Current Thoughts (Mostly Hawaii)

The Gilded Cage

I’m sorry little bird but that was the way you were made. There will always be distance. But we will make sure your gilded cage Is resplendent. You will live separate, but we will keep you so busy That you don’t know You’re not free. — Rex Emerson Jackson

With the announcement that tourists may be able to come back to Hawai‘i without a 14-day quarantine starting on August 1, brutal reality to residents is starting to emerge.

That reality is this: the rules we are placing on visitors, to get a test declaring your negative of COVID three days before arrival, will be imposed on returning residents.

That means a resident, going to Las Vegas, for example, will be required to go and get tested, be declared negative, before coming to the islands. If you don’t, the 14-day quarantine that is now in effect for everyone, regardless, will be imposed.

This has lead to another level of messaging from the Governor of the State of Hawai‘i, David Ige, in which he is now also telling residents not to plan to travel from Hawai‘i for leisure.

In other words, if you’re a Hawai‘i resident, he is saying don’t travel anywhere. Maybe to the neighbor islands if you want, but forget about going to the mainland or any international destination.

As soon as he declared that on a KHON broadcast on Friday, June 26, and then repeated it at an interview on Monday, the 29th with the Star-Advertiser, the image of the “gilded cage” came up, thus the quote at the start of this piece.

Sculptures By The Sea 2009 Gilded Cage
Although pretty to look at and wonderful to be in for the day to day, Hawaii is now what is inside the gilded cage
PC: “Sculptures By The Sea 2009 Gilded Cage” by emmettanderson is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

If you are not aware of the term, “Gilded Cage”, as defined by the Collins English Dictionary, “a place where someone appears to live in luxury but where he or she has very little freedom”.

Needless to say, those who live outside of Hawai‘i probably think “why are you complaining, you live in luxury 24/7/365”. And in comparison, to those who live in, say, pretty much anywhere else in the United States, they would be right to think that.

But at the end, a cage, even a gilded cage, is still that, a cage.

Now how this dictum of being asked “don’t travel” is going to go down with the people of Hawai‘i remains to be seen. Concurrently, a more challenging, but better-desired plan would be to try and figure out how to allow the free flow of people between the mainland and Hawai‘i reestablished for both visitors and residents.

Let’s hope that the $90 million given to the Hawai‘i Dept. of Transportation, Airports Division, will yield better plans than to just tell everyone in Hawai‘i “don’t go anywhere”.

And force us to live in the gilded cage to achieve a yet-to-be-defined goal.

Questions about Hawaii from afar

AnnaMaria Preston, Ed.D. is a friend of mine from my City Council days (2004-2008). Over the years since, she moved to Florida to take care of her family. From time to time I get messages from her.

In a message from her late last week, she offered up four questions about how things are in Hawaii, for me to answer and in some ways, opine.

After writing up the answers I thought “more than one person should see these questions and the answers”, so I asked her if it was okay for me to republish the questions and answers given. She agreed. So please read below and if your mana`o is different or if you have more insight, by all means, please comment.

1.) How is travel and quarantine on the military bases? I would think they can come and go per their own rules.

So, there are two parts to this. First is that early on, like sometime in April I want to say, the military stopped reporting who in the military were tested or not. It was at this point there was a disconnect between what the military was doing on the island and what locals were doing. Since then, all that has been said is that the military has released its travel ban on members moving between bases, restarting transfers and such. As far as we can tell on the outside, the military is doing what it wants with this and the state is not taking any position on it.

2.) Since restaurants were closed, how do they advertise? Doubt they are, right?

The Hawaii Agricultural Foundation as well as the Food and Wine Festival took it upon themselves to create a portal for information on restaurants that were doing take out and littered everyone’s email box about it. Called “Food-A-Go-Go” it has become the center of all restaurant marketing since this thing started. Check the link and scroll down to see who is supporting this. It’s an interesting effort. Central Pacific Bank did a bit of marketing at the start by encouraging people to go out and provide financial incentives to do so. That lasted about 2 weeks as the $100K CPB donated to the cause got completely tapped. People were going out everywhere to get food from places that were sponsoring this and it was a nice spike, but this is been the extent.

3.) What about the tourist magazines? Where Traveler Hawaii, Oahu This week, etc. do you see them?

Short answer, no, most of those publishing houses were closed down as essential by the government when things were ordered shut down. The effect of this is starting to be felt in the market. Yesterday it was announced that Honolulu Publishing, a large publisher of said tourist pieces, (visitor-focused Hawaii Drive Guides and Spotlight Hawaii) announced that they were shutting all operations down – a victim of the economic downturn of COVID 19. Along with other areas of tourism, they are affected a great deal by this, with continued effects of this on the market yet to be played out.

4.) Roberts Tours, Oli Oli…etc?

As with all of the front-face tourist-based jobs, most of who worked for these companies are on furlough so far.

Most likely they will be called back in but it looks, more and more, like not everyone who was furloughed at the beginning will have a job if and when we ever allow anyone from anywhere to come to Hawaii without them being quarantined and treated as illegal immigrants.

This group of tourist-focused jobs may be the ones that force people to pack up and leave Hawaii if there are no jobs for them to go back to. As you may have read, Carl Bonham of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Office has estimated between 30,000 and 60,000 people leaving Hawaii due to no work. That number is underestimating, in my opinion, what the real number will be as this may only be those directly affected by no employment in the industry with an “average” sized family. As you know families here can be huge, and all are tight-knit so if one goes, they all go.

Thank you again, AnnaMaria, for the questions and the ability to answer them!

Family Ties

FIRST OFF, BEFORE DELVING INTO this discussion, no law prevents family members from being elected to the same legislative body in Hawai‘i, full stop. So, any implication that what will be said here is illegal in any way should be discounted.

