Chad Blair: Why Politics In Hawaii May Never Be The Same Again – Honolulu Civil Beat

The day Hawaii’s state government changed perhaps forever was March 19, when a state senator — just back from a jaunt in Las Vegas — announced he had tested positive for COVID-19.

The surprising news forced House and Senate leaders to order everyone to immediately evacuate the Hawaii State Capitol building.

The Legislature hasn’t been the same since, struggling over the past six months through two limited sessions largely closed to the public. While some necessary business continues — judicial confirmation hearings are set to begin Thursday in the Senate, for example — an ambitious slate of bills to help the most needy of our citizens was shelved.

As the legislative branch has been pretty much sidelined by the coronavirus — with the exception of special COVID-19 committees in each chamber — the executive branch has become the focus of attention in leading us through the crisis. The same goes for the counties, where the mayors have taken the lead while council members are often bystanders.

Mayors and governors are, of course, by the very nature of their offices chief executives. And they have unique emergency powers at their disposal.

But as Hawaii moves through the pandemic, voters will likely seek future leaders with proven crisis management skills. Possessing a calm, trusting demeanor and clear communication skills will be assets, as will a little humility and openness to course correction when a wrong call is made.

The political scene changed in Hawaii when COVID-19 hit the State Capitol in March. The Legislature hasn’t been the same since, with lawmakers struggling to be effective in the face of a pandemic.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Competence and accessibility will be valued among Cabinet members, too. And citizens and the media will be looking for smoother cooperation between agencies and governments, not bickering and confused, inconsistent messaging.

Hawaii’s political and governing landscape has changed in other ways too because of the coronavirus.

With tourism on life support, state and counties face a harsh financial reckoning on how they pay for government salaries and services.

And the way we run our elections will no longer resemble past ones, which will influence how we pick those very same leaders.

12 Days In March

It’s instructive to briefly revisit what happened over the 12 days after COVID-19 cleared the Capitol, a dizzying series of developments whose consequences reverberate through today.

To see how quickly events shifted helps us to understand why our leaders were initially so overwhelmed, and how it could happen again.

The day after the state senator’s diagnosis, Oahu’s mayor ordered restrictions on bars and restaurants and Kauai’s mayor instituted a nighttime curfew. The next day state unemployment claims went through the roof and the state was unprepared to honor them.

Democrats then postponed their mail-in presidential primary and canceled the walk-in portion, the governor imposed the travel quarantine for all arrivals, the state’s top airline began canceling long-haul flights and Oahu residents were ordered to stay and work at home. The governor soon made that a statewide mandate, and the state’s sunshine and open records laws were suspended.

On March 23 the first Hawaii death from COVID-19 was reported, which turned out to be in error. The lieutenant governor — a medical doctor — was reported to be iced out of the governor’s response team, then was back in again. Hawaii schools were to remain closed until April 30 and some doctors began to criticize the health department over testing.

Next, the telescope protesters on Hawaii’s tallest mountain ended their encampment, the travel quarantine was set to be extended interisland and concerns were raised about inmates and staff in jails and prisons. Big budget cuts were proposed at Honolulu Hale. The month ended with the state’s first official death from the coronavirus.

HAWAII STATE CAPITOL CLOSED sign near the Rotunda elevators during COVID-19 pandemic. June 22, 2020

A sign posted at the State Capitol in June.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Whew. This is not to excuse how our leaders responded to all this, but we really have never faced anything like this before. There still is no playbook, although we now have color-coded matrixes to guide us.

Still, the criticism of the response has been unrelenting, with some arguing for the impeachment of top officials. Going forward, there will be tremendous pressure for agencies to have in place solid plans to better prepare for the next cataclysm.

Dried Up Revenue Stream

That next emergency could soon be upon us. While there is a lot of pent-up desire for Hawaii to get back to “normal,” the next six months could be worse than the previous ones.

What is Fault Lines?

“Fault Lines” is a special project that explores disruption and discord in Hawaii and what we as a community can do to bridge some of the social and political gaps that are developing. Read more here.

By some measure the U.S. has yet to enter a “second wave” of COVID-19, one that could well be compounded by seasonal flu. Even as Oahu last week began to ease its latest governmental restrictions and the state looks to lift the travel quarantine for pre-tested visitors, it’s obvious to all but the most stalwart COVID-deniers how easily we could be forced into retreat again.

The latest forecast for Hawaii’s economy to turn the corner is not until next summer. Many businesses, especially restaurants and some hotels, have already closed shop for good.

And U.S. House Democrats and the Republican White House have yet to reach agreement on a new federal stimulus package — one that the Senate GOP has already said is not necessary. That means Hawaii’s economy, already damaged, may lose out on sorely needed federal funds even as it struggles to spend the money it already had been allotted.

It’s anathema for a state run by one political party backed by labor to consider cuts to sacred cows like regular pay raises for public workers as well as increases to pensions and health benefits. The governor has curbed some expenditures for now.

The Legislature reconvened briefly in May with social distancing measures in place. Minority Leader Gene Ward confers with House Speaker Scott Saiki, both with masks.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But if tax revenue continues to go south, much tougher calls will have to be made. The governor is, rightly, already looking at furloughs for later this year.

Hawaii has heard talk for decades about diversifying its economy, yet little has been done to replace tourism, military spending and construction. When state and county governments can no longer sustain staffing and operations, that will lead to changes at the ballot box.

An Altered Electoral Landscape

Hawaii, fortunately, was ahead of the curve in voting by mail. Increased participation during the August primary, while still not stellar, bodes well for greater turnout. And voting from home just makes good sense during a time of extreme social distancing. Because of the coronavirus, the Democratic Party of Hawaii didn’t even hold a state convention this year.

But, as we also saw during the primary, voting primarily by mail has permanently changed how politicians campaign. Ballots will begin arriving in many mailboxes as early as Oct. 5, a full four weeks before the general election. That means candidates must act sooner on holding fundraisers, sending out mailers, paying for advertising, sign waving and phoning, emailing and texting voters.

Honolulu City Clerk Glen Takahashi holds a ‘mail in ballot’ during press conference held at Honolulu Hale.

Chief Clerk Glen Takahashi in July discussing how the City and County of Honolulu planned to evaluate mail-in balloting after the Aug. 8 primary. The new system has changed the course of local elections.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It also means candidate forums and debates must be held earlier than we are accustomed to, and the media must analyze platforms and evaluate candidate strengths and weaknesses. And the ubiquity and influence of social media only heightens the urgency of all of this.

Hanging over all of what happens in Hawaii is a national presidential election with global consequences. Support for the incumbent remains significant, even on our shores.

If there is no clear winner the night of Nov. 3, we may all be in a constitutional nightmare that will make the first 10 months of 2020 seem like a hazy bad dream.

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Author: The Covid-19 Channel