The Chamber of Commerce Hawaii has hired the son of Senate President Ron Kouchi as its new assistant vice president for government affairs and alliances, which some at the state Capitol fear could mean trouble this year for proposals to increase Hawaii’s minimum wage.
The chamber is the state’s leading business advocacy group and has been an outspoken opponent of minimum wage increases such as one proposed in Senate Bill 2291 last year. That measure died early in the last session, but this year Gov. David Ige has introduced a new bill to incrementally increase the state minimum wage to $15 per hour.
Kouchi, who is one of the most powerful figures in the state Legislature, said he expects his 28-year-old son, Dan, will be lobbying at the state Legislature and elsewhere, and said he sees no problem with that.
“I’m assuming he would be working at the federal level, county level and state level,” said Kouchi (D, Kauai-Niihau). “He’s got a job to do. I got a job to do.”
When asked if his son might use the family ties to exercise influence over state issues, Kouchi replied that “the last time I checked, I paid his tuition and paid for his braces, so I don’t see how he has something over me.”
“As the president of the Senate, my obligation is to my caucus first, first and foremost,” Kouchi said. He added that “almost any job that one of my sons would take in this state, I will have a lot of say over the business they’re involved in.”
Dan Gluck, executive director of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, said that in general the fair-treatment provisions of the state Standards of Conduct law prohibits all state officials from using their official positions to secure unwarranted privileges for themselves or someone else.
Gluck said he cannot speak about any specific case, but “generally, we usually advise state officials to be cautious in any dealings with family members to avoid any appearance of impropriety.”
The provision of state law that governs conflicts of interest prohibits state employees from taking official action that affects their own financial interest or those of their spouses or dependent children, but state lawmakers are exempt from that law.
Bart Dame, a longtime Democratic Party activist who has been lobbying for a minimum wage increase, described the situation as “awkward.”
“I’m assuming that the Senate president knows it’s awkward, so I’m assuming that he will bend over backwards to avoid even the appearance of being influenced by his son’s position on behalf of the chamber,” he said. “I’m hoping that this will mean we’ll get a fair hearing and a fair chance at passing the bill.”
Janet Mason, co-chairwoman of the Legislative Affairs Committee of the League of Women Voters of Hawaii, said it “might be reasonable” for Ron Kouchi to disclose that his son works as a lobbyist for the chamber whenever legislation comes before the Senate president “where there might be a conflict of interest situation.”
“Ethics is first and foremost about disclosure,” Mason said. “That sets it out there for everybody involved to know what the situation is.”
Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and CEO of Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, said in a written statement that her business advocacy team is pleased to welcome Dan Kouchi, who worked with the chamber on its Hawaii-on-the-Hill events in Washington, D.C., during his time with Hawaii U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono’s office.
Dan Kouchi did not respond to a request for comment, but his LinkedIn resume lists him as a “legislative correspondent” in the U.S. Senate for five years.
Menor-McNamara said in her statement the chamber advocates for 2,000 member organizations “so that businesses of all sizes can prosper, providing jobs, supporting families, building our economy and contributing to our communities in a variety of ways.”
When asked to clarify whether Dan Kouchi will lobby at the Legislature, Menor-McNamara replied with another written answer: “Our business advocacy team tracks numerous bills and Dan, as part of the team, will be advocating at the county and state levels, including at the Legislature.”
Ron Kouchi said, “I hope he would conduct himself as a professional, but he has a job to do. He’s an adult over 21 years of age. He applied for several positions, and this is the position he decided to accept, and so I respect his ability to apply for work, get selected and make choices as to where his passion lies.”
MINIMUM WAGE ISSUE
As for the minimum wage issue, Ron Kouchi said, “I wouldn’t have mentioned it on opening day if I didn’t think that we’re going to be seriously considering it, and the step increases of the last minimum wage have been completed, so I certainly feel it’s appropriate that we start looking at what the next steps would be.”
If his son were to lobby against a minimum wage increase, Kouchi said that would not influence his actions on the issue. “No. I mean, the desire of my caucus would be of utmost concern to me as to what the Senate would like to do as a body.”
“I think if I put the interests of a lobbyist ahead of the caucus, the caucus is the only person that has the ability to fire me,” he said. “So if I don’t keep attuned to the desire of my caucus, then I run, certainly, the risk of being asked to step down because I’ve put the interests of someone else ahead of the interests of the caucus.”
Gary Hooser, vice chairman of the state Democratic Party and an outspoken advocate for the minimum wage bill, said in a written statement, “The optics are not good.”
“The Chamber is fortunate to have hired such a well-connected and thus well qualified individual for such a critical position,” said Hooser, who is a former state senator from Kauai. “However, this is one of those situations where perception matters. The failure to pass or the weakening of the minimum wage proposal will be blamed no doubt on the strength of the lobbying efforts of the Chamber of Commerce. People will inevitably connect the dots, rightly or wrongly, and those dots will lead to the Senate President.”
“Cynicism and disillusionment with our democratic process already permeate the mood among all sectors of our community and nation. These types of arrangements simply add fuel to the fire of those who believe ‘the fix is in,’” Hooser said.
Dame said he is pleased that many political leaders are saying that raising the minimum wage is an important issue and “its time has come,” but added that sometimes lawmakers say publicly they support a bill, and it still somehow dies in the rush of conference committee at the end of session.
For his part, Dame said, “I’m uncomfortable with people from prominent Democratic families becoming the leaders and advocates for the Chamber of Commerce, whose agenda is opposed to that of the party on a lot of issues.”