Honolulu Weekly Interview on Representative Jon Riki Karamatsu
By Ryan Senaga
April 23, 2003
On a late April evening, after the final decking for nonfiscal bills, Waipahu-Waikele state Representative Jon Riki Karamatsu still sat in his office, graciously signing last-minute bills and unwinding after a grueling finance meeting with a few fellow legislators.
Elected last November, Karamatsu, 27, is one of the youngest — and youngest-looking — lawmakers in the Legislature. For a man whose lifelong ambition has been to serve in public office, the UH/Gonzaga law school grad’s first season of law-making has been the beginning of a dream come true.
So how was your first legislative session?
It’s going pretty good. I’ve learned a lot. I knew what I was getting into, working as staff before and also working in the [Democratic] party. But what I realized was that working with people is critical, and relationships mean a lot in this business. I mean, you gotta have ideas, you gotta have drive, but at the same time, you need those people skills in order to get things done.
How was working with the new governor?
She put us down on the budget, about us not taking a stand. When you think about it, we did take a stand. She cut education and higher education, and those are the biggest cuts. There was supposed to be a 5 percent reduction across the board, but education cuts doubled that. Almost tripled it. People were surprised. I got calls about why the governor is cutting education, charter schools. …
When she went to the Mainland, on CNN, the reporter asked if she balanced the budget by cutting education and she said, “No, we were just cutting the additional appro-priation by Governor Cayetano,” which is not true. There was a base cut, higher than a 5 percent reduction. So what we did was restore it and put education as a priority. Without higher education being fully funded, really, how are you gonna try and diversify the economy?
She wants to knock Act 221. She says we’re not being fiscally responsible, but Act 221 gives such an attractive package. It attracts talent and investments into industries that are not solid in Hawai‘i. It is not fiscally solid, where it will put in revenue, but things are starting to happen. Companies are starting to form. Investments that would not be here but for Act 221, are here. These are things that the governor spins in a different light. Act 221 will bring in more than we’ll lose.
Was your first session everything you expected?
There were a lot of pleasant surprises. I was nervous at first, but I realized what was important for senior members is respect of history. Our age difference is huge. Some of these guys are in their 60s, even 70s … 80s — Helene Hale. But when we talk about “Oh wow, I remember when you guys did this,” it kinda opens your eyes. Even though we didn’t suffer the suffering that they’ve suffered, at least we try to understand it.
What were your disappointments?
I won’t name anybody, but things change quickly in this building. Issues can cause emotions, and things can flip super-quickly. And some people will jump to another side, based on the issue. As long as you don’t take it personally, you’ll be okay. Once you take it personally, it can kinda drain you emotionally.
With your law degree, are you ever planning to work full time?
I’m so focused on this job, and I want to do it well; but once I feel comfortable with the process, I think I’ll be open to a law firm part-time. But it’s really tough because the hours will interfere with my time to do legislation and go to community things. It does take a toll on your life.
Can you envision yourself being a politician for the rest of your life?
It’s hard to see that far. I think it depends how much of a toll it takes. Things can change, like, say, if I got married and had kids and stuff. During session, I really don’t go home too much. I sleep over here now.
Because you look young, do you get ripped on a lot?
I know that, at first, people might look at me and think I’m young but once I start talking, and it goes through the grapevine, you can win respect for what you do.
What do you do for fun?
Nothing much right now.
What did you do for fun?
I used to lift weights, hang out with my friends, but I haven’t really hung out with my friends too much because of this position.
Are you going to the 50 Cent concert?