The race for state House District 22 comes down to an incumbent Democrat who does not think government is hard enough on the homeless versus a Republican businesswoman who maintains the homeless should be shown more compassion.
In his sixth consecutive race to represent Waikiki, Ala Moana and Kakaako, Tom Brower faces Kathryn Henski, 66, who has lived in Hawaii since 1975 and worked for the Republican Party of Hawaii after bouncing around the country. She’s been an inventor, restaurateur and art gallery owner — among other business ventures — and started her own homeless shelter in Alaska.
Henski, who lives in Waikiki near the zoo, ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 1978 but decided to challenge Brower this year because “I really enjoy helping people, and that’s what I’ve spent my life doing,” she said. “I wanted to give back and serve the community.”
Henski described herself as “definitely a moderate Republican” who is “kind of softhearted, I guess. If somebody is hungry and you have food, you share it. It’s how I live.”
Henski said she and her husband, who escaped communist Poland, fostered 35 medically fragile children on the mainland and ended up adopting two of them. Their youngest, a 19-year-old daughter, studies marine biology at Kapiolani Community College.
“A lot of my Democratic friends in Alaska say that I’m a Democrat,” Henski said. “But my father would kill me if I wasn’t a Republican — and he’s still alive.”
Henski opposes Gov. David Ige’s proposal to increase the state gas tax, vehicle weight tax and state registration fees to help pay for state road projects.
She called it “outrageous to tax people on the very necessary things they need,” adding, “They need a vehicle. They need fuel to get to work.”
Henski also would oppose any effort in the Legislature to extend Oahu’s half-percent excise tax surcharge to pay for Honolulu’s financially troubled rail project.
“If you don’t have the money to pay for something, you shouldn’t buy it,” Henski said.
Brower, the incumbent, said an increased gas tax “may make sense” but that he’s so far not supporting it.
“Currently I am not favoring a tax increase with the information that we know today.”
Brower also plans to oppose any attempts in the Legislature to extend the half-percent excise tax surcharge for rail.
“That being said, we may have come too far to go back on rail,” he said. “We were asked to commit to a certain general excise tax. Now it looks as if some people want to make that tax permanent, and that’s a conversation we’ll have to start all over again. In the state House there are 51 different voices. People who are in town may have a difference of opinion than those who are out west. It’s important for those legislators to represent their districts.”
Brower, 55, has lived in Waikiki for 33 years and regularly walks through the district he represents to get to work at the state Capitol.
He’s perhaps best known for using a sledgehammer in 2013 to damage more than 100 grocery carts that were being used by the homeless near Ala Moana Center.
Then, in June 2015, Brower gained nationwide notoriety when he was beaten by a mob while photographing the Kakaako homeless encampment as it swelled to more than 300 occupants.
The attack prompted a mass response from the city, state and social service agencies that took weeks to clear out the encampment and reduce its population to a 10th of its size.
“On the issue of homelessness,” Brower said, “the mayor has talked about compassionate disruption. Today we need compassionate enforcement, because it’s clear that laws aren’t being enforced, and that’s hurting our efforts to find permanent housing. If you let people camp wherever they want, which unfortunately is happening in a lot of neighborhoods, then people are less inclined to go into our housing services and shelters, which makes it harder for them to find permanent housing.”
Brower said his homeless-related actions led to “a lot of changes in my neighborhood, and those were very positive. More legislators need to get their hands dirty in cleaning up their community and stop worrying about their public image. Too many people worry about their public image over making decisions that need to be made.”
Brower insisted, “I welcome the criticism.”
“If I agree to be in public office,” Brower said, “like a firefighter who rushes into a burning building, legislators have to go to where the controversy is and come up with better solutions. We have to put ourselves on the line to get to a better place.”
Henski has a colorful and varied background that took her from her birthplace in a Cleveland suburb to Alaska and Hawaii.
In 1980, at the age of 30, she said, she fell in love with the remote Alaska city Ketchikan, where she and a retired nurse opened a restaurant that featured a section of the Alaska pipeline that Henski bought and cut down into a barbecue grill.
She said she also ran the Bed of Roses Youth Hostel, which morphed into a 30-person homeless shelter when Henski realized that many of her “guests” really had no permanent home.
“Why did I do it?” Henski said. “I’ve asked myself that question. I couldn’t turn them out. I don’t sound like a Republican, do I?”
Asked whether she made money in Alaska, she just laughed raucously.
“It started out as a business,” she said, “but I got caught in a position of ‘damned if I did, damned if I didn’t.’”