Democratic Party of Hawaii

"Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards."

This is a subject I’ve been wrestling with for some time. Years, in fact. I started writing this post several weeks ago and repeatedly had to set it aside and come back to it as I tried to find the right words and the right conclusion….

The 2020 Hawaii Legislative Session is well under away. Given what is expected to be an utter train wreck for some of the most pressing issues facing the people of Hawaii, I thought now might be a good time to broach the issue.

Collaboration is Central to the Legislative Process

As a bill goes through the tedious and groaning process of drafting, public hearings, and debate, it is often important for parties on all sides to share in the pain of compromise to reach agreement before it becomes law.

This collaboration and give-and-take on important issues facing Hawaii and its residents is part of the democratic process. I am often disappointed and frustrated by this process. Over years of doing this work, I’ve learned to temper that frustration in pursuit of progress. That progress may be slow, small, and not nearly enough for my taste, but progress is progress.

Though its a lesson I have to relearn on a seemingly yearly basis, I always go back to the very first time one of my mentors drove the point home for me. Continue reading Urgency or Incrementalism? Bold or Patient?

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Sorry for the Inconvenience

On the day before Thanksgiving this year, Civil Beat published a Community Voice piece by Representative Gene Ward (House District 17). The article, entitled “Hawaii’s Status Quo Government Isn’t Cutting It,” takes to task Hawaii’s Democratic Party-dominated political establishment for contributing to voter apathy, for perpetuating wink-and-nod dealmaking, and for not handling the tough issues.

The Democratic Party of Hawaii is Not to Blame. Neither is More Republican Elected Officials the Solution.

As an active member of the Democratic Party of Hawaii who has served on the State Central Committee (SCC) for nearly a decade, I can say with a good deal of confidence that it isn’t the Democratic Party that’s running Hawaii’s state government. Rather, it’s elected officials and appointees who pass themselves off as Democrats.

There are undeniably good politicians who do stand by and up for the Party’s platform and guiding principles. Sadly though, far too many merely drape themselves in the Democratic banner for the purposes of getting (re)elected.

Ask any engaged member about how the Party’s legislative agenda has faired in the last several cycles and you’ll quickly learn that the (Democratic) Majority Caucuses of the House and Senate do not represent the will of the Democratic Party of Hawaii.

(Read: My Speech to the Maui County Convention)

That Hawaii’s Government is dominated by a supermajority of too many who simply call themselves “Democrats” is a problem. But Representative Ward would have you believe that part of the solution to our State’s woes is to elect more Republicans. This wouldn’t solve the problem so much as remove the cloak from some who are not truly Democrats. Hawaii’s Republican Party just clings to life not because the Democratic Party is dominant. But because they have wholly failed to prove themselves a reasonable alternative.

That the Hawaii GOP nominated Trump in their 2016 Presidential Primary should be evidence enough they are out of touch with most voters in Hawaii. There is no easy path for them to regain even some modest power without acknowledging this obvious shortcoming. Blaming Democrats for that won’t solve their problems (just as blaming immigrants for social and economic woes has done nothing to improve the lives of Americans).

But Gene Ward Does Raise Some Points Worthy of a Closer Look

The “Democratic” majorities in the House and Senate believe they have support for their neoliberal and small incremental approach to our most challenging problems because they keep getting reelected. Forget the fact that far too many of them have gone unchallenged for far too many election cycles.

Rep Ward rightly points out that “more than half (56%) of those polled said politicians don’t listen and don’t have high moral standards (51%)”. And why should they listen when they believe they can whatever they want and continue to get reelected?

When push comes to shove, the Hawaii State Legislature will work hard to the benefit of special interests. They bent over backward to support (illegally) the Hawaii Superferry. And they went to extraordinary lengths to see Honolulu’s rail project is sufficiently funded. Or support the illegal taking of water by Alexander & Baldwin.

But when it comes to the highest cost of living, the highest rate of homelessness, the lowest teach pay or helping struggling working-class families, they do nothing. They obfuscate and deflect. They kick the can down the road. Maybe they think if they put off dealing with these problems long enough they’ll solve themselves.

