“I’m here to change your mind,” said Andria Tupola.
The Republican nominee for Hawai`i governor was on Maui on Tuesday and Wednesday meeting with voters, waving signs and visiting schools.
The 37-year-old former music teacher who served for four years in the Hawai`i State House, ending as House minority leader, was a come-from-behind winner in her own party’s primary with a distinctly un-Republican populist agenda. Her campaign has so far raised more than $300,000
In a state where virtually all public officials are nominally Democrats, she now faces incumbent David Ige in the November 6th general election. She’s the longest of long shots.
A group of about 70 Mauians were on hand on Tuesday night to listen to her remarks at Baldwin High School in Wailuku. Following the talk she led a question and answer session that brought up issues like housing, sand mining, the long delay in building the Kihei High School, high costs for simple improvements to state schools and facilities, the tax on Neighbor Islands to build Oahu rail, the scuttling of the GMO moratorium despite its win on the ballot, low voter turnout in the primary, as well as many other topics of local interest.
“I do not see any sense of urgency,” Tupola said, portraying a state government bureaucracy that was Oahu-centric — where everything takes too long, costs too much, and has few tangible results for money spent.
She sees her base as all those in Hawai`i whose voices are not heard. “It’s not me, it’s us,” she said. “Empower the people that you serve, focus on simple basic common sense things that can be accomplished by people working together and enlist the support of the community.”
Tupola had little to say on policy questions but did provide a steady stream of stories related to her own experiences: cleaning up trash, working to improve conditions for the homeless, getting more rapid responses from state agencies on matters concerning the schools, and getting it done with support from local businesses without using taxpayer money,
“Leadership is not a part-time job,” is her mantra. “Step up and serve; listen and serve. Make a strategic plan.”
Tupola’s priorities are Housing, Jobs, and Education. She envisions a Hawai`i where, “more local families can stay here for generations to come; more local small businesses can be part of the solution and included in bidding process for government contracts; a revival of vocational training; a focus on jobs that are available that are going unfilled because the applicants lack the training.”
In contrast to the multiple “Lawmakers Listen” sessions hosted on Maui’s by many Democratic elected officials, where there was little direct interaction (typically the politicians only took written and screened questions and then did most of the talking themselves), the Tupola event was characterized by an open conversation with questions coming directly from the audience. The give and take were genuine, and a sense of possibility that both solutions and workable strategies could be crafted by the people in the room was refreshing.
Tupola’s experience as a classroom teacher was in evidence as she led the conversation. Among the most popular proposals of the evening was the call for incumbent Gov. David Ige to debate her on Maui about issues relating to the Neighbor Islands.
Tupola plans to visit every school on Maui, noting that “you can’t know unless you go.”
She had just come from Paia Elementary and was not happy with the advice “to play nice and be patient” given to parents and administrators by sitting elected officials in response to the school’s needs for additional space and facilities. She rejected the notion that it would take many years and $13 million dollars to make the improvements needed at Paia.
The long-promised but yet to be built Kihei High School was frequently mentioned as an example of large sums spent on planning for projects that took decades to materialize. As yet the Kihei High School has not been built.
She also noted the financial gap between the allocations to regular schools that receive approx $12,000 per student while charter schools get a per capita sum closer to $7,000 per pupil.
“Take ownership of the solutions,” she urged, “don’t be passive, don’t let your communities be pushed around by the state. One size does not fit all.”
She also had a number of comments about the other abuses endured by residents of the Neighbor Island.
She pointed out that the rushed legislative special session on rail decided to tax Maui, Big Island, and Kauai to pay for Oahu transit needs without so much as a hearing on any of those islands. Tupola said she was the only one in chambers to object and was scornful of the cowardice of local lawmakers who failed to represent the interests of the people they were supposed to serve. “Hey, they were told if they spoke up there would be ‘repercussions.’”
“So many voices are missing, the state is making decisions that the community is not happy about.” Her advice: “Don’t focus on the legislature, or the party or the unions, focus on the community. Raise the bar, step up the game.”
It was an unexpected “Feel the Bern” moment from the other side of the aisle.
And it didn’t end there:
Housing produced by DHHL (Hawaiian Homes) = 0
New positions for social services for special education = 0
Substitute teachers who “fill in” for a whole year = many
The county’s ever-declining share of the TAT and shifting the burden of the cost of tourism to the county budgets.
A complex and costly permitting process that pushes costs up and hurts local developers and residents.
As for the future of her own party in Hawai`i (where it is a distinctly endangered species): “The GOP is not dictated by label or stereotype.” She acknowledged an internal split saying “a lot of people do not think like me.” Tupola mentioned 45 only once and then only in response to a direct question: “Trump? If that’s the sticking point I have to move on. My focus is on Hawaii, anything else is a purposeful distraction….. If Hawaii going to get our share we have to know people in the present administration.”
At the end of the evening, she asked a question seldom heard from politicians “How many thought this was fun?” Many thumbs up. “How many learned something?” Many more thumbs up.