Home cooking adds flavor to Legislature

As president of the Hawaii Senate, Ron Kouchi’s days are what you might call busy.

And that’s OK.

“There is tremendous flow of information that comes through, and people wanting appointments to talk about the issues,” he said. “I’ve been quite amazed at just the amount of information that flows.”

Funding, filing, following bills, it’s all part of the hectic daily process, which might seem demanding and at times overwhelming.

But Kouchi has a way of dealing with things and resolving matters through his own, unique method: a sense of humor, a crockpot and a propane burner.

He’s known for cooking comfort food for staff and legislators, who often don’t have time to leave the Capitol for lunch.

“You come by my office, the Neighbor Island guys, you know there’s something to eat,” Kouchi said, smiling.

And eating is a great mediator.

“If you have food in Hawaii, you’ve got people sitting around the table, and if you’ve got them sitting around the table, now you’ve got a chance to talk and get your point of view across,” he said. “So that’s been effective.”

And it has had an impact on the state of Hawaii.

This legislative session has been a good one, Kouchi said. He was relaxed as he chatted recently about what he sees as harmony between House and Senate.

“I’ve got friends on both sides and fortunately I’ve been able to maintain those relationships,” he said.

The Kauai man took over as Senate president last session. It’s a post in which his days start early and end late. In between, he’s meeting, discussing, planning, organizing and figuring the best ways to get things done for the people of this state.

With the role comes a nearly endless list of administrative duties. He is responsible for 65 to 100 support staff. He makes decisions where disputes arise and helps committee chairs achieve goals.

A key to being Senate president is being available to listen to people and learn their priorities.

“My commitment was to sit down with the committee chairs, listen to what their priorities are, go back to the ways and means chair, find out what our fiscal parameters are, and then working within them,” he said.

The range of topics that end up before the Senate president is wide, including health care, education, culture, arts and funding for the University of Hawaii.

“Clearly one of the most important issues for us on Kauai, with statewide impact as well, is how do we ensure the delivery of rural health care services,” Kouchi said.

Public/private partnerships remain a possibility.

“Clearly, we need to look at how we restructure ourselves in the current climate so we can have a cost-effective operation so we can continue to maintain KVMH and Samuel Mahelona hospital for 0ur residents,” he said.

Heat abatement for schools is another key issue, particularly in Kekaha and Waimea.

A safe learning environment for students is a must.

“We need to equip them so they can compete with students around the world,” Kouchi said. “To do that we need to upgrade the connectivity in the outdated buildings and we need devices to get to the one-to-one learning opportunities.”

The No. 1 priority facing the state is homelessness.

“We’re committing tremendous resources to that,” he said. “We’re making sure each county is going to have an affordable housing project because the homeless problem doesn’t only exist on Oahu. It is statewide.”

Many social services were cut in 2011 due to budget woes. He would like to see such funding restored.

“One of the unintended consequences is not having enough services that could have perhaps helped people avoid being in a homeless situation,” Kouchi said.

The state also faces the potential problem of creating transitional programs for the homeless, but then giving them nowhere to go when they’ve completed the programs.

“We need to have a permanent facility for them, or permanent housing opportunities,” he said.

Kouchi is proud that the state erased a $700 million deficit in 2011 and is today in the black through a combination of cutting costs, holding the line and raising taxes and fees.

“It was very painful and the kind of services that were eliminated eventually had an impact on the community,” he said. “Fortunately, as the economy has grown, we’ve been able to start restoring positions and now we’re in a place where it’s still not enough money for everything we want to do, but at least we’re not talking about cutting.

“We’re trying to work within the revenue we’re generating.”

A drawback to being Senate president? Kouchi is home less than he was before.

“It does require me to be on Oahu a lot more than I’m used to,” he said.

And that raises questions he asks of himself.

“Am I going to be effective for Kauai when I’m not here as often as I used to be in the previous five years?” he said. “That was part of the difficulty last year in saying, ‘I’d like to do this.’”

The other thing is hoping people believe he is doing a good job so they will return him to his Senate seat and they won’t say “Well, I don’t think we want this guy back. He’s hardly ever at home these days. I don’t see him as much as I used to,” he said.

“Hopefully I’ll be able to translate effort and time into good things for Kauai,” he said.

Kouchi typically rises by 7 a.m., meets with legislators for coffee, and discusses the latest happenings in the House and Senate. Appointments start about 8:30 and continue throughout the day.

Kouchi and other Neighbor Island legislators tend to work late.

“You get a chance to hang out, but that’s what makes the Neighbor Island bloc,” he said. “It’s a strong contingent.”

“We’re hanging out with each other, sharing ideas, sharing priorities; you get to know each other at a personal level, spending that time together,” he said.

“We figure out how we’re going to get our bills to move forward,” he said. “Sit and talk about how we’re going to be effective in getting capital improvement money for Kauai.

“The better plans we have, the more creativity we bring. That makes me happy.”

To relax, he enjoys sports, though he doesn’t have much time to watch. This time of the year, he’s more of a political junkie, including at the national level.

Kouchi supports Hillary Clinton the Democratic primary, but if she doesn’t get the nomination, he would support whoever the Democratic nominee is.

“She brings a wealth of experience and would put together a team to move country forward,” he said. “It’s critically important at that level you have that kind of experience.”

Like most, he doesn’t like the tone of this year’s presidential primary races.

“With Donald Trump, there seems to be a lot more animosity that there has ever been. I thought it was pretty tough four years ago, but that’s nothing compared to what’s going on now,” he said.

“I think if anything, you take away from the national politics, people are unhappy with the way things are going. If you don’t get that message, if you don’t turn around and do a better job and get out of that gridlock, that kind of anger is going to get more sizable about candidates who are about tearing things down, not building things up.”

Kouchi has long ties to Kauai, which he has called home since he was 4 years old. He’s a 1975 Waimea High School graduate.

He served on the Kauai County Council from 1983 to 2002, then lost in a bid for mayor’s office to Bryan Baptiste.

He served three years on the KIUC board, two more years on the council, lost in a reelection bid, then was elected to Senate in 2019.

While others have used the Senate president post to pursue higher offices, that’s not in Kouchi’s plans.

“I wouldn’t be interested in trying to campaign statewide. I enjoy the work at the Senate,” he said. “I’m not looking at the Senate as a stepping stone because I want to run for something else later on.

“I think there’s some appreciation the fact I’m really not interested in doing that.”

Kouchi and his wife, Joy, married 28 years, have two grown sons.

“As much as I love serving the people of Kauai and the state of Kauai, we’re hoping we’re have a little time to spoil some grandchildren and be terrible grandparents,” he said.

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