House District 50 will gain a new representative this year as incumbent Patrick Branco vacates the seat to run for US Congress.
His successor will represent a district composed of Kailua and parts of Kaneohe Bay, a region of the Windward Coast flanked by one of the nation’s best beaches, as determined by dr. beachwhose annual rankings generate coverage from outlets like CNN Travel and ABC News.
Kailua’s publicity as an alternative to Waikiki’s crowded shores has made it a victim of its own success, with the abundance of tourists and investment homes challenging long-time residents. Obama family vacations add a presidential level of endorsement.
“And we can’t wave a magic wand,” said Michael Lee, who’s running as a Democrat to represent the district. “We can’t make people not want to come to Kailua Beach. It’s beautiful.”
Whoever wins the seat will have to grapple with this dynamic, which, ultimately, is a microcosm of one of Hawaii’s most pressing questions: How do you ensure mass tourism’s pros outweigh its cons?
Joining Lee in the race for the Democratic nomination are Esera Vegas, Natalia Hussey-Burdick, and Toni Difante. The winner will face Kathy Thurston, who as the only Republican in the primary will advance to the general election.
Hussey-Burdick and Lee currently lead in campaign donations; each has raised tens of thousands of dollars.
Notable donors to Lee include Rep. Gregg Takayama of District 34 and the Hawaii Carpenters PAC. Hussey-Burdick has gotten financial support from progressive candidate for District 25 Kim Coco Iwamoto and former state Sen. Russell Ruderman, who owns Island Naturals Markets.
Tourism has emerged as a defining issue for the candidates.
“There’s no net benefit here,” said Vegas, pointing to environmental, cost of living and cultural impacts.
Vegas, 33, previously wanted to attend medical school and become a doctor like his grandfather, until realizing he was more interested in treating ailments through macro-level public health approaches. Soon, he started a job at the Legislature as a legislative researcher for the Senate Ways and Means committee.
Vegas explained that he wants to tackle the 13 grand challenges for social work, which include ending racism, homelessness and extreme economic inequality.
“How do I end houselessness, and hunger, and all these things? Well, I’ve got to get to the root cause, and that’s what I’m sort of doing. That’s what this avenue is for me,” he said.
When it comes to issues plaguing Hawaii, he said, this root cause comes in the form of catering to tourists and the military.
There needs to be a fundamental shift in how tourism is managed, he said – “let’s say instead of having 10 million tourists at a certain rate of how much they contribute to the economy, you have half that at double the rate.”
Vegas referenced Hanauma Bay, where entry to snorkel is free for Oahu residents but comes with a fee for visitors. This kind of system could also exist for trails and beaches, he said.
Lee, 40, also pointed to tourism’s negative impacts.
An educator who’s coached wrestling and emphasizes his background in conflict resolution, Lee currently works as Director of Education and Stewardship Programs for Moanalua Gardens Foundation.
His vision forlessening tourism’s impact is to “reframe and re-advertise the way we’re marketing what is our home for guests,” he said.
Lee noted his experience working at Kualoa Ranch, where he had the same role that he does now at Moanalua Gardens Foundation. There, he said, visitors could restore a stream for a few hours to earn discounts for local tours or smoothies.
“We’re finding a way for tourists to enjoy what’s great about the islands and to have that positive experience without taking away from a neighborhood or decimating more natural resources,” he said, an approach that Vegas also lauded.
Hussey-Burdick, 32, also worked in the Legislature before running for office.
She first ran in 2018 for what was then District 49, losing to Scot Matayoshi in the primary.
Most recently, she was chief of staff for Rep. Tina Wildberger, whose own district in South Maui includes Wailea Beach – an area heavy with resorts and another favorite of Dr. Beaches.
Also once an aspiring premed student — and as somebody raised by politically active parents — Hussey-Burdick said she pivoted to politics to focus on communicating scientific concepts to lawmakers.
She worked on a bill earlier this year that sought to alter the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s mission toward promoting regenerative tourism.
“We don’t really need a marketing arm,” she said. “We are Hawaii — what we need is management.”
