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John White has been well known in local Democratic Party circles at least since 2001, when he was president of the Hawaii Young Democrats. He also was a legislative aide to the late City Councilman Duke Bainum, from 2000 to 2002, and chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono, from 2007 to 2009.
More recently White has become familiar to the broader public as executive director of The Pacific Resource Partnership, one of the leading advocates of Honolulu’s rail project, the construction of which, once fully under way, would greatly benefit the 6,700-member Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters and many of the state’s contractors who together formed the nonprofit PRP in 1987 to promote and police Hawaii’s construction industry.
White joined PRP in January 2011, not long after losing a race for City Council. He also is a former executive director of the Atherton YMCA and a former project manager for the Saint Consulting Group.
White was born in Hawaii but moved with his mother to Arkansas when he was 6. He graduated from the University of Arkansas with a degree in political science.
White said it was while working for Hirono in Washington, D.C., in May 2008 — "right before (Barack) Obama clinched the nomination for president" — that he realized the significance of that often-asked question in Hawaii: What high school you wen’ grad?
"I was in this building for Democratic congressional candidates," he recalled, "and I walked into this room. It was just me and Obama. I’m like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I shook his hand and said — you know, he was still a senator then — ‘Mr. Senator, I’m from Hawaii.’ And the very first question he asked me is, ‘Oh, what high school did you grad?’ And I went, ‘OK, you’re from Hawaii.’ (Laughter) I hated to break it to him that I went to Harrison High School (in Arkansas).
White said he returned to Hawaii in 2000, even though his mother, who is half Hawaiian, "thought I was half nuts for going."
"She was just afraid," he added, "because, you know, it’s tough to make a living here."
White said "there are thousands of more people" like himself "who have connections to this place who want to come back home," but he was one of the lucky ones, because he had a small savings and he knew people here who could help him.
That experience likely explains much of his enthusiasm for working at PRP, which, with nine employees and revenues last year of almost $3 million, supports projects that he says can help meet the needs of Hawaii’s growing population. Also weighing on his mind is that more than half of the carpenters union members currently are out of work.
White is 36 and lives with his wife, Stacey, in Kaneohe, along with their 1 1⁄2-year-old pug.
QUESTION: What was the point of forming Pacific Resources Partnership?
ANSWER: It was labor and management wanting to work collaboratively, to strengthen Hawaii’s economy, create jobs for our members and improve the overall quality of life for Hawaii’s residents.
Q: How do you do that?
A: One part of the work of PRP is focused on job creation and workforce development. That starts by advocating for construction projects that create work for our members. Also, working with our contractors, to help market the superior work they do. … And also it’s monitoring overall construction work across Hawaii, to ensure that contractors and developers play by the rules and follow the law.
Another focus area is our civic engagement and community awareness. Part of that is borne out of concern that there is a minority of people in Hawaii, a slim minority, who are no-growthers, but who tend to be the most vocal. The vast majority of Hawaii residents support responsible growth and development, … but they work the longest hours, have responsibilities for family, … so our job is to help educate them on the importance of growing responsibly and how creation of more housing and projects like mass transit will help build a more sustainable Hawaii.
Q: Why does the carpenters union need a group like PRP?
A: Well, I think if you start from its inception, the union and management saw the importance of working collaboratively. PRP is designed to tell the story of our industry and the importance of the projects that we support, that help create jobs for our members.
Q: What are some of the premiere construction projects PRP has been supporting recently?
A: Before I get there, let me just tie together how we select the projects. What we seek to do is support projects that help create a more sustainable Hawaii. Sustainable means meeting the demand for housing that we have today; building the kinds of communities that incorporate many of the smart-growth lessons that we’ve learned — making them more walkable, creating places for people to gather, with services close to where they live; and projects that obviously create jobs but promote a better quality of life for all of Hawaii’s residents. …
So recently we supported the entitlement process for the Thirty-Meter Telescope on the Big Island. We support Kyo-ya’s and Hilton Hawaii Hotels’ redevelopment in Waikiki — it’s critical that we stay ahead of the curve in the tourism sector and be competitive with emerging Asian destinations, by redeveloping our physical assets. And, most recently, obviously, we’re strong supporters of rail transit and the housing projects in Ho‘opili and Koa Ridge.
Q: What about that 600-foot-tall building proposed for Kakaako?
A: We’re building our knowledge base about transit-oriented development, of which that would be the kind of project that utilizes a transit system with a lot of density in the area. There’s certainly a lot of intriguing things about that project, and it’s the kind of development that I think helps achieve many of the things that we all want.
Q: But no position yet?
A: Well, we’re supportive of the project. But I guess what I would say is it’s important to understand that there is a larger question at play. That’s a specific project, but it’s the notion of what rail transit will allow us to do in the future, and how it will allow us to meet the demand for housing that’s coming, in a way that’s more sustainable, that protects open space, limits urban sprawl and builds a better quality of life. Projects like that certainly help contribute to those goals.
Q: Are you still saying the rail project would create 10,000 jobs a year?
