Leader of the Senate
Senate President Ronald Kouchi may be one of the most politically powerful people in Hawaii, but he hasn’t forgotten his modest Westside roots.
“I’m flattered and humbled that my colleagues asked me to be the leader of the chamber and that they have the confidence in my skills,” he says to Kauai Midweek during one of his weekend trips home.
He is the first Senate president — elected in May 2015 — to come from the Garden Isle.
“I am honored and, at the same time, very cognizant of trying to work hard to do well because I’m representing the island in a much different way,” says Kouchi, who initially was elected to the state Senate in 2010.
Though he describes the current legislative session as “quiet,” the Lihue resident has high aspirations. He wants to continue to support and deliver quality health care to Kauai Veterans Memorial and Samuel Mahelona Memorial hospitals. He also wants to help lower the temperature in public school classrooms by raising roofs and installing louvers to create cross ventilation. Other items on his agenda include appropriating funding for affordable housing on Kauai, and making transportation a priority, especially in the Wailua-Kapaa corridor, where he aims to find improvement while at the same time resolving cultural issues pertaining to iwi (Hawaiian bones).
During the current fiscal year, Kouchi helped adopt a $10 million budget for county projects, such as updating the waterline between Hanapepe and Ele‘ele, and building bus shelters around the island. He hopes to provide even more for the upcoming fiscal year.
“We are in a financially sound position now,” he says.
Yet even though the economic forecast remains steady, he says it’s wise to remain cautious, especially when Hawaii is so dependent upon a volatile industry like tourism.
Kouchi, a soft-spoken and humble man, also supports improving the public education system. He’d like to create more connectivity and get more “devices” into students’ hands so they have the option of continuing their studies at home and excelling at their own pace.
“So if you’re gifted in math, you can be on chapter 20,” he says, “and if you’re on chapter 4, we’ll say, ‘That’s OK.'”
The old paradigm is that keiki need to work at the same pace, but some kids get bored while others are left behind.
“Now you’re able to support the strengths of the individual students,” he says.
He was a champion for keiki even while serving 11 terms on Kauai County Council. He started a program that held one council meeting a year at each of the three public high schools, so that students could feel like members of the community and interact with government officials.
“I wanted to remove any kind of mystery or aura about being there and let them know that one day that can be them,” he says.
At the time, he also supported an internship that allowed students who were interested in fields such as engineering, for example, to work at places like Pacific Missile Range Facility, where they eventually had an opportunity to be hired as full-time employees.
In fact, creating more jobs for younger generations is exactly why Kouchi got into politics in the first place. After graduating from Drake University, he returned to Hawaii to work for former state Rep. Dennis Yamada during the 1982 legislative session. Longing to get back to the close-knit Garden Isle community, however, Kouchi moved to Kauai from Oahu only to realize how few opportunities there were, as far as employment was concerned, for recent college grads.
“As I looked around, there weren’t a lot of people my age who were back here,” says Kouchi who, with wife Joy, has two adult children, Dan and Egan.
Kouchi was only 25 when he was elected to serve his first term as a county councilman. He supported development during his time on the council as a way of creating more jobs, and he still has “tough decisions to make” when it comes to growth.
“Now you’re stuck in the middle, where you need to make a choice where you know someone’s going to be disappointed no matter what,” he says. “There are certain issues that the passions are so strong on either side, so that’s always tough, knowing you’re going to disappoint someone no matter how you cast your vote.”
Still, no matter which way he leans, he doesn’t forget how valuable rural life can be. He grew up in what is now called “Nana’s House” of Child and Family Service in Waimea, and fondly recalls jumping on his bike and heading to the river to spear oopu.
“Back then, the way the community was, everybody knew who you were,” he says.
He enjoys returning to his former stomping grounds, but now that he’s only in town on weekends, he doesn’t have much free time. Still, he manages to catch a game or two on Sundays, especially if the San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers, San Francisco Giants or Pittsburgh Pirates are playing.
“And I’ve been a lifelong Boston Celtics fan,” he says.
Come Monday, however, it’s back to Honolulu, where Kouchi continues to advocate for Kauai.
“It’s critical for us to be able to deliver what we have been able to deliver for Kauai,” he says about the small legislative delegation from the island. “We always find the places where we can agree and work together so that we can be successful for Kauai.”
Photos courtesy of Office of Senate President Ronald D. Kouchi