When voters don’t think politicians are responsive to their needs, they do one of two things. Either they disengage (don’t vote, don’t write testimony, etc.) crying, “what’s the point”. Or they go the other direction, as we’ve seen in the case of the TMT, the Kahuku wind farm, or the Sherwoods development. They rise up and fight back in dramatic fashion.

Gene Ward is spot on when he says, “you’re missing the point if you think Mauna Kea is purely about a telescope”. It’s about a people who feel they’ve been ignored, are tired of it, and are taking action.

Turning “Protesting Into Voting” is Part One of the Solution

Voting matters. In state and local elections, it matters even more. Winning margins can be incredibly small; as little as a couple of hundred votes, or less, can be the difference between an incumbent winning re-election or not.

Next year Hawaii will conduct its elections entirely by mail-in ballot. This will make it easier than ever to vote. No requesting an absentee ballot. No having to remember when Election Day is or where you’re supposed to go to vote. Ballots will be delivered by mail directly to voters, who can complete them and simply put them back in the mail. No muss. No Fuss.

Even if you are discouraged by the current state of affairs in Hawaii, you should vote. I’d say this goes double for Native Hawaiians who feel like second-class citizens in their own homeland. Voting won’t magically set right old wrongs. But it will send a strong signal that sitting on the sidelines is no longer a viable strategy. Whether you’re camping on Mauna Kea, or standing in front of trucks in Kahuku, or supportive of those efforts, it’s time to make your voice heard in a meaningful way. Register and vote.

Run For Office Yourself. Or Encourage and Support Others to do so.

Of course, if incumbents have no challengers then there’s no choice to be made. The same-old politician goes back to their cushy seat for another term, comfortable in the knowledge they’ve been given a blank check to do what they like.

What we need in addition to better voter turnout is more candidates. We need more good, smart, passionate, people who care about their communities running for public office. Without a real choice during elections, it’s easy to feel like casting a ballot is a waste of time.

Much to the chagrin of Gene Ward (and many Democratic electeds), there is an ongoing and growing effort to identify, recruit, train, and support progressive candidates to run for public office. These candidates, frankly, align much more closely to the platform of the Democratic Party of Hawaii than many of those currently serving.

It’s not hard to see a political shift is coming. A revolution from the left supported and encouraged by those who are tired of being told: “maybe next year”. Or, “be thankful for what you have.” Cracks are forming in the political establishment’s grasp on our systems of government. Let’s work together to turn those cracks into chasms.

The tide is turning. Come join the effort. If you’re not sure how I’d be happy to talk to you about it. Or if you have friends or family that are engaged reach out and ask them how to get involved.

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All Politics is Local

Presidential Politics Wreaks Havoc

The 2020 election cycle is likely to be a dramatic one. Nationally, the GOP will fight to hold on to the White House, maintain their majority control of the U.S. Senate and generally try to stop the bleeding of support they’ve been experiencing since Trump was sworn in. On the other side of the aisle, Democrats, while trying to make gains across the country (not to mention the White House), are facing their own challenges.

Theirs, for better or worse, is mostly internal. Though the Party establishment is hell-bent on excising the orange baboon from the Oval Office, they are almost equally interested in maintaining the current economic and political power structures; those same structures and political dynamics that allowed Trump to defeat the DNC’s dynastic standard-bearer in 2016.

The loss was embarrassing for almost everyone involved: Democrats, Clinton, the GOP, mainstream new media, and voters. Only Trump believed in the inevitability of his assent to the Presidency.

Learning valuable lessons from both the Primary and General Elections, the DNC made changes to their structure and procedures in the Presidential Primary and the National Convention. I leave it to others to decide how dramatic said changes have actually been. And despite these changes, it would seem at least at a cursory glance, that neither the Democratic Party nor Primary voters have learned the lesson. Against Trump, you don’t bring the same tired moderate faces and talking points.

When Joe Biden officially announced his own bid for the Democratic Nomination, he jumped to the top of nearly every single poll that’s since been conducted. With far too many Democrats (in my opinion) trumpeting Biden as the only reasonable choice to defeat Trump, I fear we’re headed for a repeat of 2016.

The Local Scene

While much and increasing attention is being paid to calamitous national politics, we’ve got serious problems right here at home that need attention.