A: Sure. If you look short-term, the job projections are 10,000 on an annual basis for the construction of the project — 4,000 construction, 6,000 indirect jobs. … But I think it’s important to mention that the jobs don’t end after rail transit is done. Rail transit is a piece of our infrastructure that invests in our future by creating the opportunity to build smarter and more sustainable communities. So for our industry, for the union, the real opportunity is to meet the demand that we’re going to have for housing in the coming decade, and do it the right way, in a sustainable way. By 2050, the housing projection anticipates a need for 100,000 more units of housing on Oahu, and rail transit is the game-changing piece of infrastructure that lets us meet that demand without urban sprawl and without losing open space.
Q: What if rail doesn’t go through? Aren’t there other projects you could focus on to get things moving quickly?
A: We don’t approach this project with the notion that it’s only about jobs. Jobs is certainly one of the great outcomes for us with this project. But rail transit is one of those transformational projects for our city, if we’re going to meet the demand for 100,000 more units of housing by 2050.
Q: Considering the entry into the mayor’s race by former Gov. Ben Cayetano, who is anti-rail, are you doing anything to counter that?
A: The members of our union have been visiting with thousands of people across Oahu for many months, telling their story about why they support rail personally, and why they think it will make our lives better.
I can tell you that there are tens of thousands of people who support rail through the (proposed rail) corridor, and that real story about how rail will impact people’s lives for the better has not been fully told yet. We look forward in the coming months to moving beyond the election-day rhetoric and focusing on the story of rail and how it will make our lives better — how it will save people money, how it will make us less dependent on foreign oil, how it will give people choices, to spend more time with their families and less time in their cars.
Q: Here at the Star-Advertiser we received a letter a few months ago supporting rail that allegedly was from an unemployed carpenter. It had come to us through the public relations firm that represents PRP, suggesting that some of the pro-rail letters we get might not be so grassroots. Is that one of the functions of your public relations firm, to rustle up letters to the editor?
A: Here’s one thing I know: Every single letter that gets signed by a member of the carpenter’s union has come from the members themselves. I mean, you can help them with some ideas, because you have to remember, if you go back to the civic engagement part, a lot of people don’t ever really have an opportunity to engage in civic discourse. One of the things I’m proud of that PRP does is it helps people who want to have their voice be heard get a chance to do it. So a member who’s never written a letter to the editor, that’s someone we would sit down with and say, OK, what do you want to say, and we would help them put it into words. So at the end of the day, I would say, to a person, every letter that’s submitted comes from that member.
Q: Well, like you said, PRP is helping give voice to the quiet majority, right?
A: Yes. And I have to tell you, I think what you’re going to find in this election year is people realizing what’s at stake, and that those who oftentimes have been silent … they’re going to realize that rail is a critical part of our future.
Q: Has PRP weighed in on the proposal to exempt certain state and city projects from environmental and other regulations to get them moving?
A: I believe we provided some testimony … in support of that. Although I will say that, although we represent the construction industry, we believe, like members of the environmental community, that many of the regulations in place are good, and we support sustainable development. Which is why I keep coming back to rail. Rail transit lets us create a future where we can plan the growth of the city in a way that’s responsible, and, at the same time, protect the environment.
Q: Well, rather than waiting for a financial crisis and then going project by project to speed things along, why not approach it more systemically? Challenge the network of regulations per se, and scale them back so they aren’t such a burden.
A: I think there’s room for common ground between reasonable members of the environmental community and members of the construction industry. … If we can come to a common ground on the kinds of things we want collectively for our future, then I think a lot of the regulatory barriers we face today can be overcome.
Q: Are there any projects you would oppose, even if they promised to offer jobs to your constituents?
A: Well, we evaluate projects on a project-by-project basis. I think what we look for is: Are they responsible developers that are committed to hiring a local minimum of the construction industry; is their project compatible with a sustainable Hawaii; and does it add more to what Hawaii is all about?
Q: So are you pretty much called in when a project has to jump through a bunch of hoops? Is that where this comes up?
A: Sure. It comes in many different ways. Sometimes we’re asked to help in an entitlement, a process. Sometimes there are legislative barriers, well-intentioned thoughts that at the end of the day just don’t meet what the stated objective was and will hurt the project. Sometimes it’s just helping to do that civic engagement part I was telling you about — going into the community and telling the story of how that project will benefit the community. So it depends on the project.
But at the other side, it’s critical to remember that part of work we’ve done in recent years is our compliance work.
In 2007, I believe, we launched the Play Fair in Hawaii campaign. There was a developer that was hiring undocumented workers, violating a bunch of state laws, with construction, and I want to make sure that that portion of our work doesn’t go unmentioned.
Our compliance work, in many ways, is a two-pronged approach: to advocate for good projects, and to (root out) the bad ones — that hire substandard contractors; that cheat and will ultimately affect the quality of the building; that don’t pay their taxes. …
So for the compliance side, a level playing field creates a better product.
Q: Is there some coordination between you and contractors licensing board, or whatever other agencies would be in charge of that type of thing?
A: The work we do is more like … we’re like the canary in the coal mine. We’ll have people who say, “We think there’s an issue here.” We don’t have formal judicial powers. We can’t fine, you know. But what we can do is make a case, and the state and the city and the federal agencies we work with have been extremely cooperative. They’ve listened to our concerns and they’ve acted on them.