Cover Story

L: The Distr. 20 candidate with her husband, Michael Christopher, Ph.D. R: Calvin Say
Image: L: Robert Maikai Uhene R: COURTESY CALVIN SAY

Running for transparency and against fast-track development, environmentalist Keiko Bonk goes after the seat of Rep. Calvin Say, a supporter of Act 55, which established the PLDC.


Cover image for Oct 24, 2012

In urban Oahu’s storied Distr. 20, a Green Party candidate who refuses corporate contributions is seeking to unseat the veteran Speaker of the state House of Representatives. Call it chutzpah, but given the groundswell against the state’s creation of the Public Lands Development Corporation (PLDC), this may be the start of a green sweep.

The Challenger: Keiko Bonk

Keiko Bonk says voters resonate with the David vs Goliath theme of her District 20 campaign. They recognize she’s fighting the odds as a Green Party candidate running against Rep. Calvin Say–longtime Speaker of the House, and one of the state’s most powerful Democrats.

Still, there’s more to it than just that. Bonk is running not only as the little guy, but for the little guy–the 99 percent who are in real danger, she believes, of losing their state government to the corporate special interests that bankroll her opponent and his influential political action committee (PAC).

She’s presenting herself as the antithesis to that, as the grassroots candidate who accepts no corporate donations, “represents the real people,” keeps voters fully in the loop, and favors fully transparent, community-driven decision-making. “I’m hoping that if people vote for me they will become more excited about what’s going on in their state government,” she says.

Bonk blazed trails in 1992 as the first Green to win elected office in America. After serving four years on the Hawaii County Council, and making a failed bid for Big Island mayor, she moved to Oahu, where she’s been working as an advocate, mostly on ocean issues, since 2005.

“I hadn’t been planning to run for political office,” Bonk says. But through the last two legislative sessions, she became increasingly alarmed at “the most backroom, backward politics I’ve seen playing out in years.”

She was especially disturbed by a rash of bills aimed at curbing environmental controls and citizen participation. Chief among them is Act 55, which created the Public Lands Development Corp., a five-member appointed panel with broad authority to privatize state lands. “It really is the biggest rip-off of Hawaii’s resources probably ever, certainly since statehood,” she says.

Meanwhile, a twist of reapportionment fate shifted Bonk, a Kaimuki resident, into the same district as Say, who personifies the political philosophies and practices she eschews. As Speaker, Say steered the PLDC legislation and other bills aimed at “undermining all those public interest laws that were put into place many decades ago so the people of Hawaii would know what is going on,” Bonk says.

“I couldn’t stand by any longer and watch this happen,” Bonk says. “I decided to step up.”

In her campaign literature, Bonk acknowledges that she faces tough odds: “I know it might look like I’m running against an unbeatable Goliath, but I’ve defeated old boy politicians with their corporate money before.” Indeed, Bonk, an artist and former art history professor, stunned Democrats across the state when she toppled Hawaii County Council incumbent Robert Makuakane in her first bid for office.

Makuakane attributed her win to the “back to the land” voters that lived in the Puna District. Bonk said Makuakane was remote, aloof, out of touch with his constituency. As she sees it, similar factors are at work in her race against Say. “I think at this point, after 36 years, that Calvin is so far away from representing this district in any sense,” she notes. “He’s holding $500-a-plate dinners to support his PAC, making deals. He has to juggle all those interests and the Legislature. He doesn’t have time for community development work.”

Bonk thinks District 20, which comprises Palolo, St. Louis, Wilhelmina, Maunalani and Kaimuki, “is ideal for running Green on Oahu. There’s already a demographic that’s changing this district to urban Green. We’re kind of made for each other.” Though it’s located in the heart of the city, it has a more rural feel, she says, and it’s attracting young, health-conscious residents, along with restaurants that showcase the area’s farm-fresh food. Bonk herself has deep roots: her mother grew up in Kaimuki, and her maternal grandfather had a farm nearby.

Bonk is also aware that she might receive a chilly reception in the House if she defeats the Speaker. But she sees possible alliances with “some of the dissident Democrats who are already trying to make the House more fair and transparent. I’m good at forming coalitions, working with groups.” And other lawmakers might actually welcome an end to Say’s lock on the Legislature.

“If he doesn’t want a bill heard, it won’t get heard,” she says. “If Say has that much power, it makes the Senate pretty much useless, because everything has to go through both Houses.” The Speaker’s PAC, Citizens for Responsive Government, gives him additional clout, Bonk says, by accepting donations from special interests, like Monsanto and Syngenta, which are in turn doled out to 28 representatives who follow Say’s lead in voting. “He can do his own influence peddling,” she says. “If you take corporate money it appears you will be influenced by the donors.”

Besides rejecting corporate donations, Bonk is making just two campaign pledges, both of which underscore key differences with her opponent. “I am going in specifically to repeal for the people of Hawaii Act. 55,” she says. “And I’m going to make sure people know what is going on. People have a right to know. They’re not getting information in a timely way. I will make the office a place where you can bring the issues directly to the public.”

Bonk is earnest about the concept of government serving the people, listening to the people, involving the people. She was deeply influenced by Sen. J. William Fullbright’s 1966 essay on the “arrogance of power,” which her father, staunch Democrat William Bonk, required her to read as a teenager.

“That is the failure here,” she says. “When people who are elected get arrogant, they can’t do what is best for the people. It’s really up to the people to decide if they’re going to change that. I have faith in the people. That’s why I’m running.”

True transparency is the only way to end the “back room wheelings and dealings” that allow special interests to hold sway and undermine democracy, she says, pointing to the PLDC legislation as an example. “That bill was kept quiet on purpose. That was a politically strategic move by the governor and the leadership elected in the House and the Senate. No one informed the public that they were going to do this heavy, heavy piece of legislation that was going to alter Hawaii’s diverse environment for decades to come. Now that people know about it, they’re outraged and looking for a repeal.”

Bonk sees Act 55, which allows the PLDC Board to exempt its development from county land use rules, as running counter to the Green belief that people should have a direct say “in the way we live as communities. The PLDC is trying to eliminate these local controls. They’re actually moving in on home rule.”

If elected, Bonk sees herself working closely with the people in District 20 to help create the community they want. “In District 3, the neighborhood boards are already working toward bike paths, a dog park, recycling areas, community gardens. We might be able to do things together. With Greens, it’s think global, act local.”

Bonk feels optimistic about her chances, given the response she’s received when holding sign. “They’re honking and saying yes, David and Goliath. And they want David to win.”