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.