Chun Oakland will not return to Senate
State Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, a longtime political advocate for social services to combat domestic violence and prevent child abuse, has announced she will not run for re-election this year.
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State Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, a longtime political advocate for social services to combat domestic violence and prevent child abuse, has announced she will not run for
re-election this year.
House Judiciary Chairman Karl Rhoads said he will seek the Senate seat now held by Chun Oakland.
In a long email distributed to her constituents and supporters on Friday, Chun Oakland praised the communities she has represented and the various accomplishments made by the Legislature during her tenure, and said she reached her decision “after much contemplation over the last year.”
Better known as “Susie,” Chun Oakland served for 26 years in the House and Senate. From her earliest days in the state House, she focused her energies on issues related to human services programs, serving as an advocate for the disadvantaged including the elderly and disabled persons, abused or neglected children, victims of domestic violence and others.
Her efforts on behalf of the needy earned her a great deal of respect and good will, especially within the ranks of the nonprofit organizations that deliver programs and services to Hawaii’s neediest residents. Time and again, when nonprofit organizations were faced with funding cuts or financial hardships that threatened their ability to operate or provide services, they turned to Chun Oakland for help.
However, that deep affection for Chun Oakland (D, Downtown-Nuuanu-Liliha), among social services advocates never translated into vast political power. Chun Oakland remained for many years as chairwoman of the Human Services committee, a position regarded as one of the lower-level slots in House and Senate leadership. Decisions by Human Services committee chairpersons carry some weight, but are subject to regular second-guessing by more powerful members of the Legislature.
Chun Oakland, 54, said she is “proud and satisfied” with public policies that were put into place during her tenure, and said she worked to empower people to advocate for themselves effectively. She said she established or helped to launch more than 100 caucuses, informal committees or other organizations that engaged thousands of people in the legislative process, and she worked to make the Legislature more transparent.
She said recent interpretations of state ethics law and legislative policies have now evolved to a point where laypersons who volunteer with organizations such as the Keiki Caucus or the Kupuna Caucus, which were established to promote issues important to children and the elderly, are now considered “lobbyists.”
“I don’t think that was ever the intent of the Legislature in passage of ethics reforms back in the 1990s,” she said. “Why would we do that?
“I think that needs to be changed, and until that’s changed, I feel I can’t do what I’ve done all these years,” she said. “It’s interfering with the goal that I hope every elected official has, which is to make sure their constituents know it is their Legislature, it is their legislative process. They should be able to spend this kind of time with some of the mechanisms we’ve created to foster community involvement” without being penalized.
Chun Oakland also cited the demands of working as a so-called “part-time legislator.”
“I put in 26 years of triple-time work — I don’t know if people realize that,” Chun Oakland said. She said she does not know yet what she will do after she leaves office.
Since 2013, Rhoads
(D, Chinatown-Iwilei-Kalihi) has held one of the most politically perilous jobs in state government as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
He was an important player in the effort to have the state legalize same-sex marriage during a special session in 2013, helping to finally resolve a heated debate over the issue that remained a point of controversy in Hawaii politics for more than two decades.
House Majority Leader Scott Saiki said he will miss Rhoads, who “chaired the toughest committee in the House, and he really helped us to navigate through some of the more controversial issues over the past few years.” He
has been steady and unflappable in the face of controversy, said Saiki
Rhoads, 53, has pursued a generally progressive agenda that included ethics and campaign spending reform. He managed to win approval of one measure that increased the disclosure requirements for super PACs, Saiki said.
He has also infuriated groups such as the Hawaii Rifle Association for hearing and approving a series of gun-control measures, including one this year to allow police to enroll gun owners in a national criminal record monitoring service so that police are notified when a gun owner is arrested for a criminal offense anywhere in the country.
Rhoads said he spoke with Chun Oakland and urged her to remain in the Senate. If elected to her seat, Rhoads said he plans to continue with her efforts to cope with the homeless problem and provide affordable housing.
He has already filed for re-election to the House seat he currently holds, but said he will withdraw from that race to file for the 13th District Senate seat held by Chun Oakland. Keone John Nakoa and Harry Ozols have also taken out nomination papers for the 13th District Senate seat.