"operating within the confines of a capitol closed to the public amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic"

It has been almost two weeks since the legislature concluded “sine die.” In that time there have been a handful of news stories that attempt to sum up this year’s session. For my part, as the conclusion of the 2021 legislative session recedes in the rear view, I’ve contemplated my own assessment of the session.

While there are certainly bright spots worth highlighting, from my perspective the legislature was as it always is. A colossal disappointment.

Legislators, operating within the confines of a capitol closed to the public amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, were largely sheltered from a public that usually would be bustling around the building. Though there were arguably exceptions, legislators did “the people’s work” while ignoring them.

I’ll get to that. First, the highlights.

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The effort to move on these two pieces of legislation has nothing to do with ousting Speaker Saiki.

Anyone who pays attention to local politics of the legislative variety is aware of efforts to force House Leadership to come to the aid of working families.

Civil Beat reported earlier this week that a number of labor leaders sent a letter to Speaker Saiki urging him to take swift action on two bills currently stuck in committee. SB614 would exempt unemployment benefits from the Hawaii income tax, while SB676 would raise the state minimum wage to $12 an hour at the start of 2022.

Many unions and advocates for working families have been pushing for these bills since January, with little effect. But with the end of session fast approaching, time grows short for these bills to advance.

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Disclosure: I currently work as the Chief of Staff for Representative Matt LoPresti, though I speak here only for myself.

I’ve been warned by some friends and allies that what follows may increase tensions among progressives, create divisions, and cause strife. They may be right, but I nonetheless feel compelled to share my thoughts on a recent email from Gary Hooser. Ultimately, it is not my goal to divide progressives and I hope folks will read this with an open mind.

For those who may not know my progressive credentials, here’s a short list of highlights:

  • Co-Founder, Progressive Democrats of Hawaii
  • Co-Founder, Equality Hawaii
  • Worked in the 2014 Minimum Wage Coalition
  • Bernie Sanders Delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention
  • Co-Founder, Pono Hawaii Initiative

Allies Diverge

There was a time, not all that long ago, when I considered myself an ally with Gary Hooser.

I first met him when he was Majority Leader in the Hawaii State Senate at a time when Marriage Equality was the top issue of the day. Back then he was unabashed in his ideals and savvy in his political acumen. He helped lead legislative efforts that eventually led to the passage of Marriage Equality in Hawaii.

Many also know him as the primary mover on laudable pesticide ban efforts on Kauai and statewide. There’s no doubt he’s made a name for himself and done good things for our state and progressive causes.

But I fear his time out of office and away from the Capitol, not to mention a growing fandom of acolytes, has clouded his judgement.

This first began to be apparent to me a couple of years back, following the death in conference committee of a $15 minimum wage bill. He was convinced and successfully convinced others that the best, most strategic approach, was to call for that bill to be passed out of conference the following session. While a technically possible procedural move, it very rarely happens.

Either the bill would remain stalled in conference committee, for which he could cast aspersions on the committee members. Or it would move out, for which he could claim credit. A win-win strategy for him; a failed effort for a living wage.

Within Pono Hawaii Initiative, he and I began to differ considerably on electoral strategies and his unyielding “agree to disagree” approach ultimately forced me to move on.

Obviously, he is free to do what he wants. Ultimately however, I believe his strategy of “throwing-spaghetti-and-see-what-sticks” is both seriously flawed and does damage to broader progressive efforts.

Bad Ideas and Firebrand Tactics Don’t Help

Hooser’s insistence on hanging the repeated failure of a living wage around the neck of Speaker Saiki not only evidences a flawed understanding (or willful ignoring) of how the House actually operates, but does nothing to actually further the cause of a living wage in Hawaii. His notion that the Speaker is “king” and gets whatever he wants is both simplistic and naive.

But it sure does make for good press and certainly doesn’t hurt fundraising efforts. I prefer honesty to political high jinks .

Most recently, he wrote this blog post: Blowing Smoke On Cannabis Legalization – Pulling back the curtain on SB767…. Where to begin?

As has become his MO, Hooser lays at the feet of Speaker Saiki the fate of SB767. Is the referral a not-so-subtle move to ensure the bill’s demise? Probably. But Hooser’s not-so-subtle implication is that the bill would sail through were it not for the opposition of the Speaker and Chair Yamane.

Never mind there is at least a plurality, if not an outright majority of House members who are, at best, uncomfortable with the idea of cannabis legalization for adult use. And never mind the nuances of dynamics within the Majority Caucus. It might be that if Hooser had his way, Saiki would be blamed for the fall of Rome and the disappearing bee population.

Let me be clear. The Speaker of the House derives his power and authority from the Majority Caucus. They elect him and support him to lead so long as he in turn protects them and their interests. To suggest that the Speaker (and the HHH Chair) stand as the sole roadblocks to the passage of SB767 is dishonest for the sake of political theatrics and storytelling; everyone loves to hate a story’s villain.

