Standing Up For Change

Whether it’s the Public Land Development Corporation, Superferry, gay rights or Coco Palms, Councilman Gary Hooser is an advocate for fairness and for an entire community speaking up to shape public policy

Everyone has the ability to make a difference, and Kaua’i County Councilman Gary Hooser is determined to get that message across.

“The single most effective thing you can do is to engage and empower other people,” he says one morning while sitting in his office at the Historic County Building, paperwork covering his desk in neatly organized piles.

People tend to think there is nothing they can do to effect positive change.

“I try to shake them and say, ‘No, you’ve got to show up, it takes work,'” says Hooser.

The county’s unanimous decision to request the repeal of Act 55 (which allows the Public Development Land Corporation authority to develop public lands) is just one example of how the community can work together and take a stand for what it collectively believes in.

“It wouldn’t have happened without a bunch of people,” says Hooser.

The Wailua resident is optimistic that the act ultimately will be repealed by the Legislature. “Which is a profound achievement and a profound statement that the people, our community and across the state should be proud of,” he says. “Nobody thought it would be repealed. It was a bad, bad law on many levels – bad politics, bad policy and bad process; it really represented the worst in state government.”

Hooser is proud of the role he played in addressing the issue, but he is even more proud of the community’s participation.

“I’m hopeful that this will lead to a continuing engagement,” he says.

The cessation of the Hawaii Superferry in 2009 – caused in part by the Hawaii Supreme Court ruling that the company did not properly adhere to the environmental impact statement law – is yet another example of just how powerful a community’s actions can be.

“I know young people personally whose lives were changed by that experience,” says Hooser, who was serving as state Senate majority leader representing Kaua’i and Ni’ihau at the time.

Parents and their children took a stand against the ferry together by physically preventing the boat from docking at Nawiliwili Harbor.

“My biggest fear was that someone was going to die in the water,” says Hooser, who adds that the Superferry consumed his life for about a year and was one of the most intense issues of his political life.

“It was a phenomenal battle and they were proved right,” he says of the protesters. “It wasn’t about whether or not you think the Superferry is a good idea; it’s about following the law.”

Hooser resolves to always listen to residents’ concerns and ensure developers and other large corporate entities don’t take advantage of the community.

“Gary is the kind of politician you wish all elected officials would emulate,” says Wil Welsh, who has worked alongside Hooser in various capacities, including campaign manager, for a number of years. “Call him with a problem, he’ll get back to you.”

“Gary is very approachable and always willing to have thoughtful discussions regarding any issues or concerns people may have,” agrees community activist Pat Gegen, who also has worked alongside Hooser for many years.

Serving as councilman for a third term (he also was elected in 1998 and 2000), Hooser is continuing to do just that. One community concern he is addressing is the use of pesticides by the island’s seed companies, golf courses and the state Department of Transportation. He already has requested documentation regarding what pesticides and chemicals each sprays and in what capacities.

“I want to see how bad it is,” says Hooser.

However, only the Department of Transportation and one golf course have provided him with information thus far, and all of the GMO (genetically modified organism) seed companies declined to supply any documentation.

“I mean, they’re very nice about it, some are three pages,” he says regarding the letters he received from the multinational corporations. “It is frustrating, to say the least, that I am asking basic questions in the public’s interest and not getting answers from them. It makes me even more concerned.”

Another issue Hooser is hoping to help rectify pertains to the establishment of a community-based plan for the long-defunct Coco Palms Resort, which has remained in shambles since 1992 when Hurricane ‘Iniki struck the island. He played an integral part in introducing a resolution that the Council unanimously passed this month supporting Hawaiian Islands Land Trust in obtaining some $270,000 from the state to initiate a public planning process and develop a financial plan for the former resort’s future.

“I’m hopeful we can do something positive with the property,” says Hooser, who envisions something that would honor the history and culture of the area. “The sky’s the limit.”

The sky seems to have been always the limit for Hooser. He has managed to find career success throughout much of his life.

Born in San Diego into what he deems a blue-collar family, Hooser settled on Oahu in 1970 when his father, who served in the Navy, was stationed at Pearl Harbor. Hooser attended Radford High School for two years before graduating in 1972.

“It was a fairly rough-and-tumble kind of school,” he says. “It taught me how to get along with all kinds of people and taught me how to survive.”

After graduating, he landed various jobs, including working for E.K. Fernandez Shows and Sizzler. But it was his gig as a pedicab driver (three-wheel bicycles) in Waikiki that changed his life forever – that’s how he met his wife Claudette, who was on vacation from South Africa.

The duo, who have two children together – Kelli-Rose, 25, a legislative aide, and Dylan, 31, owner of Sunrise Shells of Kaua’i – moved here in 1980 when Hooser accepted a job managing the Fun Factory at Waipouli.

His interest in pursuing politics didn’t spark, however, until after he went on to achieve much success in the business world, eventually owning and operating real estate and publishing companies. In the meantime, he also managed to achieve a bachelor’s degree in public administration through an online program at the University of Hawaii.

Throughout his entrepreneurial years, he kept up with current local affairs, following the political realm closely.

“I began asking myself, ‘If I want to change things, what do I do?'” he says.

Prodding from some community members led him to run for County Council in 1994, and even though he lost the election, Hooser didn’t give up. He ran for office again in 1998, and this time, won.

During his former terms serving as Kaua’i councilman, he worked especially hard at addressing issues such as securing a county auditor to keep tabs on the administration’s financial progress as well as laboriously solving land use and environmental concerns.

In 2002, Hooser switched governmental gears and was elected to the state Senate, where he served until 2010 – four of the latter years as majority leader.

“You can affect issues that are good for the community and good for the whole state,” he says of why he chose to make the shift.

One of the major issues that consumed his time was his support of civil unions.

“It’s very contentious, very personal for people on both sides of the issue,” explains Hooser, who took the reins on the topic, despite its controversial nature. It was the most stressful as well as the most satisfying subject he has ever been part of.

“Every family is touched by the issue in some way, shape or form. It’s just a part of life,” he says. “I’ve had mothers come up to me and hug me and thank me because their children are gay. I’ve had more positive feedback, more hugs and more thank yous on that issue than any other issue I’ve ever done.”

“Gary is very progressive on social issues and believes in the value and the need for all people to be treated with the utmost respect regardless of any differences,” says Gegen.

While serving in the state Senate, Hooser also assisted in introducing and passing the state solar water heater mandate on all new construction, as well as generating money for Friendship House so that its members could receive appropriate dental care.

In 2010, Hooser shifted political gears again, running for lieutenant governor. Though he lost the election, he later was appointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie as director of the Office of Environmental Quality Control – a position he held for 18 months.

“There is a lot more to me than just environmental issues,” he says, citing one of the reasons why he chose to leave the job.

Along with not always seeing eye-to-eye with the governor on environmental matters, Hooser missed living on Kaua’i and was tired of commuting to Oahu.

Hooser is excited to be back on-island, continuing to serve the local community. And now that he has more time at home, he is able to spend it helping his son with his business, tending to his own organic garden and two chickens, as well as catching up on his writing (garyhooser.wordpress.com).

“Gary is a good person to have in your corner – very loyal and honest as a friend,” says Gegen.

“The main objection people have concerning Gary is that, so far, we can’t clone him, put him to work in every office he might seek, where he consistently shows he will stand for what’s right,” adds Welsh.

“People will often say this is a thankless job, but I haven’t found that to be the case,” says Hooser. “It’s a really fulfilling, challenging job. We should all serve at the highest level we’re capable of.”

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