Colleen Hanabusa pauses to listen and look ahead

Focusing on the future

Gubernatorial candidate Colleen Hanabusa stopped by The Maui News for an interview Thursday. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Reaching the homestretch in her bid to upset Gov. David Ige in the Aug. 11 Democratic primary, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa mused last week about what she calls a “fascinating statewide campaign” and on what she’s learned on the campaign trail, especially from millennials.

“The most intriguing thing in the campaign has been millennials,” she said in a wide-ranging interview Thursday morning at The Maui News. “I have a campaign headquarters that is filled with millennials, and that’s not a group that I normally would have expected to actually kind of deviate towards us.”

Hanabusa said her campaign is attracting millennials because she talks and listens to them.

“That’s a no-brainer, but it really means something to them,” she said.

And some of their ideas might be controversial, or even off-putting, to older generations of voters.

Hanabusa said she’s been intrigued by the way millennials think. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

For example, one millennial suggested that recreational marijuana become a replacement crop for the 36,000 acres of former sugar cane land on Maui, and Hanabusa didn’t dismiss the cultivation of “Maui Wowie” out of hand.

She said she explained to the young man that, for such a proposal to become a reality, the federal government would first need to be convinced to declare that marijuana is not an illegal Schedule 1 drug (defined as a substance with a high abuse potential, no medical use and severe safety concerns); and she said the government would need to permit it to be transported in interstate commerce.

” ‘You’ve got to think it through,’ “ she said she told the young man. “And, I said that the most important thing is that you’ve got to convince the community that government has put in safeguards. So, that we have defined what is impairment or what is intoxication. It becomes like alcohol.”

When asked if she would consider legalizing marijuana, she said she would, provided that safeguards were put in place.

“But you know, everything else aside, that’s a cash crop that would generate a lot of income,” she said.

Hanabusa said she’s been intrigued by the way millennials think. “It’s just fascinating to watch them,” she said.

For example, this new generation doesn’t necessarily yearn for a single-family home with a two-car garage, four bedrooms and two baths, she said. In fact, a small “Tokyo-style” apartment might be just fine.

“One millennial told me: ‘You have to understand. I do not want to be a slave to a mortgage. Yes, I do want a place, but I want a place that’s affordable to me but not affordable so that I have to sacrifice everything along the way to get there.”

Hanabusa said she’s heard people in government say things like, “We’re going to build for the next generation.” Or, “we’re leaving a state for the next generation.”

But, “How many of us have actually spoken to the next generation and asked them?” she asked. “Yes, we must meet immediate needs. But, more importantly than that, we really need to plan for the next generation, the future generations, because, if we don’t, Hawaii is just not going to be someplace where they want to be. And we have to start listening to what they’re saying.”

One thing Hanabusa said she’s learned from talking to young voters is that they’re willing to share — living space, cars and bicycles, even clothes.

One young woman who lives on the West Coast told Hanabusa: “Not only do I share everything; I also share my clothes. . . . I get clothes, for whatever, pack up the older ones and send them away when I’m bored. I don’t buy clothes. Why buy clothes? What spend all this money, and it’s just going to go out of fashion?”

Millennials “don’t want to spend money on things that we have spent money on,” she said. “They want a lifestyle in which they can work, play and live in a particular area.”

Hanabusa said government leaders need to ask pointed questions about matters such as affordable housing or rentals.

“Who is our target?” she asked about housing. “And I think for too long government has left that up to developers. The problem is: The private sector can do whatever it wants to do. Government, though, has land, and government has the ability to interject whether it’s tax credits or whatever else. And how is it then that we then meet the demands of the next generation?”

Hanabusa said she thinks transit-oriented developments are an urban planning model for the future, especially on urban Oahu along its 20-mile mass transit rail corridor. Transit-oriented developments have housing, jobs and shopping all surrounding a transit station.

She said she bought a condominium in a transit-oriented development a block away from a metro station in Washington, D.C., because “I wanted to see how it works and who lives there.”

When asked if rail would work on Maui, Hanabusa, the former chairwoman of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, said that “unless you have a community that’s really sold on it, you almost can’t sell it.”

And, the “real question for Maui on rail is this: Do you want to have more people? What do you view as your own carrying capacity?”

Hanabusa said that if Maui were to build a rail system to transport visitors from Kahului Airport to resort areas in West and South Maui, then it also should consider rail stations for residents as well.

“In order for it to pencil out, you’re going to have your people, your residents, who either work in those (visitor) industries, along the way, and deciding this is the way they want to live, and this is the way they want to transport themselves,” she said. “Because that’s what this is all about. It’s a lifestyle change, and it’s also a convenience.”

And, importantly, she added that rail planners would need to figure out how to pay for it, whether through the general excise or transient accommodations taxes, she said.

When asked about the commonly held belief that state government is slow to respond to resident needs, taking decades to build the Lahaina bypass road and the Kihei high school, for example, Hanabusa said she shares the same frustration, especially when she believes that government could work better with effective leadership.

She said that in 2008 and 2009, the Democratically controlled Legislature with then Republican Gov. Linda Lingle approved airports and harbors modernization measures and was in the process of passing a highways modernization bill. But, despite having legislation in place to take action, no governor has implemented infrastructure modernization, she said, adding that, in her opinion, action wasn’t taken because it was something “that they (governors) felt that they would give somebody else credit for.”

“The fundamental problem with leadership all the way around is that we seem so intent on taking credit,” she said.

The governor’s role is to execute legislation, the policies set by lawmakers, said Hanabusa, who was elected in 2007 as state Senate president, the first woman to serve as the leader of either chamber of the Legislature.

“I think the problem that we’ve had is leadership,” she said. “It goes back to that person who is going to either buy in or not buy in to this problem and do something about it.”

Hanabusa said rank-and-file employees shouldn’t necessarily take blame for state government inefficiency.

“We’ve got to start with the ones on the top because there is no excuse when these pieces of legislation (the modernization measures) existed, the Legislature did their job, appropriate the money, whatever else,” she said.

Hanabusa said this year’s governor’s race is “very critical.”

“You need somebody that’s committed to coming back here who’s willing to listen to what the problems are,” she said.

For Maui, that includes understanding the frustrations with implementing the Lahaina bypass road or delays in building the Kihei high school, she said.

In the course of a more than hourlong interview, Hanabusa often referred to growing up in Waianae, on the east coast of Oahu, where her parents, Isao and June, ran a gas station.

Growing up in rural Waianae has much in common with being raised on the Neighbor Islands, she said, referring to “the issues we all have to contend with.”

“I call it Honolulu-centric; Neighbor Islanders call it Oahu-centric,” she said. “I know what that’s all about.”

In Waianae, if there’s a water main break or a major accident that blocks the highway, people are isolated, she said.

“We’re stuck,” she said. Now, residents have more places to go to, like new movie theaters in Kapolei. Otherwise, “we’d be sitting in places like Zippys, just waiting it out. . . . That’s not acceptable, and it’s been like that for much too long.”

Hanabusa said people are demanding action to improve their quality of their lives.

“And that’s what I hope people will see in me,” she said. “You’re going to get action. I am not afraid to do that. I’ve taken hits before, and I’ll take the hits again. It’s the level of commitment that they need to see in their elected officials.”

* Brian Perry can be reached at bperry@mauinews.com.