well… except for outrageous efforts to further enrich the ruling elite.

House Bill 1586 was clearly a priority and appropriates $350 million for a new stadium on Oahu. But I’ll come back to this in a moment.

And as I’ve written about a couple of times (here and here), our elected officials were nearly united in their allegiance to their paymaster Alexander and Baldwin (A&B) to ensure it could continue to steal water at obscene rates and avoid a $62 million contract penalty payout. In the wake of the devastation left by the legislature’s insistence on House Bill 1326 House Draft 2 was nearly every bill tackling sea level rise climate change. So while they paid lip service to their commitment to tackling climate change and its impact in Hawaii, our leaders did little more than pose for photo ops and pat themselves on the back for their edge-nibbling efforts.

I’m also sad (though not really surprised) to say that in a legislature with a Democratic super-majority the Democratic Party of Hawaii’s legislative agenda landed with a deafening thud. Among the Party’s failed priorities was a desperately needed raise for minimum wage workers. Lacking any political will and deferring to business interests, House Bill 1191 died unceremoniously on the last day of conference. I also wrote about that effort….

Finally, in a spectacular display of guilt-tripping and arm twisting, the Senate approved a measure to tax illegal vacation rentals. Let me say that again.

The legislature approved a measure, Senate Bill 1292, which taxes illegal vacation rentals. It doesn’t stop them or in any way regulate them. It simply taxes them. So, in a shameless effort to add $42 million to the state coffers, the legislature ignored pleas from communities infected with short-term rentals and their effect on our affordable housing crisis. They ignored calls for support from county governments for help regulating them and simply grabbed $42 million.

When challenged, those Senators who supported the bill threatened funding for good stuff. Rather than list them here, I encourage you to take a look at the Civil Beat article that shines a light on their mean-spirited efforts. And nowhere, not once, was the new stadium’s $350 million mentioned as an option for closing the gap. We certainly wouldn’t want development interests to take a hit.

The Good

In a cup otherwise brimming with disappointment, there are some bright spots worthy of mention.

Bail reform and cannabis decriminalization both passed this year. Senate Bill 192 “authorizes the court to release a defendant in custody on unsecured bail.” Essentially, if you’re arrested you might be able to sign a promissory note committing you will show up for your court date, or owe the bail amount. This is a big step forward in broader criminal justice reform efforts. Bail reform was a priority for the Democratic Party of Hawaii and while it submitted testimony, I want to applaud and congratulate those who worked hard on this issue.

“Double-bucks” also passed this session. Senate Bill 390 provides “a dollar-for-dollar matching program for beneficiaries of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to purchase Hawaii-grown produce.” This is good for local farmers and good for those families who rely on SNAP for financial assistance.

And finally, the “water theft” bill (HB1326, mentioned above) appears to have gone the way of the Dodo, at least for now. Despite rumors to the contrary, no effort was made during yesterday’s session to revive this terrible and galling measure.

In a rarely seen herculean effort, environmental activists, community organizers, and progressive movement leaders came together to defeat the big bad A&B in a true David-vs-Goliath fashion. Working together to share facts, educate Senators, and push back against one of the most powerful corporations in Hawaii, this collection of individuals did what many thought would have been impossible.

I consider the role I played in this fight as a minor one. But I am proud to have been a part and help as I could. I am so impressed with the passion and commitment the advocates had for this issue. They. We’re. Tireless.

And they won the day.

So, What’s Next?

In a word, elections.

In two words, primary elections.

Sadly and frustratingly, too many of our elected officials have stopped representing the people. In service to their reelections, they chase corporate and development dollars leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves. Far too often this means fleeing the state for cheaper and easier pastures.

The time has long since passed when we need to stand up and challenge those long-serving Democrats who have forgotten where their allegiances should lie.

Efforts are beginning to develop a strategy for the 2020 primaries. Identifying viable and hard-working candidates who share a vision of Hawaii for its working people, not for those in luxury high-rise ivory towers.

If you want a better Hawaii for you, your family, your children and all the under-represented in our island home, join me. Join us.

Donate to the Initiative for a Pono Hawaii PAC. There is no online donation system yet, but we hope soon to have that remedied. In the meantime, you can send checks to:

Initiative for a Pono Hawaii
P.O. Box 38182
Honolulu, HI 96837

And if you would like to receive updates from me on our collective efforts and other political updates, please subscribe to my email list. And share this widely with your friends and networks.

It’s time to take the fight to them.

