Kauai senator swims upstream against ferry
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By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
By Derrick DePledge
With television footage of protesters pounding on cars leaving Hawaii Superferry at Nawiliwili Harbor still burning in his head, the caller who left a message on state Senate Majority Leader Gary Hooser's voice mail on a Sunday afternoon last month wanted the Kaua'i senator to feel some pain.
"Hope you watch your back, brah! You (expletive). You and your family, your car, your house, everything, eh? How you like that, eh, you being threatened? How those people felt, the old people getting in their cars trying to drive on to Kaua'i? How you think they felt, brah? You better watch your back."
Twenty minutes later, the man — who said he was a Radford guy, like Hooser — called back to calmly apologize. He said he was so upset at the thought his own elderly parents could have been treated badly on Kaua'i that he lashed out. Six hours later, he left another apology.
The Superferry debate has pushed people to extremes.
Gov. Linda Lingle is the villain among many Superferry opponents, while much of the anger from the project's supporters seems directed at Hooser, a public-relations executive who emerged as a Senate leader in the past year.
Hooser, D-7th (Kaua'i, Ni'ihau), has been called out for hypocrisy by some Republicans and Honolulu talk-radio hosts and taunted on Internet discussion boards for his criticism of Superferry.
As majority leader, it is Hooser's job to articulate the opinion of Senate Democrats, but he is in the minority on Superferry. He has had to balance his responsibility as a voice for the people of Kaua'i with his larger role as a leader in the Senate and the state.
"Like a majority of people in the state and in the Senate, when I first heard about the ferry I thought it was a good idea," Hooser said in an interview.
"Perhaps I naively believed the information that was presented. But I thought it was a good idea, then the more I learned about it the more concerns I had. The straw that broke the camel's back was when they asked for the exemption (from environmental review) and the $40 million in state harbor improvements."
Hooser co-sponsored a Senate resolution in 2004 that described the high-speed interisland catamaran as environmentally friendly and urged the state and federal governments to quickly process certification and loan guarantees for the project.
But after hearing environmental concerns from the Neighbor Islands, Hooser was among the lawmakers who first asked for an environmental review. He also joined senators who questioned whether the Senate should grant all of the harbor improvement money until Superferry executives fully explained how they would address whale, invasive species and traffic issues.
Last session, Hooser — along with state Sen. J. Kalani English, D-6th (E. Maui, Moloka'i, Lana'i), state Sen. Shan Tsutsui, D-4th (Kahului), and state Sen. Russell Kokubun, D-2nd (S. Hilo, Puna, Ka'u) — demanded an environmental review even if it meant delaying the Superferry's summer launch.
Hooser convinced the state Environmental Council, which advises the state on environmental policy, to evaluate the state Department of Transportation's February 2005 decision to exempt the Superferry project from an environmental review. The council, acting against the advice of its attorney, issued an opinion faulting the department for failing to consider the project's cumulative impact when granting the exemption.
The four senators were largely alone at the state Capitol in demanding an environmental review and, faced with likely defeat in the Senate, they offered to amend their bill to allow the ferry to launch while a review was conducted. While their intent was clear, the language of the bill was flawed and was rejected by Superferry, the state and the House. House leaders thought it was pointless to jeopardize the project so close to its launch after investing in harbor improvements.
"Somehow, I don't believe this whole thing is over with," Hooser told The Advertiser in March.
While his prediction looks prophetic now, Hooser was sure it was over. He was as surprised as anyone when the state Supreme Court ruled in August that the state was in error and that an environmental review is required for the project.
When talk of a special session first surfaced a few weeks later, Hooser told The Advertiser he would probably have to go with the Senate if leadership offered Superferry executives a similar deal as last session. Within a few hours, however, Hooser called back. He had thought it over, he said, and decided that circumstances had changed.
People on Kaua'i — his constituents — had jumped into the harbor to block the ferry. A Maui court was deciding whether to allow the ferry to resume service to Kahului Harbor while the state did an environmental review.
Hooser said he could not endorse a special session to help Superferry.
Rick Hamada, a conservative who hosts a morning radio show on KHVH, said he respects people in politics and understands they have a tough job.
"The thing that I found striking about his ardent opposition to the Superferry is that it's juxtaposed with the Senate resolution (in 2004). It was tough for me to reconcile the two," he said.
