Former Honolulu city Councilman Rod Tam says voters should move past his 2011 conviction for stealing city funds and violating campaign spending laws as he fights for the open Senate seat representing downtown Honolulu, Nuuanu, Iwilei and Liliha.
Tam spent two days in jail and was ordered by the City Ethics Commission to repay the city $13,700 for using city funds to cover hundreds of meals at places like Zippy’s that were unrelated to his duties as a councilman.
“It was plus and minuses. There was no intention of taking any money,” Tam told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in regard to his impugned accounting records that became the subject of legal scrutiny. “I had mathematical errors, I admit.”
(Tam pleaded guilty to 26 misdemeanor and petty misdemeanor counts of theft and falsifying documents.)
Asked what he would like to tell voters who may still be concerned about the charges, he said: “I love my community. I want to serve and I am dedicated to public service.”
Tam, who is working to relaunch his political career as a Republican, faces a tough race against Democratic challenger Rep. Karl Rhoads for the seat being vacated by longtime Democratic Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland.
Rhoads, an attorney, has been a member of the House of Representatives representing Chinatown, Iwilei and Kalihi for a decade and served as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee since 2013.
Rhoads had raised $126,490 for his campaign as of Oct. 24, compared with Tam’s $5,769, according to campaign spending records.
Tam has had a long and colorful political history, serving as a Democrat in the state House from 1982 to 1994 and the state Senate from 1994 to 2002. He was elected to the Honolulu City Council in 2002, where he continued to serve until his unsuccessful 2010 bid to become Honolulu mayor. He received only 1.5 percent of the vote in the primary.
Tam says that he was a Democrat right up until his decision this year to run for the Senate seat. He said his opposition to tax increases and fiscal conservatism prompted him to switch to the Republican Party.
As far as the more immediate issues facing the Legislature, Tam says that he wants to see the full Honolulu rail line built, but wouldn’t support an increase in the general excise tax to cover costs unless there is more financial accountability.
Asked what other options he sees for financing rail, he said, “Can we invest our money to make money?”
He said he would not support an increase in the gas tax and vehicle fees, which have been pushed by Gov. David Ige’s administration.
Beyond the more concrete issues facing the district, Tam has made his belief in democracy a central theme of his campaign.
“I want to revitalize democracy,” Tam told the Star-Advertiser. “Democracy means a lot to me and I learned about it when I went to school. People ask me, ‘Why are you so focused on democracy, Rod?’ I said, well, and I started thinking, I said, ‘I learned it in elementary school from Maemae, from Kawananakoa, then from Roosevelt.’”
Tam says he has faced “oppression and repercussions in embracing democracy and opposing community terrorism/crime,” in campaign literature he provided to the Star-Advertiser.
He says he has been defamed by the media, threatened with bankruptcy, falsely accused in the courts and had his life threatened.
He told the Star-Advertiser that the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye had ordered a hit on him in the 1980s over a housing development dispute. He said he couldn’t talk about it until recently given the sensitivity of the issue.
Tam claims a friend overheard Inouye order what he called the “death contract” while at a Zippy’s. “He overheard Dan say, ‘Get rid of Rod Tam,’” he recounted.
Rhoads is a more conventional candidate, serving in the House of Representatives since 2006.
If elected, Rhoads said two of his priorities include increasing affordable housing, especially for seniors, and increasing government transparency.
“Affordable housing can keep you busy for an entire lifetime, but it’s still an important issue,” said Rhoads, noting that wages in Hawaii have not kept up with the cost of living.
Rhoads successfully helped pass legislation that provided $151 million in funding for the state to purchase the Kukui Gardens affordable housing complex, aimed at ensuring that the several hundred units remained affordable. He has also supported the redevelopment of Mayor Wright Homes to increase the number of units and improve living conditions.
Rhoads says he has a strong track record of supporting women’s issues, including increasing women’s access to health care and emergency contraception. He was one of only two men to receive a Patsy T. Mink award, which honors leaders who have supported women’s reproductive rights.
When it comes to financing the Honolulu rail project, which has soared in price and faces a $1.8 billion shortfall, Rhoads said he would consider raising the general excise tax, but that he would like to see the city explore other options such as borrowing money for the project that could be amortized over a period of 100 years.
“It is actually quite surprising that we have paid cash for as much as we have,” said Rhoads, who points out that rail is a city project, yet no city sources of funding have been utilized.
Rhoads, like Tam, says he generally opposes tax increases and is reluctant to support Ige’s proposed increases to the gas tax and vehicle fees. But in the long run, he says he would consider an increase in the gas tax if it’s necessary to support road repairs.
Rhoads says that if elected, it’s his aim to carry on the work of Oakland, who is known for her dedication to social issues, including homelessness.
“For me, it is her work on homelessness that stands out. It was not that long ago that homelessness was not the front-and-center issue it is today,” Rhoads writes on his campaign website. “Susie focused on the issue long before it was popular to do so and for that she deserves our sincerest mahalos. With your support I intend to follow in her footsteps, continuing her tireless work for the good of the people of Hawaii.”