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Blacklisted, by Jen Sorensen

Beretania Consulting Begins

I officially started my own consulting firm early in 2018. At the time, I had a stable job, but one that was growing less fulfilling by the week. Then, by a stroke of luck, I was approached by a candidate. One that I not only knew personally but one for which I have an enormous amount of respect. And so I went to manage a progressive campaign for Kim Coco Iwamoto, who was running for Hawaii’s Lieutenant Governor.

Though we were ultimately unsuccessful in our primary bid, the experience, while stressful and challenging, was also tremendously rewarding and educational.

In the wake of that campaign, I went forth looking for more work while I finished my Masters’ Degree in Political Management from George Washington University.

Eventually, I found a couple of clients and continued my work as a political consultant. I’ve joined the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC).

Choosing Clients & Clients Choosing You

For me, there’s no doubt that this work is a two-way street. Yes, I have to make a living and that means working for clients. But I also have the ability to choose the kind of work that I do, and for whom I do it.

I know consultants and lobbyists who take any client that walks through their doors. If the price is right, they’re for hire. There are others, including myself, who are discerning about for whom they work and which issues they choose to champion.

In much the same way there are defense attorneys that really seek to defend the wrongly accused, so too are there consultants who really want their work to be meaningful and fulfilling. Then, of course, there are those who seek only riches. They’ll defend anyone. Similarly, some consultants don’t care who their clients are, their motivation is little more than a big paycheck.

DCCC Blacklist

In the wake of recent news reports that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is blacklisting any consultant who has worked for a Democratic primary challenger, I’ve found myself outraged.

Even before this most recent insulting stance, I’ve never been interested in working for the DNC, or any of its national partners (DCCC, DSCC, etc.).

They’re threatening the livelihoods of a lot of people. And doing so to protect themselves, their friends, and a political establishment uninterested in challenges or change. So be it.

Say ‘NO’ to the DCCC

The AAPC is the professional association for people like me and according to their own website:

the AAPC is a multi-partisan organization of political and public affairs professionals dedicated to improving democracy.

“Dedicated to improving democracy”. And yet the DCCC seems less interested in improving democracy as it does protecting its members from other Democrats. We saw the DNC do this during the 2016 Presidential Election. How do you think that worked out for them?

And so…. While the DCCC flexes its muscles to force political consultants to sign with them exclusively, forever and always, I’m calling on AAPC members across the country to take a stand.

Yes, I’m relatively new to this profession and this organization. But what the DCCC is attempting is nothing less than financial coercion. They’re asking us to abandon the principles of our profession for power and profit. Surely there will be some of us who will succumb. Either out of financial necessity (kids gotta eat, mortgages gotta be paid), or blind obedience, some will quietly go along.

I WILL work to defeat incumbents who I believe have become too comfortable and familiar with blind power and ambition. I WILL defy the DCCC blacklist and endeavor to work with candidates who are truly inspiring and hungry for real change.

As the young and poor and underrepresented stand up against a system that has abandoned them, I will choose to stand beside them. Together we will work to fix the American Democracy stopped working quite some time ago.

I’m hoping, though, that as a group, as a profession we can stand up, push back and say “hell no”. I hope you will join us.

Boycott the DCCC.

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Water Protectors

When I take on a new issue, a new cause… or even when I return to an old cause resurfaced, I often come away having learned something new. In some cases, I’m reminded of things I’ve learned before. So too is this the case in the recent and ongoing battle over Hawaii’s water, a public trust.

First Truth: Never Doubt the Corrupt Nature of Politics (And Some Politicians)

The most recent chapter in this story, saw one of the remaining “Big Five” challenged. With money lining the pockets of their political puppets, Alexander & Baldwin thought their interest secure in the passage of HB1326. So confident were they in their final success that they didn’t even bother to join the parade of testifiers on the bill. Instead, they lurked in the shadows and crowded corners, letting others stand in the spotlight facing legislative committees.

Victory, all but assured, was only cast in doubt by a small cadre of dedicated, ordinary citizens. But I’ll come back to this shortly.

In the disinfecting light cast by the Chair of the Senate’s Water and Land Committee, A&B began to feel their favored legislation slipping through their fingers. And so as they had huddled behind doors to dark rooms, so too did they drag “the water bill” with them. A favored puppet, responding to tugged strings, drove a knife through an otherwise open and public process.

They would look for other ways to get the water they so wanted. So machinations began to wrest control of HB1326 from the interfering hands of the Water & Land Chair to the Senate Floor, where puppets would be lined up, strings pulled to do A&B’s bidding.

In a saga that started in 2016, though it could easily be argued it began far earlier, we have seen time and again how those who want power are attracted to those who have it. Like gravity or magnetism, power is an attractive force that also has the power to destroy. Lesser forces like, truth, justice, and compassion are of little consequence when compared to power.