"And I think that's what we as the public are kind of looking at. Anybody has the right and the ability to change their mind on issues and such, but it just seems that it was so profoundly on one side in the beginning and then has just switched to this position now."
Michael W. Perry, co-host of the top-rated Perry & Price morning radio show on KSSK, said some media coverage of the Superferry opposition has painted Kaua'i and Maui with too broad a brush. He believes most people on those islands, like on O'ahu, support the Superferry.
Perry said he is puzzled why Hooser is "forsaking the majority for an exceedingly tiny minority."
State Senate Minority Leader Fred Hemmings, R-25th (Kailua, Waimanalo, Hawai'i Kai), has often singled Hooser out for criticism. Hemmings issued a statement after the protests on Kaua'i that mistakenly claimed Hooser was on the pier at Nawiliwili Harbor with a megaphone cheering on surfers and kayakers in the water.
"I have played hardball with Senator Hooser, but I think his heart is in the right place," Hemmings said. "Senator Hooser, I realize, has to keep a certain segment of his constituency happy, but likewise he should be doing what is fair and equitable for the long-term interests of the state."
'FIGHTING FOR US'
Hooser, a former Kaua'i County Councilmember who lives in Wailua Homesteads, did not have a statewide presence until he ran in the Democratic primary for Congress in the 2nd District last year on a progressive and environmental platform that stressed his Neighbor Island perspective. He finished fifth out of 10 candidates.
His congressional campaign helped Hooser get the majority leader post after state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nanakuli, Makaha), took over the Senate before last session.
Hooser said his objections to Superferry grew as he learned how aggressively Superferry executives and the state resisted an environmental review.
"It's not just the process. It's the arrogance of both the company and the Department of Transportation over a three-year period, continually pushing to get around this requirement and ignoring the people," he said.
Hooser said much of the feedback he has heard on Superferry from Kaua'i has been supportive of his position, although he acknowledges that a less vocal segment wants the Superferry and is uncomfortable with the protests. While he believes he is doing the right thing, he will find out for sure what people think next year when he is up for re-election.
At an informational briefing on a draft Superferry bill on Oct. 21 in Lihu'e, Hooser received an extended ovation from the audience.
"He's sort of moving into his own and he's actually becoming more of a leader as well as a listener," said Ron Wiley, who hosts a morning radio show on KONG in Lihu'e.
Noah Hamilton, a photographer who lives in Hanalei, said he appreciates that Hooser has been willing to stick with people concerned about the Superferry.
"It's amazing that they've taken the hits that they have," Hamilton said of Hooser and the three other Neighbor Island senators. "Basically, what it comes down to with Hooser is that it's nice to have someone from Kaua'i fighting for us, and that's what he's done."
Ashley Osler, a yoga instructor who lives in Wailua, said Hooser understands that feelings run deeper than the ferry and are about preserving something precious on the island.
"It's coming to a profound turning point," Osler said. "It's not like the years before where special interests are going over the people. Now, the people really are going to fight this. They're going to stand up. It's not just about Kaua'i, it's about the welfare of the community, of the world."
PLEA FOR CALM
Senators approved a compromise bill in committee on Thursday that would allow Superferry to resume service while the state conducts an environmental impact statement, which would overturn a Maui court ruling barring the ferry from Kahului Harbor and help clear the way for the ferry to return to Kaua'i.
Hooser, English, Tsutsui and Kokubun were the only senators to vote against the bill.
The full Senate is expected to vote on the bill tomorrow, and while Hooser again plans to vote "no," he also wants to send a message to people who might feel the Legislature is betraying their victories in court and in the water.
Several activists have said that if Superferry returns to Kaua'i before an environmental review is completed that protesters will go back into Nawiliwili Harbor, possibly in larger numbers than in August.
Lingle and the Coast Guard have warned of arrests and prosecution for violations of a new federal security zone at the harbor intended to protect the ferry.
Hooser said he will ask Superferry executives and activists on Kaua'i to try to talk through their differences, perhaps with the help of the Spark Matsunaga Institute for Peace at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.
Hooser also said he would appeal to people on Kaua'i and Maui not to risk their safety by violating the law.
"I will tell them that if they're going to protest, that they should do so legally and safely," Hooser said. "And the most effective protest is to protest with their pocketbooks.
"But I do not want to see people put in harm's way. I do not want to see people arrested or any lives ruined."
Reach Derrick DePledge at email@example.com.
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