It seems that Hawaii’s politics are moving from electing people based on either political leaning or party affiliation, to that of being part of “family business”.

Of course, there have always been multiple members of one’s family that have been part of politics. The names are familiar to many – the Thielan’s – mother is a Representative in the House, and the daughter is a Senator.

You have the Gabbards – a father/daughter pairing – the father, Mike, being a Hawai‘i Senator while the daughter, Tulsi is a congressman and former candidate for President of the United States.

There are family dynasties also. The Kahele’s is one – father was a Senator and when he passed away, his son, Kai, was appointed to the seat. Another lesser-remembered dynasty was the Takamine’s, another father/son partnership in which the father, Yoshio was a House member until he retired, to be replaced by his son, Dwight.

But until now, you haven’t seen two members of a family in the same legislative body. The 2020 election, though, is going to challenge that.

The Tsuniyoshi family. Current Councilmember Heidi (third from left in blue), Brother in Law Earl, second from right. Chad, Husband, third from right
PC: Heidi Tsuniyoshi City Council website,

It will all be played out in what is, so far, a sleeper race happening in Honolulu Council District 9 – ‘Ewa Beach, Waipahu, Waipi‘o and south Mililani. The incumbent – Ron Menor – is term-limited thus opening up the seat. In his place come three candidates – Will Espero, Earl Tsuniyoshi, and Augie Tulba.

Of the three candidates, two have family members that are already sitting in the Honolulu City Council and will continue to sit there upon the inauguration of the 2021 City Council in January, next year.

One pairing is pretty obvious – Earl Tsuniyoshi is the Brother-In-Law of Heidi Tsuniyoshi. She is currently the Councilmember that represents Council District 2 – North Mililani, North Shore, and O‘ahu’s east coast down to Kāne‘ohe. Heidi has made a name for herself in pushing for higher levels of accountability in City business, especially on the rail.

The other one, while not as well known, is an uncle-nephew paring – Will Espero and Brandon Elefante. Elefante currently represents Council District 8 – ‘Aiea, Pearl City, and the eastern part of Waipahu. Elefante is best known for his push to ban plastic bags and Styrofoam containers from the waste stream, being the author of a bill that charges everyone 15 cents if they want a bag.

WIll Espero, Brandon Elefante

SO HOW WILL IT WORK OUT if one of these families hold as many as 2 seats in the Honolulu City Council; if either Uncle Will or Brother Earl wins? Needless to say, in the realm of Hawai’i politics, this is breaking new ground.

Let’s start with the mathematical. Just being able to secure 2 votes on the Council for any bill sometimes can be as challenging as getting five votes out of nine members – a majority. The fact that at any time a Councilmember would need to secure votes, the likelihood of having to court the Tsuniyoshi or Espero-Elefante two is high. With numbers in any legislative body, comes influence, and if you can secure 3 votes immediately – getting the family pair and your own – your already 60% to your goal of a majority.

Make that threesome a durable political partnership, and no one can make a move without talking to you. And that folks on a legislative body is real power that even the Mayor has to acknowledge. With that, you could control who is the chair and determine who is on what committees

Even more profound is the idea that the pair could be assigned to the same committee. That means on a committee of (generally) five members, two of them are a voting bloc. All you need at that point is one more member to vote with you, and that piece of legislation moves along the process.

And if that committee is a significant one – zoning, budget, or permitting – having a block like that goes a long way to amplifying power on the Council.

La Buena Mesa
The dining room table for families is the place where conversation happens, regardless of what title you hold.
PC: “La Buena Mesa” by Chasqui (Luis Tamayo) is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Let us move onto more practical interactions – family gatherings. It would seem that both candidates, their families are close-knit. Will Espero shows photos, for instance, of family parties on his campaign web material that has Brandon in them. I am sure that Earl meets up with his Sister-In-Law at family dinners, because of his brother, Chad.

While it sounds all tongue in cheek, keep in mind that as Councilmembers constituting less than a quorum, discussions on issues of City nature can be done without worrying about Sunshine law provisions. So, while the rice is being passed around, they can also talk about bills coming up in the Council – legislation that affects almost a million other people who don’t happen to have a seat at that table.

If you don’t believe me, just recollect the last time your family sat around a dinner table, and remember what you talked about.

THE RAMIFICATIONS OF CLOSENESS come into view. There are more examples.

While we may discount all of this and say “nah, they will do right even if they are family,” let’s provide a counter: The Trump Administration has been seen as a family business, with both a son and daughter, along with a son-in-law having direct access to the President of the United States in the White House. While many of the President’s apologists say that he is not abusing his power by putting family members in, the mere perception of implication is more than enough for many to set off alarms.

Even the Ethics Commission of the City and County of Honolulu had something to say about the issue of nepotism. In Advisory Opinion No. 2014-5, its feelings are clear, “[n]epotism erodes public trust in government institutions, their integrity, and operations. It creates reasonable concerns that the decisions of government are not based on merit and objectivity, but on family relations.”

Just because we live in Hawai‘i and we have a certain flavor of “politics”, that does not lessen the implication of impropriety, even though there may never be. Considering that Hawai‘i is entering a period where a lot of money will be used for a lot of things to rebuild the city and state’s economy, collaboration at a family level could easily be defined as collusion for personal gain.

And right now, the personal gain should be the farthest of any politician’s mind.

We have over 200,000 people unemployed in this state and the prediction is that we will lose between 30,000 and 60,000 residents regardless of how fast the economy improves. The idea that any one person that happens to be an elected official will get a leg up over everyone else should be avoided at all costs.

Even if that means family ties stay at the dining room table.

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