And though this will always be the case, I am nonetheless astonished at how often I need reminding.

Lesson Two: Never Doubt That a Small Group of Thoughtful, Committed Citizens Can Change the World…

… Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.

Much like in 2016, I came late to the water fight this year. With HB1326 waiting for a hearing in the Senate and fearing the worst, I did what I could to lend support to those who have been on the front line from the beginning.

The tenacity, compassion, and humor with which they were waging a seemingly un-winnable war was… is inspiring. People from every walk of life and from every corner of the islands came together to take on Goliath. While there were experienced political actors among them and some did more directing and strategizing than others, the group was a school of fish, all moving together toward a common goal.

Egos were checked at the door. Everyone played a role and did their part.

Perhaps even more inspiring than a couple of awe-inspired wins, what truly fills my heart is how these people came together to win. And this might be, when I’m really honest with myself, why I love what I do.

Sure, the political intrigue and strategizing is fun for me. As a card-carrying introvert, my brain focuses more on that part than the people of politics. Still, it’s the people I am so lucky to work with that really make smile. The hui of people who have dedicated their time, passion, and money to the defeat of HB1326 is a sight to see.

My Own Truth

Those who know me well would likely describe me as a skeptic. A realist curmudgeon who sees doom and gloom. And mostly they’re probably right. I think about the work everyone has done on this issue. I think the faith with which they approached the daunting task. I think about the camaraderie in victory and set-back alike and I am filled up.

That is why I do what I do. That is why I can’t think of doing anything else. And that is the real power in politics: friendships and family, solidarity and caring. When people stand up to do what’s right, there are no odds that can’t be beaten.

I remain skeptical we’ve seen the last of “the water bill.” Power as a force will always remain. So too will remain that group of thoughtful, committed citizens. That is our cause for hope.

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Senator Kai Kahele holds A&B executive Vice President Meredith Ching to the fire.

In my capacity as the Legislation Committee Co-Chair for the Democratic Party of Hawaii, I urged the State Central Committee to support efforts to oppose HB1326 in all its potential forms. I urge you to do the same. Call, email your State Senators and tell them to oppose all efforts to pass the bill.

Where The Power Lies

Lobbyists and savvy activists alike will tell you it’s a lot easier to kill a bill than to pass a bill. You can look at the history of any number of issues to see this is true. Emergency room contraception took something like 20 years to pass. The same is true for marriage equality, aid in dying, and likely too many others to name here.

The structure and machinations of the Legislature are arguably designed with this intent in mind. It could be argued this is a good thing from a thoughtful, neutral perspective. But in practice what it often means, at least here in Hawaii, is good legislation that benefits the public dies quiet deaths in the shadows of committee dockets. Running parallel are bad bills that either does little to benefit the public good or are outright corporate giveaways and such.

And so it is the case with the (in)famous “water bill”. Environmentalists, economic justice advocates, Native Hawaiians, and progressive activists (hereafter referred to collectively as “the champions”) have been united in their vile hatred of this bill. After weeks and months of hard fought battles, they finally breathed a sigh of relief and gasped a celebratory cheer this past Thursday. HB1326 HD2 appeared to have finally been disposed of. But evil has a way of fighting its way back.

What The Hell is This All About?

To better understand the “water bill” and why the issue has so many good and otherwise gentle people wanting to pull their hair out and scream, some background information is necessary.

For a long, long time (think decades, at least) the big and powerful landowner Alexander and Baldwin (A&B) has been diverting obscene and hard-to-imagine (let alone quantify) amounts of water from public streams. In order to take public water, the law requires that one must receive a permit from the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR). In lieu of these long-term leases, one can apply for a short-term Revokable Permit which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. These Revokable Permits are meant to be limited and temporary permits. They allow entities to take water while they take the necessary steps to apply for and receive a long-term permit.

Well, for decades both DLNR and A&B have been in cahoots to side-step or, more accurately, completely and utterly ignore the law which requires long-term leases. For far too many years, A&B has failed to apply for a long-term lease and DNLR has refused to require them to do so. Though communities around Hawaii had tried for a long time to make this happen, A&B’s money and influence had protected them. Until….

A lawsuit brought by community members and organizations and argued by the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation and Earth Justice led, in 2016, to a Circuit Court ruling which said A&B’s Revokable Permits are invalid. They would need to go through the long-term permit application process if they wanted to regain access to water from public streams.

In a panic and eager to return to business as usual, A&B called their friends at the State Legislature to remedy the situation.

