First elected in 2012, Democrat Kaniela Ing represents South Maui in the Hawaii state Legislature. He defeated incumbent Republican George Fontaine that year (a very rare feat in any Maui County election), then easily won reelection in 2014. But this year, he’s facing a tough primary challenge from well-funded Democrat Deidre Tegarden (click here to see her questionnaire).
MAUITIME: What is your top priority if re-elected?
KANIELA ING: We have already accomplished our number one priority to fund and begin construction of Kihei High School. It is right on track despite my opponent’s mischaracterizations, but lots of work lies ahead for Maui’s future.
Looking ahead, my focus will center around returning the power of our political system and to everyday Maui citizens by spearheading long-overdue progressive reforms like a $15 living wage, paid family and sick leave, equal pay, debt-free college, affordable housing and campaign finance reform. I am proud to be “Hawaii’s most progressive legislator” having received a perfect 10 rating by Americans for Democratic Action and an endorsement by the Hawaii Progressive PAC. Maui politics has been controlled by the same group of big-money developers, GMO companies, and ol’ boy lobbyists for too long. A new guard of progressives, environmentalists, and social justice advocates are rising, and I seek to help lead this movement into Maui’s future.
MT: What event in your life best prepared you for public office?
KI: Being born-and-raised on Maui shaped who I am and what values I hold dear. I come from a working class family: my father served tables at Raffles in Wailea, while my mom was a shoe clerk at the old Liberty House. I remember my father pointing out across the cane fields while driving my brother and I to the beach after church when we were children. He told us that within our lifetimes the cane will be gone, lots of the mountain will be developed, and we will have to decide what comes next. That stuck.
When my father suddenly passed away around my twelfth birthday, I worked in the pineapple fields as a teenager every summer to help my mother with family bills. I became a first-generation college graduate, worked in business and all four levels of government, and returned home from Honolulu and Washington D.C. to serve the community that showed our family compassion when we needed it most.
Now, the future of Maui is indeed in our hands. We have a chance to form new unity on Maui by keeping Maui green, saving hundreds of jobs, and realizing a vision of diversified, regenerative agriculture on Maui with local food, hemp, biofuel crops like sunflowers and more.
MT: Who should be the next President of the United States?
KI: Bernie Sanders is the best choice for president based on his commitment to reform our corrupt campaign finance system and unapologetically progressive policy stances. I know first hand how demanding big-money interests are in our state, which is why I focus on grassroots campaigning, collecting the most small, individual donations in the State. I was the only elected official on Maui, as well as the State House, to endorse the candidate before the Hawaii Caucus. Now that Hillary Clinton is our party’s presumptive nominee, I will make the practical choice and vote for Clinton as a strong vote against Donald Trump, who I believe will be a disastrous president for our country.
MT: Which person who previously held the office you’re seeking do you hold up as a model? Why?
KI: Joe Bertram was a dedicated, truly progressive representative for our people. For all of our quirks and personal differences, we share that bond. Bertram eventually lost his seat due to a negative campaign focused on his shortcomings outside of his duties as an elected official, but he remains engaged and still advises me on issues like greenways, bike paths and marijuana policy.
MT: Do you support or oppose the current law that exempts police officer misconduct records from public disclosure? Why?
KI: I’m in strong opposition of the law, because I believe in civic transparency. The vast majority of our police officers have clean records, deserve our praise, and will not have to worry about such records. However, the great power we entrust our protectors with must be coupled with accountability. Recently, horrific domestic violence cases among the ranks have been swept under the rug, a police chief in Honolulu is under FBI investigation and the head of SHOPO announced publicly that he will “die before enforcing a same-sex-marriage law.” I believe that, just like politicians, the responsibility to protect the public should always trump protecting their own. I will continue to fight for a citizens advisory board, body-cameras, and other police accountability measures.
MT: Right now Hawaii has two minimum wages–one for workers, and one for restaurant workers who receive tips (which is lower than the first minimum wage). Do you support this? Why or why not?
KI: Yes, for progressive reasons, but only for employees bringing home more than $15/hrs. I spearheaded the minimum wage debate in 2014 during my time on the Finance committee. A proposal to raise our $0.25 “tip credit” to $2.25 was the central negotiation and point of contention. The increase would have failed if we eliminated the tip credit, so I crafted a solution.
Restaurant owners fairly argue that many of their servers earn $65,000 or more annually. They claim that a hike will disproportionately hurt true low wage earners, like dishwashers and line-cooks, while servers make even more. That, or they will have to raise prices for consumers, which could price out locals. Tip credit opponents argued that this isn’t the case for smaller, “mom-and-pop” type restaurants, where tipped employees don’t make nearly enough.
I came up with an idea for a “living wage” trigger, whereas a slightly lower wage can be paid to tipped employees who make $15/hr. This ultimately ended the stalemate with business interests, and got a $10.10 minimum wage passed in Hawaii. Our law has been used as a national model by the Obama Administration’s department of Labor. However, that was only a start and we have a long way to go.
KI: What should Hawaii’s minimum wage be?
KI: Hawaii needs a $15 an hour living wage. Other high-cost of living jurisdictions like New York City and California have already passed such policies based on the three following reasons: Economically, employees have doubled in productivity, but wages haven’t kept up. So the argument that it will raise unemployment is a fiction. Politically, cities and states that have passed such bills have seen substantial public support. Businesses in those jurisdictions have also demonstrated boosted pride and morale among their workforce, thus increasing productivity and profits for business owners. Morally, it’s simple; no one should be working full-time while living in poverty.
MT: The proposed merger between Hawaiian Electric and NextEra–will this be good or bad for Hawaii? Why?
KT: I support a publically owned utility or a community co-op model over Nextera. We cannot afford to have Hawaii’s energy future controlled by a mainland corporation with its roots in the fracking industry. Hawaii has set a landmark goal of a 100% renewable energy portfolio by 2045, and Nextera’s business model is antithetical to this cause. While they claim to support solar, Nextera has an abysmal record for household solar in Florida, with a .006 proliferation rate. Hawaii on the other hand is already past 15%. While Nextera claims to be able to save ratepayers a few dollars a year, a public utility would likely result in hundreds.
Even if Nextera was a locally-owned and truly committed to Hawaii’s renewable future, its business model would not let it happen. As long as privately-owned utilities are in the business of generating and selling power, household photovoltaic and battery storage will cut into their profits. A fiduciary responsibility to shareholders will not let it happen. This has been proven over the past year in Hawaii. Since Nextera has been begun controlling HEI’s operations, Maui’s solar program has slowed and most recently has essentially been halted in its tracks. In order for household solar to work, utilities must transition their business to strictly grid management, and allow its users to generate their own power. Therein lies the renewable future of energy in Hawaii.
This is why I am early-endorsed by the Sierra Club and receiving maximum support from Hawaii Solar Alliance.
Photo courtesy Kaniela Ing