LIHUE — After working in the Legislature on Oahu, Ron Kouchi returned home to Kauai in 1982.
He remembers living in Kapuhulu and having to drive to his aunty’s house in Kailua to wash his car because there wasn’t a water hose where he lived.
“I said I’d like to go back to West Kauai where you didn’t have to worry about locking your doors and everybody knew everybody,” he said. “I appreciated the values of growing up on the Westside and the ohana and the feeling from living on Kauai.”
Those values have shaped the longtime politician and current Senate president for the state of Hawaii.
“Certainly as the senator for Kauai, I’m still a state senator and am concerned about the policies we adopt as it affects the state,” Kouchi said. “Clearly, I have my main focus on (Kauai and Niihau).”
Appointed by Gov. Linda Lingle to complete the term of the vacated district 8 seat (formerly district 7) on Sept. 7, 2010, Sen. Kouchi has since served consecutive terms for the district of Kauai and Niihau. He replaced former State Sen. Donna Mercado Kim as Hawaii senate president on May 5, 2015.
With the legislative session up and running, Kouchi’s goals include focusing on education, health care, affordable housing and the ongoing budget problems for Oahu’s transit system.
“We’re going to have to deal with rail one way or another. That’s going to be a big issue,” he said. “What would be important for Kauai is how we continue to fund health care to insure that rural areas like Kauai have quality health care services.”
As Senate president, Kouchi is involved with the management of over 100 people and also deals with the administrative work toward the 25 members of Senate.
The Senate president is also responsible for presiding over the daily sessions, referring bills to committees and appointing committee chairs and members.
One of Kouchi’s biggest challenges as Senate president has been traveling more often to Oahu to deal with administrative responsibilities.
“The challenge has been making sure that I stay in contact with what’s happening on Kauai, so I can use the position as Senate president to positively affect my constituents considering that I need devote more time to be here on Oahu,” he said.
Last session, Kouchi and the other Kauai legislators secured $144 million for the Garden Isle toward issues such as education, infrastructure, affordable housing and social services.
Kouchi emphasizes that education is “the great equalizer” that will allow Hawaii’s keiki the opportunity to compete with anybody in the world.
“I continue to work with Rep. Tokioka to work on a new gymnasium for Kauai High School in the works,” he said.
He was also able to secure $6 million for a new library at Kapaa Elementary and $5 million for connectivity upgrades for each of the island’s 15 public schools.
Tying in infrastructure with job creation, Kouchi said a challenge is finding economic opportunity for people on West Kauai and North Shore so they don’t have to drive to places like Lihue for work.
Kouchi said creating jobs on West Kauai that involve bio-fuel and renewable energy is ultimately what he would like to see.
“Certainly we’ve seen with green energy an opportunity … or find something we can grow,” he said.
Though he thinks housing shouldn’t be exclusive in any particular area on the island, he said areas like Lihue and Kapaa may be viable spots to grow higher and create density.
As far as industries, Kouchi seen success with growing startups involved with workshops and programs with the Kauai Economic Development Board and the Kauai Chamber of Commerce.
“Aunty Lilikoi and Salty Wahine were part of that five or six years ago, and they’ve been able to grow their business,” he said. “It’s continuing to work with the KEDB and chamber in creating those kinds of opportunities.”
The expansion of the cattle industry, Kouchi said, has potential on the Garden Isle as well as development of high tech jobs with the Pacific Missile Range Facility.
But the real growth potential would be using agriculture to create value products, he said.
“I know Chipper Wichman with the NTBG is working with people on Kauai and they’re looking at creating different kinds of products with breadfruit, hoping that breadfruit would be the next tofu or new healthy food sensation,” he said.
The Waimea High School graduate and Drake University alumnus spent 22 years on the Kauai County Council. He was first elected in 1983 and spent 12 years as its chair.
“When I started on the council, I was 25 and single,” he said. “My early part of my career was trying to create economic opportunities for young people my age right here at home.”
After getting married and having children, Kouchi’s perspective changed to focusing on the needs of all demographic on the Garden Isle.
“You worry about development work for the safety for all of the people who are going to be living there,” he said. “You realize there are grandparents, young children, a host of people. As you look at the kind of projects and issues like daycare, other things become important as well.”
He said whether a person is in elected office or not, a person can make a difference.
“After being involved in your community, if your path calls you to seek elective office, don’t be afraid put yourself out there and take your shot,” he said.