House Bill 2501

In 2016, we saw the first “water bill” move through the Legislature. HB2501 extended A&B’s ability to operate under short-term Revokable Permits for three more years while they worked to acquire long-term permits. As we are seeing this year, back in 2016, the champions went nuts. They had been given a victory by the courts only to see their elected officials, once again, being called to heel at the foot of A&B. Despite overwhelming opposition from the community, HB2501 was signed into law by Governor Ige as ACT 126.

The bill was sold as necessary to protect the “small farmers and ranchers” who would be devastated by a lack of protection from losing their own Revokable Permits. Never mind the fact they were never in jeopardy, A&B and their loyal subjects paraded out these hapless bystanders as the real victims; shields protecting A&B from the spotlight. The champions were assured; “this is a one-off measure to give A&B and the DLNR three years to put their houses in order.” And so… we waited. Hoping against hope that the powerful A&B and their lapdogs, DLNR and the Legislature, would hold to their word.

Set to expire at the end of 2019, ACT 126 gave these bad actors three years to sort their shit out. But alas, we know now how this story was intended to play out. It would seem no one really intended to follow the law and A&B continues to divert water from public streams with impunity.

In The Meantime….

In late 2018, A&B sold more than 40,000 acres of agricultural land to the entity Mahi Pono for $262 million. The new landowner has been making the rounds on Maui. They’re confidently telling residents and activists that they intend to cultivate the land to the benefit of Hawaii. Only time will tell and their involvement in the “water bill” fight has been mostly behind the scenes. They certainly don’t appear to be operating thus far for Hawaii’s benefits.

House Bill 1326: The Lie Laid Bare

How can we really know the true intent of (at least some) legislators? Simple. HB1326, as originally introduced by Representative Ryan Yamane, extended the sunset of ACT 126 indefinitely, essentially codifying permanently into Hawaii law A&B’s ability to take water with no oversight, no accountability, and no regret.

As a “concession” the Hawaii House of Representatives amended HB1326 from an unlimited extension down to a mere seven years. Some may see this as a sign of compromise and reasonable intent from the House. The champions see it for what it is; a green light for A&B and DLNR to continue to shirk the law for nearly another decade.

Through the course of this fight, the champions began looking at the land sale contract between Mahi Pono and A&B. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a provision was included in the contract that stipulates A&B will owe Mahi Pono $62 million if A&B cannot secure “access for collection and transmission of surface water from state-owned lands in East Maui”.

Incensed and betrayed, the champions sounded the call to action. By the time HB1326 made its way to the Hawaii Senate, the fix was in; House leaders wanted the bill passed quickly and unamended. They wanted the Governor’s signature on the measure ASAP and were prepared for a fast veto override vote before the end of the 2019 Regular Session.

The Senate, taking a sobering approach to the task at hand, held the bill for a time before scheduling a hearing before a joint Committees on Water Land and Ways and Means.

Senator Kai Kahele, Chair of the Water Land Committee proposed a reasonable compromise: a seven-year extension for those honorable “small farmers and ranchers,” but excluding A&B entirely. After a six-hour public hearing, members of the Water Land Committee voted 3-2 to support Senator Kahele’s Proposed SD1. Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Senators on the Ways and Means Committee, led by their Chair Donovan Dela Cruz, deferred indefinitely the bill. And so it died in committee.

Or so thought the champions….

Corporate Influence in The Square Building Knows No Bounds

Within mere hours of HB1326’s death in committee, rumors and rumblings began spreading about efforts to pull the bill from the Committees’ grasp and out to the Senate Floor where the full body would take action on the House version. House and Senate Leadership, showing where their true allegiances lay, are moving to protect A&B from the law once again.

And so here we are today. Our elected officials, loyalty-bound not to their oaths, their constituents, or their conscience, but to their corporate masters are showing their true colors.

The champions have sounded the call. So too am I writing this for their benefit, and the benefit of Hawaii.

Call your State Senator. Tell them to stand with the people of Hawaii. To stand with the champions who fight tirelessly to what’s right. Call and tell them to cast off the shackles that bind them to their corporate masters. Remind them of their oaths to protect and defend the Hawaii State Constitution. Remind them they serve the voters who elected them to serve.

Politics is too often a dirty and bloody game. In my own time, I’ve seen too much bad shit and not enough good. I will be outraged if this bill becomes law. But I will always be humbled and honored to have been able to work with the magnificent champions who have been fighting for justice on this issue for years. Join us.

 

Featured Image by Lauryn Rego @ Cartoon Court Report 2019 – Thanks Lauryn!
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