Our elected officials, from County Councils all the way up to the Governor, are not doing nearly enough to address Hawaii’s very serious issues. Climate change, sea level rise, public education, teacher shortages and low pay, highest national cost of living, highest per capita homeless population, stagnate wages, illegal vacation rentals, protection of natural resources. The list goes on and on. And on virtually all of them, our government officials continue to fail.

“Slow and incremental” should be the official motto of the Hawaii State Legislature. Sadly, while big and bold steps are necessary to address a myriad of issues, our Democratic-majority-controlled Legislature does little more than nibble around the edges. Unless, of course, a construction boondoggle or corporate powerhouse is under threat.

People are fed up. It’s long since time for a change and in Hawaii, we should expect progressives to lead the way.

Where to Focus Our Resources

History shows us that national elections, particularly the Presidential, draw a lot of attention, resources, and energy. And while I expect it will be the same between now and Election Day next year, I’m making a plea here for my progressive brothers and sisters not to ignore local elections this year.

Last year progressive individuals and organizations began an effort to work together to support good candidates who challenged entrenched establishment incumbents. And while we had some success, we’re looking to expand those efforts for the 2020 elections.

We intend to send a clear and unambiguous message to our elected officials. You’ve had plenty of opportunities to address the serious issues we face. Your time is up and we’re coming to replace you. Over the course of the next few months, challengers will begin to appear and the landscape of our efforts will begin coming into focus. During this time, it will be important that we begin collectively to build an army of volunteers and donors.

The Early Bird Gets the Worm

I encourage you to get involved in one or more of these local campaigns. Whether it’s with your money, your time, or both. Our effort to continue transforming the Legislature will not succeed without real and substantial commitments from progressives across the state.

I understand it’s a bit early and there isn’t much, if any, campaigning taking place at this stage. But that will change before too long. If you want to stay updated on what’s happening politically, please consider subscribing to my blog; you’ll receive regular updates via email about goings on with elections and more.

If you can, please also consider donating to the Initiative for a Pono Hawaii’s PAC. While we aren’t spending any money quite yet, it’s never too early to begin building a war chest. With your help, we can change the landscape of politics in Hawaii.

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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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Aloha Maui Democrats!

My name is Josh Frost and I am the Co-Chair of the Democratic Party of Hawaii’s Legislation Committee. My Co-Chair Zahava Zaidoff, on the big island, and I have been working hard this session along with our committee members to advocate for the priority list which was approved by the State Central Committee last fall.

Before I begin my report on the Democratic Party of Hawaii’s Legislative Priorities, I want to take a moment to thank Chair Lara for the invitation and opportunity to address your convention today. And I want to thank all the Maui Democrats in the room for helping to make the Party strong across the state.

For those of you who may not know about the Legislation Committee, its mandate, or the process we used for choosing the Party’s Priorities, let me first take a quick minute to share it with you.

The DPH Legislation Committee

The Legislation Committee is one of the Standing Committees named in our Party’s Constitution and Bylaws. Under the guidance of the State Central Committee, we are tasked with working to translate our Platform and Resolutions into legislation passed into law.

Starting last fall, the Legislation Committee began our process by reviewing all the resolutions that were approved by the State Convention in 2018. Committee members were given the opportunity to select a handful of resolutions which they wanted to potentially prioritize for the Party and on which they were willing to take the lead. Then the committee came together to discuss all the selected resolutions and begin to decide how to prioritize them. Which we wanted to propose and which, for whatever reason, we wanted to pass on this year.

Our process was collaborative and while some conversations may have been contentious, in the end, we all came together to agree and made our recommendations to the State Central Committee.

Those priorities, which were categorized into three tiers, were ultimately approved and they are as follows:

TIER ONE

Minimum Wage/Living Wage
Increased Funding for Public Education
Recreational Cannabis Legalization

TIER TWO

Graduate Assistants Union
Veterans’ Treatment Court
Remote Testimony for Neighbor Islands
Single-Payer Health Care

TIER THREE

Increased Access to Behavioral Health
Criminal Justice Reform/Bail Reform
Publicly Funded Elections

The Update: Part I, The Overview

It was an ambitious agenda, especially given our Committee’s limited capacity.

