Backed By Experience From Rebuilding Kaua‘i’s Economy In The Past
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
One evening during the closing days of April, Senate President Ron Kouchi was watching the evening news when he was startled to hear Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell starting to volunteer Kouchi’s home island, Kaua‘i, as a test site to open after the COVID-19 crisis.
As reported in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Kouchi was reacting to a report that Caldwell thought Kaua‘i or “some neighbor island” might be the best place to test out the relaunch of the state’s tourism industry as the risk of COVID-19 recedes.
“I want to be clear to Mayor Caldwell. Kaua‘i does not appreciate being identified as a potential test case to go bring in the tourists so you can make better decisions on O‘ahu,” Kouchi said.
It marks a new phase for the veteran politician, who is growing more confident in his latest leadership role.
It was five years ago that Sen. Ron Kouchi ousted Sen. Donna Kim as Senate president in a move that emphasized the skillful, but never confrontational, maneuvering that has marked Kouchi’s career in politics.
Kouchi came to elected office at an early age; he was just 24 when he was first elected to the Kaua‘i County Council in 1982.
Political observer and retired University of Hawai‘i West O‘ahu professor Dan Boylan recalls covering Kouchi during a Kaua‘i campaign and giving him high marks.
“I remember being impressed by the size of the crowd, a quiet sense of humor, and a certain solidity to the guy,” Boylan said in an interview.
For 22 years (11 terms), Kouchi served on the Council, including 12 years as chairman. In 2010, he was appointed to the state Senate and five years later, Kouchi, a Kekaha, Kaua‘i, Democrat, was leading the 25-member legislative body.
During that time, Kouchi was in a leadership role during two devastating hurricanes, including Iniki which, according to estimates, damaged every structure on Kaua‘i.
“In every instance, I was working to rebuild the economy of Kaua‘i; now Hawai‘i and the entire globe’s economy is devastated, so I like to say I am uniquely qualified to help with rebuilding,” Kouchi said in an interview.
Now in the time of the exploding unemployment disaster that faces Hawai‘i’s tourist-based economy, Kouchi is trying to find positives to stress.
“Getting the state back on firm footing is going to be a tremendous hurdle,” Kouchi said.
Asked what he thinks about Hawai‘i’s economy, Kouchi quickly assesses the bad news.
“It is devastated because of our dependence on tourism. The two hardest hit states are Hawai‘i and Nevada because it is based on tourism.
“Clearly, there is strong effort now on how to take better advantage of opportunities. We had hoped to take advantage of the new West O‘ahu University film studio and training program, but now we are trying to find what other entrepreneurial efforts there are; the reality is that it is going to be a challenge,” Kouchi said.
As a practiced politician, Kouchi prides himself at his ability to get along with all his colleagues, but he appears to have lost his patience with fellow Democrat, Gov. David Ige.
During the interview, Kouchi was asked when Ige’s term ends, what accomplishments he thinks Ige will have.
Kouchi fell silent, and for nearly a minute said nothing.
“I don’t know, do you have something, I am still thinking,” Kouchi finally answered, adding that, “At this point this is beyond all of our comprehension.”
Kouchi recently said that without action from Ige, the Senate is starting to take up its own leadership role in the COVID-19 crisis.
Noting that major airlines are planning to phase in service starting in May, Kouchi said, “It is essential that stringent policies and procedures be implemented and enforced,” to control tourism.
“Procedures that should be instituted immediately for visitors upon arrival in Hawai‘i include: health screening, identification and verification of accommodations, supervised transportation to their accommodations, and establishing monitoring and enforcement protocols,” Kouchi said in a release.
Kouchi explained that he and House Speaker Scott Saiki have waited in vain for Ige to act.
“The Speaker and I have been sending communication to the governor. We asked him to issue a ‘stay-away order.’ He clearly has had an opportunity to create a plan; he could create a lasting impression. He still has an opportunity to leave an incredible legacy,” Kouchi said.
Asked about his own political plans, Kouchi notes a string of former Senate presidents — Norman Mizuguchi, Robert Bunda, Colleen Hanabusa and Donna Mercado Kim — all ran unsuccessfully for Congress from their post as leader of the Senate, so he feels it best to stay at home.
“I love this job and aspire to no other job,” Kouchi said. “I like the balance I have here.”
Asked if he would think about running for governor or lieutenant governor, he again demurred.
“I can’t imagine a statewide campaign. Also both my sons recently got engaged so if there are children in the future, I envision myself spoiling grandchildren.”
Richard Borreca is a veteran Honolulu journalist. He has worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, KHVH News Radio, KHON-TV, Honolulu Magazine and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, for whom he now writes a Sunday column.