Maybe the Speaker doesn’t want it. Maybe he does. But if there is virtually no will in the House to pass it, why expend finite political capital?

Sometimes nuance matters. When I provide my thoughts on bills or political machinations, I try to do my best to provide as complete a picture as possible. Even if it may not help my particular position on any given issue. Honesty matters.

Calling Out Allies Doesn’t Win Friends

So far as I am aware, Hooser had not spoken to any of the Progressive Caucus members he named before he published his post. He certainly never broached the subject with Representative LoPresti or his staff.

To call for the Caucus members who serve on the HHH Committee to take this action without first discussing it with them has come to be emblematic of Hooser’s standard approach. Appearing to have little concern for whether they believe his suggestion is a good one seems irrelevant to him. Just like with the living wage bill, one of two things could happen.

One, the Caucus members chose not to formally request a hearing for SB767, for which he can then publicly condemn them for not doing so. In which case he is the champion and the rest of us are “cowards” or “not real progressives”. Or two, the members to make the formal request and, regardless of the outcome, he can take credit for the action.

For Hooser, his haphazard call is win-win. With little or no consideration for whether the people he names actually think its a good idea. His “agree to disagree” approach again shows his unwillingness to work with folks who may not agree with his particular strategic approach.

Political Calculus is a Real Consideration

Ultimately, whether he likes it or not, there is a political calculus that is constantly considered at the Capitol. Should the Progressive Caucus members named expend political capital for this bill when the likelihood of its passage this year is SO LOW? Maybe. Maybe not. But Hooser doesn’t appear to give any thought to this consideration.

That SB767 is referred jointly to JHA AND CPC isn’t mentioned in his post at all. Where is Chair Johanson on this bill? I have no idea and I’m guessing Hooser doesn’t either.

Even if Chair Nakashima were inclined to hear the bill, without an agreement from Chair Johanson it doesn’t matter. That it is jointly referred means both Chairs need to agree to hear it.

The unabashed followers of Hooser’s “thoughts, analysis, and ramblings” may not like that there IS a political calculus that takes place, but that is nonetheless the reality of the building and of politics in general. Everything has consequences. Everything has a cost.

Politics is a Marathon. Not a Sprint

I support legal cannabis use for adults. Unfounded fears and a support for law enforcement’s ongoing failed and flawed war on drugs stand between us and that reality in Hawaii. Numerous reasons exist, supported by research, for legalizing adult use cannabis. But this post isn’t about just legalization or SB767.

No progressive can honestly deny the largely frustrating and sometimes hopeless dynamics at the Capitol for good legislation that helps people who need help the most. I certainly won’t. From paid family leave, to a living wage, to cannabis legalization, public education, to criminal justice reform, to a more progressive tax policy, there is a long and growing list of real issues facing the state that the legislature seems at times uninterested in tackling.

However, to poke legislators in the eye, call them names, and publicly offend them is going to result in nothing good.

I hope Hooser will come back to this understanding and change his tactics. Not only is he not making new friends, but he’s driving away allies who want to maintain relationships in order to move the ball forward. Rather than calling for a hail mary on every single play, I and those I work with inside and outside the building believe the work of moving the ball forward should take priority over style and flash.

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xkcd voting

Earlier this week, ballots began to arrive across the island of Oʻahu as the 2020 election season finally reaches the closing stretch. Though nearly all the attention this year has been on the handful of high-profile races for Honolulu Mayor and Prosecutor, I’ve also been focused on a number of state legislative races.

But when my ballot arrived, I realized there were four Charter Amendment questions included that I’d given no thought to. So now I am doing the work of learning about them and, hopefully, providing some useful information to help folks make their decision on how to vote for these:

  1. Shall the Revised City Charter be amended to establish for the Prosecuting Attorney for the City and County of Honolulu a term limit of two consecutive full four-year terms, the same term limit as is applicable to the Mayor and Councilmembers of the City and County of Honolulu?
  2. Shall the Revised City Charter be amended to establish a Youth Commission under the Managing Director?
  3. Shall the Revised City Charter be amended to allow the Honolulu Ethics Commission to control its own budget after it has been enacted?
  4. Shall the Revised Charter be amended to require the ethics commission staff to be appointed based on merit principles, but exempt from the civil service position classification plan, and to have the salaries of all ethics commission staff set by the ethics commission, subject to specified limitations?
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As is so often the case, this post is inspired by conversations I’ve had over the last several days. The first was with my mother, in Kansas City, who was telling me about a news story in which a man had saved for years and years to start his own business. Only to see that business destroyed during recent riots.

She bemoaned the cruelty of it. She felt bad for the man and decried the rioters. Burning a police station was one thing; she didn’t condone it, but understood. But private businesses? My mom was upset by it and didn’t see what purpose it served or what destroying private property and people’s livelihoods accomplished.

I’ve had similar discussions since then.

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