Some issues, such as Veteran’s Treatment Court and Single Payer Health Care, died relatively quickly, as either no bills were introduced, or no hearings were scheduled on these issues.

Any substantive funding increase for public education also eventually fell by the wayside, as did recreational cannabis legalization.

Other issues, like Graduate Assistant Union Organizing and Remote Testimony, and Publicly Funding Elections made it further but ultimately died in or shortly before Conference. Here I’d like to take a moment to recognize Donna Domingo and the ILWU for their hard work and support for the Graduate Assistants. Thank you.

Part II: Where We Succeeded

As I stand here and report to you today, only two of our priorities are poised to arrive or have already arrived, on the Governor’s Desk following the Legislature’s adjournment on Thursday, May 2.

On Bail Reform: I can happily report that Senate Bill 192 Relating to Bail has cleared the conference hurdle. Criminal Justice advocates, whose lead we followed, supported this bill which ultimately lowers substantially the bail threshold and allows for unsecured bail for certain defendants by allowing them to sign a promissory note saying they will pay the bail amount if they don’t show up for their court date.

House Bill 1552 Relating to Public Safety is also a positive development, as it codifies some of the Pretrial Task Force recommendations and establishes a Criminal Justice Research Institute housed within the Judiciary.

There were many bills introduced to address the dire need for increased access to mental health services in our communities, particularly on the neighbor islands. Among them included funding for drug treatment, parity for behavioral health conditions through insurance, suicide prevention training, expanding residential mental health services, and more.

Unfortunately, precious few of those measures remain alive today and those that are are not likely to affect any real change in the short term. However, on a more positive note, House Bill 330 Relating to Suicide Prevention, which appropriates $150,000 to fund suicide prevention initiatives is now sitting on the Governor’s desk.

As a party, we will continue working during the interim and beyond with legislators and the public to raise awareness and build grassroots momentum to address this issue.

Part III: Our Greatest Disappointment

I’m am sorry to inform you that our Party’s top priority, increasing the minimum wage, failed yesterday to clear its conference committee.

House Bill 1191 Relating to Minimum Wage, which would have raised the State Minimum Wage to $15 an hour by 2024 was deferred indefinitely. While I hesitate to place blame on specific legislators, that this bill failed to advance is a colossal disappointment. While in other jurisdictions with Democratic majorities, $15 Minimum Wage bills are advancing across the country. In Hawaii, our Democratic Super-Majority legislature cautiously nodded toward business interests rather than giving minimum wage workers the raises they desperately need just to scrape by.

Part IV: The Water Bill

Relatively late into this year’s legislative session, at the request of the Legislation Committee, our State Central Committee voted unanimously to support efforts to put a stop to House Bill 1326 Relating to Water Rights. We followed the lead of those water protectors already in the fight to push back against Alexander and Baldwin and legislative leadership. Prepared to accept a compromise which ensured small farmers, ranchers, and energy utilities would continue to have necessary access public streams, we support the Senate Draft offered by Big Island Senator Kai Kahele. I want to applaud Senator Kahele for his work on this important issue and express my own disappointment with those Senators who refused to advance that reasonable compromise.

I will share with you that rumors persist that efforts are afoot to revive the egregious House Draft 2, which would extend Act 126 from 2016 for another seven years and provides no guidance or enforcement upon the Department of Land and Natural Resources to resolve the issue in a timely fashion. On behalf of the Party, I continue to work with our allies on this issue to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Conclusions & Lessons

In conclusion, let me say this; as a Co-Chair of the Democratic Party of Hawaii’s Legislation Committee and member of our State Central Committee, I am sorry we could not do more to advance our Party’s priorities which would have provided relief on a number of fronts to the most vulnerable among us.

It is clear there is a wide gap between the goals and values expressed in our platform and resolutions and the votes of many of our Democratic legislators. Neither the legislature nor the Party is doing a good job in bridging that divide to address the many serious challenges Hawaii residents face.

All of us in this room today hold the Democratic Party of Hawaii close to our hearts as an instrument for positive change for the working people of Hawaii. We need to do better at holding our elected officials accountable. And we need to do better to uplift them when they prove themselves true champions of our platform.

We all can and must do better.

Mahalo and Aloha.

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