Difante’s team did not respond to multiple requests to schedule an interview.
With less of an emphasis on tourism, the other side of the economic equation is enlisting other industries to fill in the gaps. Candidates were keen to push new technology as a way to do this, especially in the trades.
Hussey-Burdick specifically referred to the Green New Deal as a model.
“That’s the beautiful thing about the Green New Deal and what I don’t really understand the opposition is,” she said. “It’s a job plan.”
She listed a few examples of sustainable technologies the state could invest in, stressing Hawaii’s geographic advantage when it comes to harnessing natural energy: wind, solar, geothermal, and even the kinetic energy from waves or saltwater gradients.
These sustainable technologies also touch the construction industry, she said.
“We need to be incorporating passive design elements and green design into our constructions. It’s crazy that we don’t do that here,” she said, referencing the need for better ventilation to aid in both cooling and cleaning air, a feature especially relevant during the pandemic.
Lee emphasized the need to address the state’s digital divide – also made especially relevant during the pandemic – and said some untapped local industries could be in hemp or marijuana, were they to be legalized.
Food-based agriculture is an appealing industry, he said, but the state’s money may be better invested in industries that don’t have to compete with big grocers like Safeway or Walmart.
While hemp and marijuana are possible, Lee said that he’s still developing his thoughts on which specific industries to invest in.
Whatever the case, he’d like to keep them locally based, even hopefully bringing back former residents who were born and raised here but moved to job hubs like Silicon Valley or New York City.
Vegas also wants to promote local production, arguing that residents’ cost of living shouldn’t be so subject to tourists and the global market.
This extends to wanting food investment on a smaller scale – rather than investing in big agriculture entities, he said. “I would be more in favor of community-run gardens, community-run co-ops,” he said, especially when it comes to feeding schools.
While each candidate agreed that short-term housing rentals are a large part of the tourism problem, they distinguished between residents who rent a spare room to make ends meet and international investors with large portfolios of homes.
This distinction wasn’t made in Honolulu’s recent short-term rental law – but candidates essentially said that the perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good.
“Almost no bill is perfect on the first round. And you can always amend it later. But we need some kind of action here,” said Hussey-Burdick.
Vegas blamed high housing costs for residents feeling like they need to rent out their homes to tourists or members of the military. Theoretically, he said, you could rent to family members who are having a hard time rather than rely on tourists for income.
His vision for housing is a much more regulated industry, with stock prioritized for residents and immediate family members, and with short-term rentals registered through the state, which could control how these rentals are used.
“Now,” he said of the hypothetical scenario, “the state’s making all the money Airbnb would, they’re able to keep it with residents only – and it’s fair.”
Earlier this year, Kailua Bay was the site of the Marine Corps discharging high levels of fecal bacteria. This, combined with Red Hill, strikes a similar chord that tourism does for the candidates — that Hawaii is not being treated with respect.
Each candidate said accountability is needed – and fines aren’t enough.
“I’d have to do a lot of research and really look into how can we hold them accountable,” said Vegas. “How can we prevent – not just a fine, or a reprimand – how can we Stop it from happening?”
Lee agreed: “I don’t equate money with making things right,” he said.
When asked if accountability is purely a federal matter, Hussey-Burdick shook her head.
Referring to Red Hill, she said, “they’re leasing state land, so if they’re not going to upgrade (their infrastructure), we could absolutely refuse to sign the lease again,” she said.
Lee was less willing to take a hard line, but did say that upcoming contracts between Hawaii and the military would need to be negotiated with the memory of these missteps – “because it’s not like they’re leaving, and we can’t afford to have them leave.”
Hawaii’s economic reliance on visitors isn’t something that will be easy to reverse.
Vegas — who, out of the three candidates interviewed, spoke most ardently against this reliance — even acknowledges that transitioning away is a long process. With the current dynamic so engrained, he thinks the first step to this transition is a mental one.
“We need to get away from tourism, because look at what it’s doing,” he said. “Understood? Okay. Now we can have an open mind when talking about solutions.”