From College Activism to Public Office

The journey of UH Hilo’s Jen Ruggles

Contributing Writer: Valentina Martinez

Photo courtesy of:

“We have a young generation of conscious, passionate people. It’s time for change.” - Jen Ruggles, Hawai‘i County Council Member-elect

Jen Ruggles

UH Hilo student Jennifer “Jen” Ruggles is a force to be reckoned with, as demonstrated by her recent upset against incumbent Daniel Paleka for the chance to represent lower Puna on the Hawai‘i County Council. From a young age, her passions developed separately from the general lifestyle of most of her family, as she became interested in environmental and social justice. Over time, she concluded that “politics controls a lot of our daily lives,” and that the political arena is a fitting venue to fight for what one believes is pono. Ruggles has had plenty of experience in promoting her pet causes. As a student, she is a member of Global Hope, a RISO dedicated to peace and environmental issues; Ruggles is currently working towards her B.A. in Business and Economics with a specialization in Management.

Among her achievements as a student activist, Ruggles helped protest the Papaikou Onomea Mill Beach access road, which was blocked off for private use in 2010, causing an outcry from the local community. Going further with an interest in policymaking, she went to Kaua‘i in 2013 and lobbied for passage Bill 2491, which aims to help establish buffer zones for pesticides encroaching on public areas and neighborhoods.

After years of becoming familiar with local politics, Ruggles realized that she had the potential to run for office because she knew how to work with people, and was receiving guaranteed offers of enough volunteers to make the cut. She at last announced her candidacy for representing District 5 on the Hawai‘i County Council, which stretches from Kurtistown to Kehena. “I had two campaign managers, a good team of volunteers, and that’s what made me think I had a chance,” she explained and stated that during the first month of having someone go door to door with her, she internalized that other people were investing their time in her and holding events for her. “Once people start volunteering there’s no going back, I have to do everything within my power. No one is getting paid for this stuff, and the reward is winning and keeping your eye on the goal… There’s too much at stake.”

For Ruggles, her campaign was founded on the integrity of how politics should truly be conducted: by valuing transparency, one can better represent the people. A skeptic of corporations that raise massive funds in order to influence elections, Ruggles said she received no offers from such entities while she was running, claiming that businesses knew they “didn’t have a chance.” Her mission for District 5 includes advocating for road improvements, more convenient bus schedules and stops, sustainable ways to deal with waste management and recovery - in turn, creating more “green” jobs - and more community centers such as local kitchens and farmers markets. Yet with only two years in her term, Ruggles, like any politician, already has something else in mind: re-election. Ruggles argues that “community centers could help boost local community and create unity. People are on board when I talked about it while going door to door. It’s what the people want.”

In her run against freshman Paleka, Ruggles made the decision to team up with state Senator Russell Ruderman, who faced an upstart challenge of his own against upper Puna council member Greggor Ilagan, a UH Hilo alumnus himself. (Ilagan also once served as Webmaster for Ke Kalahea.) In terms of strategy, this move was a risky one, but it ultimately paid off: in the August primary, she and Ruderman decisively bested their respective opponents. As displayed by her successful alliance with Ruderman, Ruggles noted that all of the campaigns she has worked on have been successful.

Throughout her campaign, Ruggles admitted to working 60 hours per week, with a lot of that time spent going door to door throughout District 5. She has given her personal cell phone number out to hundreds, and tries to speak with as many District 5 residents as she can. On top of this, Ruggles also personally sign waved along with other volunteers throughout the entirety of her run. Such dedication does not come without its due costs, however, because as she admitted in a chuckle, “I should’ve gotten more sleep. I need to have a better home base for making food. I got a little malnourished and sleep deprived and got really sick after the campaign was over. Not one day off… It took that amount of energy.” Upon winning her seat on the Council, Ruggles confessed to feeling quite honored and humbled to know that the people of her community trust her to represent them. She admitted that although she was, of course, extremely happy for winning the election, she was also relieved that her hard work paid off, so she could finally give her body a well-deserved recovery. (She subsequently fell ill after the post-election hype simmered.) All lessons learned, Ruggles does not think she would have won otherwise.

After pausing for a moment to ponder what lessons she learned and what she may have done differently during her process, she also added that besides taking proper care of herself first, she would have liked to focus on fundraising more as she has found herself currently in a small amount of debt. She happily said that there was a satisfying amount of small contributions, averaging around $70 per fundraiser, and around 150 donors altogether. With the help of these benefactions, she was able to qualify for public funding and claims that she would not have been able to do it without all of the help she received. Ruggles will be hitting the ground running when she officially fills her County Council seat this coming December. Since she has been recovering from her sickness, she disclosed that she has a bit of people to contact and meetings to set up, but she has already been preparing. Her first upcoming meeting with the County Charter involves learning the formal county rules of procedure.

At 27 years old, Ruggles will be the youngest member of the new council, and it’s apparent that she will champion other millennials making their foray into politics: “We have a young generation of conscious, passionate people. It’s time for change. There are a lot of good ideas out there, fresh ideas that challenge the status quo that we could really be implementing.” At the same time, Ruggles expressed her wish to see only those running for office who have a strong sense of self, along with a sturdy moral compass and fine-tuned critical thinking and listening skills. Ruggles believes that she owes her campaign to the biggest value for anyone contemplating running for public office: making it about the voters. “Honestly I don’t know what the future holds, I’m just being present,” she chuckles, “This is exactly what I should be doing right now. I’ll always need meaning to work in my life… people shouldn’t be running for a career, they should be running for what is right.”