Saturday, November 8, 2008

Archive: The Useful Poor

(This editorial appeared in the Journal's "Best of" theme issue in April of 2001)

Acknowledging the Useful Poor

“Best of” issues, no matter who does them, are never complete. There are always categories that voters don’t get to vote on, because we just never thought of them.

Likewise, when economists and politicians try to figure out why our country manages to keep running, they often miss key factors, simply because they just never had occasion to think about them. They generally consider those living below the poverty line as an economic negative, for instance. But they don’t figure on Cathy, Paradise, Leila, Randy and Sina.

Kathy left her career as an advertising executive to work with battered women on this island. She founded a craft market that helps family violence victims sell their own products to achieve financial independence, and has started a network that gathers household items for victims moving out of family shelters to start their lives anew. Her only income these days comes from a part time job at an organic vegetable garden, but her efforts have helped dozens of women to start new and productive lives.

When Paradise isn’t working for the non-profit dolphin research foundation she helped to start, she’s organizing free concerts to get island musicians more exposure and promote community bonding.

Before being forced into retirement by a stroke, Leila worked selflessly for decades at half-salary--and sometimes for no salary at all--to manage the gallery of a local cultural center.

Randy and Sina helped start an unrecognized Hawaiian fishing community, where homeless families practiced traditional skills to feed themselves and regained some pride in their own identities. Their little community turned a piece of land that no one wanted into an alternative to welfare housing--at least until someone else wanted that piece of land, and bulldozed them out.

Economists and pundits talk of the “idle poor” and the “working poor.” Most of our welfare and support programs, these days, seem to be oriented toward moving people from the “idle” to the “working” categories. But Cathy, Paradise, Leila, Randy and Sina belong in a different class. Call them the “useful poor”: people who don’t earn much money, but who lead lives that are very much of value to the community.

These people don’t really fit any of the Journal’s voting categories, either. But this island has hundreds or thousands like them. They volunteer for art, cultural, social and religious organizations, stretching each dollar of tax or grant money by contributing “sweat equity.” They paint, act, write and dance, often for free, giving tourists something worth coming to see and residents something worth staying to witness. The useful poor volunteer as mediators and self-help group facilitators, cutting the costs of social services and relieving the overloaded court system. They help run feeding programs for they homeless--often for the same organizations that once fed them. They are self-employed craftspeople and small entrepreneurs, putting in long hours and operating at tiny profits, if any, for the privilege of doing what they love. They are housewives who stay home to tutor their children, or unpaid student teachers and low-paid graduate assistants who stretch our education budget.

The value of these people to our economy and quality of life is uncalculated--literally. The state keeps no economic statistics on the useful poor as a class. Our social programs are geared more to use them up than to help them. Our legal system turns “community service” into something shameful that one does in lieu of jail time. Our grant programs often demand “matching funds,” without counting sweat equity toward that match. Our tax and legal structures, especially in this state, are weighted heavily in favor of large companies and civil servants, and stack the odds against the survival of small businesses and non-profits.

Some people don’t gauge their success by their income level. But it’s in everyone’s interest to help those people continue living lives of such value.

It’s time to at least start counting such people, to find out and acknowledge how much they do for us. We can’t begin to protect what we don’t even realize we have. But we’ll all lose if they disappear.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Grassroots Guide: Hawaii County Council

In the 15 years that I’ve been reporting on Hawaii Island politics, campaign spending has followed a consistent pattern. The candidates in every election can be divided into two groups. One group has a big influx of large cash donations from union and corporate interests--mainly construction- and real-estate related, many from outside their districts; if they have small donors, those donors tend to be ethnically homogenous (i.e., Japanese). The second group tend to have little or no corporate or union support; instead, they get their funding from a plethora of small, ethnically diverse donors within their own districts. Call the first group “machine” politicians (We won’t say the Democratic machine, since County elections are officially non-partisan, and even before they were, the same interests would back development-minded Republicans as well). Call the second group “grassroots” politicians.

In recent years, it appeared that the machine might finally be losing its grip. First we elected Harry Kim, who pledged not to accept donations of over $10. Then we got a progressive council majority led by a quintessentially grassroots councilman, Pete Hoffmann, who won re-election this year with only one contributor from out of his district. Then we got the state legislature to pass a law that would make Hawaii County the first in the state to have all-publicly-funded local elections--starting with the election after this one.

But the machine is going all out in the current election--perhaps a last hurrah--or perhaps, if they manage to elect enough councilmembers and a friendly mayor, in preparation to getting the new state law reversed.

