A few days ago, Hawaiʻi celebrated, or failed to celebrate, the fifty-third anniversary of Statehood. The seeming apathy that perennially surrounds this not-so-holy holiday provides a gauge on the political climate in the islands. Most people now know that the history behind statehood, annexation and overthrow is so contested that silence is a better response than engagement. I even find myself avoiding engagement on these topics in some situations.
Overall, there a few issues which come to forefront in the public consciousness today. In this post, I provide my reading of these front-burner issues as an overview of Hawaiʻi’s political landscape. The first, and probably foremost issue is surprisingly limited in scope in terms of the proportion of people it affects: rail. I say limited – of course the tax burden is massive, but it only applies to Oʻahu, and the project only benefits West Oʻahu, but it dominates headlines in our statewide newspaper like few issues have in the past 20 years.
Thereʻs no shortage of views on rail. The project revived the political career of one of most unpopular politicians in recent times, Ben Cayetano (though his tell-all book probably helped build sympathy for his record as Governor). The public has proved fairly fickle on the topic of rail, voting for the project in 2008, then voting in a plurality for the otherwise unpopular, single-issue Cayetano this month. Geography played a key role in the original vote, as the districts rail was to serve voted for the project and Windward and East Honolulu, and even Waianae voting against it (though Nanakuli voted for it). This breakdown shows the distribution of the population is heavily concentrated in the West suburbs -home of the nation’s worst traffic.
The plan for rail is something that few have probably looked at closely. The route snakes through Honolulu on Halekauila street next to the Federal Court house, and ends upstairs at Ala Moana. The station will be suspended above the bus terminal and will likely cause at least a year or two of massive disruptions at that terminal. The other end of the project is even crazier – it ends in the middle of an empty field in Kapolei. When they spoke of rail-based development, they weren’t kidding – they meant from scratch.
The fight over the development of (or paving over of) Hoʻopili farmland was basically a done deal by the time of the Land Use Commission’s (LUC) vote. The lone dissenter in that vote noted that Hoʻopili constituted a third of farmland on Oʻahu. On a side note, the approval of Koa Ridge the same week moved our island far in the direction of having no open space between Honolulu and (practically) the North Shore. UH West Oʻahu’s campus opening this week at least would bring population to the Kapolei area, as will Hawaiian Homes development adjoining the campus. But probably the thing that will be the most unpopular will be the development of the Pearlridge to Kapolei segment first, which will cause it to run empty for years while the “first” (or what should be first) segment is built from Pearlridge to Ala Moana. This plan is politically smart, however, in the most cynical sense, in that it locks the taxpayers into committing to the entire project, and avoids the project being stopped at Pearlridge as voters begin to resent the costs.
All of this makes it sound as if I’m anti-rail, but that’s not exactly the case. Unlike others, I don’t believe that people will continue to drive as they now do, because oil prices will almost certainly skyrocket to $9 – $15 per gallon. Rail will then look attractive, and possibly (though it’s hard to imagine) like a good deal in retrospect. Honolulu is actually a city in which it makes sense to have a mass transit system – itʻs long and thin, crammed between the ocean and mountains, snaking from downtown to Pearl City, before opening up in the central plain. But this geography would have been as well served by a bus rapid transit system, which Mayor Jeremy Harris proposed, no one noticed, and Mufi Hanneman killed. The costs would have been a fraction of rail’s cost, but would include a lost auto lane in each direction – a small cost that people, foolishly in my view, are unwilling to pay.
Always present on the political agenda, always given lip service, but never put in the hands of capable people, is the public school system. The voting away of the public’s right (by the public) to select the Board of Education (BOE) was a mind-boggling use of the democratic process – we (though not I) used our very empowerment to disempower ourselves. It’s true that the candidates were weak, and maybe it would have worked out if the Governor would select authentic experts to the new appointed board, rather than the business-oriented members that now sit on the BOE.
It’s too early to say exactly what the effect of the new board will be, but the programs already in motion have put incredible strain on the schools – some of which, but probably not all of which, they need. Apart from the BOE, the DOE’s organizational chart is so hierarchical that it takes a pamphlet (or something more like a small book) to merely display it. As an outsider, it’s difficult to say what exactly the effect of these layers is, but it’s clear that the gap between policy-makers (especially on the federal level) and students in the classroom is a large one. In my years of observing the DOE from inside and out, many of the unnoticed aspects of institutional culture are where the problems lie: the relation between teachers (many of whom are brought in to fill in because of the high turnover of teachers), home life, and societal culture (how many people are actually reading these days?) are all factors that remain unmeasured for the most part, and contribute as much to student performance as teaching methodology.
The furloughs were a hot topic a couple of years ago, and Lingle’s campaign for Senate will hinge on the public perception of this decision. She was lucky, because test results actually went up that year, but public outrage was high and she was protected by being in her second term. My view is that history will look more kindly on her – she was being consistent, every department took a cut with no exceptions, but the public may still feel that their children’s schools should have been an exception.
POLITICS (I.E., POLITICIANS)
One political observer said to me recently that today’s local politicians have “no vision.” I think this is true, and it may be a result of the times. I mean that in two ways. On the one hand, few seem able to predict even the near future at this historical moment. Even fundamental assumptions such as the dominance of tourism, can’t be taken from granted as global warming threatens our beaches, and hotel executives pay no attention to the phenomenon. I’m no fan of Lingle, but at least she executed an agenda for developing an infrastructure for electric cars, the result of which we see at Kahala mall and Pearlridge in the free charging stations.
Today’s politicians, by contrast, are a cult of appearance and personality. Take Tulsi Gabbard’s stunning defeat of Mufi Hanneman. The only explanation is that the public soured of his egomania (though the singing probably didn’t help), and their attention was grabbed by her striking looks and mildly interesting backstory. Gabbard grew up in a political family and so it’s no wonder she’s good at it, but where’s the vision? Caldwell seems cut from the same cloth. Mazie is as entrenched in the status quo as it’s possible to be. Until we actually look for leaders with vision, instead of just letting ourselves be distracted by them (on the side of the road mainly), we won’t find a John Burns, a Tom Gill or even a Jeremy Harris in this or the next election.