Our Next Governor Must Prioritize Affordable Housing and Diversification of Hawaii’s Economy

Like the rest of the nation Hawaii isn’t the same since the outbreak of COVID-19. This midterm election – the first post-pandemic election (ongoing, but manageable) – is largely a referendum on how COVID-19 has been managed in its second half. In Hawaii’s governor’s race with no incumbent, accountability as accolade or condemnation, rests on the second highest state executive seat which is occupied by Lt. Gov. Josh Green.

There’s no overwhelming approval or disapproval of how state leadership managed the pandemic. From the viewpoint of hard statistics on COVID-19 deaths and infections, relative to other states, Hawaii’s state government performed phenomenally in keeping both deaths and infections low throughout the peaks of the pandemic, ranking among the best in the nation.

As a physician and the Lt. Gov. who played an active role in COVID-19 management, particularly in the area of public health, gubernatorial candidate Green can claim proven history of statewide executive success that no other candidate can do. This is perhaps doubly impressive coming at a time when the state had never experienced such a seismic crisis.

Based on early polls, Green has high approval ratings and there is little doubt why – which is largely due to his part in handling of COVID-19.

As a member of Congress during the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, as well as other COVID-19 relief bills such as $55 billion to support local restaurants and small businesses nationally still recovering from the impacts of the COVID-19, gubernatorial candidate U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele can also say he had an important hand in getting Hawaii through the pandemic and take credit for such critical aid from the federal government. His background as the only top candidate to serve in Congress is also a plus as Hawaii (as other states) relies heavily on federal funding.

While much of the public health side of pandemic management has been a resounding success, some can argue it came at a hefty price to Hawaii’s economy that registered some of the highest unemployment numbers nationally; and many businesses – some long-time fixtures in our communities – ended up closing down. Some in the business community have been critical of the restrictions imposed by Gov. David Ige and the lack of support they received from the state during the pandemic. And even before then, some business owners have felt the state wasn’t business-friendly enough.

This area of private-sector executive business management to be applied to governance is where long-time businesswoman and gubernatorial candidate Vicky Cayetano becomes a blue chip candidate. She is the only top gubernatorial candidate with such experience.

Can Cayetano pull out a Rick Blangiardi-type victory at the state level? While Vicky hasn’t held public office, clearly she is no stranger to politics as the former First Lady of the State married to former Gov. Ben Cayetano. Her ideas proposed in solving pressing issues shows a thorough understanding of how government operates; and her ideas are infused with private-sector thinking innovation. Cayetano is also the only immigrant (an ethnic Chinese born in the Philippines) among the leading candidates and she could be relatable to some in that way.

Pressing issues

Competing with the pandemic (or crisis-management) for oxygen as top reasons for choosing a candidate is the obvious confluence of urgent and related issues: soaring high inflation, housing, homelessness, the economy and the quest towards diversification, climate change and a green economy, crime and social services.

The pandemic made people poorer. Fifty percent of Hawaii residents have experienced income reduction. And over 40% of Hawaii working residents are now in the Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) category, belonging to households with income above the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) but below the basic cost of living. These are Hawaii residents living from paycheck-to-paycheck.

Affordable Housing and Diversifying the Economy Should Be Top Priorities

Inflation is adding to the weight of ALICE and FPL Hawaii residents.  The biggest expense for ALICE and FPL Hawaii residents is housing. Rent has been skyrocketing each year that increasingly more long-time Hawaii families are finding that the only solution to survive is to move to the mainland.

It’s arguable that the housing crunch (like the need to diversify Hawaii’s economy) has never really been given serious attention. And it took the crisis of the pandemic for politicians and the greater Hawaii population to finally realize that we in fact do have a housing crisis.

The first sign of Hawaii’s affordable housing crisis was when homelessness started to rise. At first, it was deemed just a mainland transplant problem. Then more locals started to become homeless. And now as ALICE has grown to a whopping 40-plus percent and far more residents are vulnerable, we realize now that we are in a housing crisis.

The next governor must prioritize both housing and diversifying (strengthening) our economy as top priorities. Otherwise, the Hawaii we know and enjoy, will cease to exist as it is. Hawaii will no longer be diverse as more locals leave. Hawaii will then resemble more like Monaco, a destination for the rich and super rich and a population of mostly service workers only here to serve the rich.

Of interest and related to these current times of austerity, local politics is beginning to be more economically-class conscious far more than in recent decades. Nationally and on the mainland this trend emerged in the rise of progressive Democrats who have as their agenda putting the interests of working people over special interest groups. Recently in Hawaii a Progressive Legislative Caucus was established. It’s still a minority at the State Legislature.

It could be said that a few of Hawaii’s top Democratic candidates are progressive, and one (Kahele) was a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

It’s likely that as the cost of living in Hawaii continues to spike and there is a growing consensus that not enough is being done in areas like housing and bolstering economic opportunities, it’s inevitable that Hawaii politics will follow the trend of mainland politics and will increasingly become in practice and rhetoric more class conscious.

The next governor of Hawaii has monumental work ahead. There’s still so much for others living in other states and places around the world to be envious of many of us who live in Hawaii. We need a leader who can maintain what’s great about Hawaii and improve on areas where our residents are struggling. We need to keep our aloha, but not just in words, but in policies that matter.

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