Shortly before theHawaii Island Journal closed, I published a story there about O’ahu money in the local mayoral race; it’s reprinted in a blog below, by special permission from the Journal’s former publisher. Suffice it to say that the trends reported there have continued. Billy Kenoi continues to try to be all things to all people; he’s gotten a lot of grassroots support, but he’s accepted huge dollops of cash from development interests as far away as Nevada (but especially from O’ahu). Angel Pilago is not quite an angel in this regard, either (for his construction-industry connections. see Hunter Bishop's blog at, but he's nowhere near Billy's class of indiscrimination in this area.

In the primary, the machine successfully defended two East Hawaii council seats, while knocking off one of the prime supporters of publicly funded elections, Council member Bob Jacobson. Jacobson’s opponent, Guy Enriques, mounted perhaps the most extravagantly funded council campaign in history, in which money from donors in his home district was far outnumbered out-dollared by donors from Honolulu, Hilo and Kailua-Kona--including contributions of a thousand dollars or more from the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, the Hawaii Carpenters Market Recovery Program, The Hawaii Contractor’s Association, and former Council Chair Jimmy Arakaki.

Many of the same donors are contributing heavily in the remaining council races (in Hawaii County’s “non-partisan” system, candidates win election in the primary if they get 50 percent of the votes cast + one vote, if the top candidate gets fewer votes than that, the top two candidates go to the general election. Each of the three remaining contests includes one candidate who is clearly grassroots; but in all three, the grassroots candidate finished behind the non-grassroots candidate in the primary, and faces an uphill battle. If all three lose, then the machine will clearly have control of the council.

In District 3 (South Hilo) Dennis “Fresh” Inishi is squaring off against Andy Baclig. But “Fresh” is anything but fresh in the funding department. He’s filed so many amended campaign spending reports that it’s difficult to follow exactly how much money he finally ended up with, but one thing is clear: a lot of it is from people who could stand to make a tidy profit from a friendly county government. Among Onishi’s $1000-or-better donor club are the Hawaii Carpenters Political Action fund, the ILWU, Hawaii Operating Engineers Industry, Mitsugi Nakamura of M. Sonomura, Contractor, the Hawaii Committee on Political Education (Honolu); Terry Helfer, President of Renolds Recycling (Honolulu); the Hawaii Contractor’s Association; and the Hawaii Government Employee’s Association.

Baclig has a few development-related donors in his corner, too, such as Waiakea Shopping Center (Hilo Wal-Mart) President Lorraine Shin--but almost all of his donors are local, and they’re mostly donating $100-250. Only two donors gave him a thousand dollar or more: HSC Inc., which donated $2000 worth of broadcast air time; and Data Processing Services President Kenneth Ah Lo, who chipped in a thousand.

In District 5, former Council Chair Gary Safarik has won a rematch with current council member Emily Naeole. In office, Naeole has committed some occasional missteps that have won her some scrutiny over her ethics. But her campaign is clearly grass-roots; almost all of her contributors are small donors from within her district. Her $1000-or-more club has only two members: Sabrina Marquand of Pahoa, who gave $1500, and a band called Sugar Daddy, which donated performances which id valued at $1000.

Safarik, on the other hand, has not shied away from the big guys, and has not hesitated to seek money outside his district. His big contributors from outside Lower Puna include Hawaii Operating Engineers ($1500), the Hawaii Carpenter’s Union ($1500) Suisan head Rex Matsuno of Hilo ($1000), and retired building contractor Shikwan Sung of Glendale, California.

Over in North Kona, the candidate is an enigma. If you look on the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission’s Web site ( for Robert “Kelly” Greenwell’s campaign spending reports, all you’ll find a “No Records Available” notice. Greenwell, a maverick scion of Kona’s famous Greenwell ranching family, may simply have opted to fund his campaign himself and not solicit donations. Greenwell is a former head of the Kona Outdoor Circle with a reputation for “out of the box” thinking, but all of his views may not set well with conservationists; he believes that recycling, for instance, is economically unfeasible. Funding his own campaign might make him beholden to none and free to follow his own ideas, whether the left or the right agree with him or not.

His opponent, Debbie Hecht, is running a classic grassroots campaign. Nearly all of her donors are from her district (She did get $200 from a friend in California), and the most generous of them only gave $700; most contributed $200 or less.

None of these politicians are doing anything illegal if they accept donations from special interests or donations outside their district. But whether what they’re doing leads to good government is a whole different matter. Even if there’s no quid pro quo attached to campaign donations, big developers are not likely to support someone who is not a like-minded soul. And when an industry such as real estate and construction becomes so powerful that it controls elections through donations, it can create a bloated monster that feeds itself at the expense of everyone else; creating an endless demand for more construction projects that “create jobs”--in the construction industry--at the expense of other sectors, such as agriculture and tourism--not to mention lowering the general quality of life for everyone by replacing green space with subdivisions and overcrowded roads. The only way to break out this cycle is to elect people who aren’t beholden, and the only way to do that is to find out who’s not got their nose in the trough and then vote for them.

‘See you at the polls.