Meet the Candidate

Ke Kalahea sits down with Democratic candidate for Hawaii State Senate Heather Kimball

Editor-in-Chief Nick Carrion Photograph courtesy of Heather Kimball

Headshot of Heather Kimball

While not always as exciting as the spectacle of national politics, local elections have a far greater impact on our lives than many realize. Here in Hawaii we may never feel the effects of a law passed in Washington D.C., but decisions made by county or state government can impact us every day.

Among those hoping to be elected to the Hawaii State Senate in 2018 is political newcomer Heather Kimball. She is running in District 4, which covers the northern-most part of Hawaii island. Born and raised in Michigan, Kimball received her bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Michigan, and master’s in tropical conservation biology and environmental science here at UH Hilo. She sat down with Ke Kalahea recently to talk about her vision for the future, as well as how someone with a background in molecular biology finds themselves on the campaign trail.

Q. So what made you decide to run for political office?

A. It’s interesting, my master’s degree was focused on how large, landscape-scale natural resource management decisions are made. And I was working on building tools for our local resource managers to basically get the most bang for their buck, in terms of using the resources they had.

And what I found going through this process with them is that they don’t have any time or money to invest in this pre-planning. And they’re always operating in crisis mode. They’re operating in crisis mode because of the funding that they get from the state. And so I decided that in order to help them I needed to understand how that process happened at the state level. And the more I investigated, the more I realized that I needed to get involved in how that decision process was made.

And then you have the 2016 national election occurring, and real anti-science rhetoric coming from the White House. The impetus is going to be shifted to the state level to deal with the impacts of climate change and other natural resource management issues now that we’re getting less support from the federal level. And as a scientist, it inspired me to get more involved, and be involved in the political process.

Q. So environmental issues are the focus of your campaign?

A. Now I should say that, as I’ve spoken to folks and I’ve learned more about the political process, we can’t deal with just the environmental issues in isolation. They are interconnected with a whole other host of issues, including the economic issues in our state. We have increasing income inequality. We tax lower income and moderate income families higher than most other states. We’re 2nd in the country for that.

And we also need to look at the lack of diversity in our economy. So we’re an economy based on tourism, based on the military, based on real estate development. And none of those economies are really sustainable in the long term when you’re talking about the quality of life for local individuals.

And tied to that is our educational system. Our educational system is one of the poorest performing in the country. We have the lowest paid teachers in the country, and we have a severe teacher shortage. And our students, they don’t go to school and look out and see good, middle-class careers that they can have here.

So we need to address the economic issues, the educational issues, and the environmental issues in concert, in a holistic way,so that they all can be addressed simultaneously.

In terms of the environmental aspects, and dealing with building resilience to climate change and mitigating climate change impacts, we have some good strategies in place. We have the 2045 renewable goals, food sustainability goals. What we need to do is invest in long term strategic planning to achieve those goals.

I think we have a real opportunity here to be an example to the rest of the world in terms of adapting and mitigating climate change impacts. I could see Hawaii being a hub in the Pacific Rim region where other folks can come in and learn about how to develop adaptation strategies and technologies to deal with the impacts of climate change, as well as other natural resource management issues.

Q. You talk about moving away from military and tourism as the main aspects of our economy. What would replace these? What would our economy be based on?

A. One of the surprising things that I learned recently at a conference on renewable energy in the Pacific is that there are a lot of investment dollars out there, capital investment dollars, in the renewable resource field. I think that that’s one source of revenue.

I think that we’re in a chicken-and-egg situation where we don’t have high tech industries in general here because we don’t have the high tech workforce. And we don’t have the high tech workforce because there isn’t really the need for it.

Hawaii was ranked – Honolulu in particular – was ranked 49th out of 50 cities in terms of STEM related jobs. And what we need to do is to make our community look more attractive as an investment location for high tech, STEM-related workforces.

Now we have some very great programs here at UH Hilo, and at UH Manoa, that we can expand to encourage that investment. And we need to be visionary about how we present ourselves as a location for being this innovation center.

Q. Coming from a non-political background, do you ever feel like an outsider in the world of local politics that you are entering into?

A. I would say that yes, I do feel like an outsider. And I feel like that’s a good thing in many ways. The status quo is not good, and so I represent something different, someone from a different background.

And I do think we need more representation from science and scientists in elected office. The response has been very positive, both from people that are in the political system right now, as well as the folks that I’ve talked to out on the campaign trail. They’re ready for a change, they’re ready for something different.