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Q + A

The Freshman Rebel


The opening day of the state Legislature in January is a time when even bitter enemies pretend to like each other. So it was shocking when freshman Rep. Della Au Belatti and two fellow Democrats used the ceremonial occasion to blast longtime House Speaker Calvin Say, criticizing him as shortsighted and too concerned with power. We checked in with Belatti—a former teacher, lawyer and Campaign Spending commissioner—to see how she’s fared in her first few months at the Capitol.

photo: Rae Huo

Q: Why make such a bold move as a freshman legislator on your official first day?

A: Some of the headlines made it like we were trying to overthrow the speaker, and we weren’t. We knew we didn’t have the votes. I’m only here for two years, and I didn’t want to start my political career with a vote that I couldn’t agree with.

Q: What concerns you about the leadership in the House?

A: I was very disappointed in the way leadership had organized. [Editor’s note: In November, after Say had thwarted an earlier attempt by some dissident legislators to oust him, he replaced several key leaders in the House, including the chair of the powerful Finance Committee. Committee chairs determine which bills get heard.] There was no compromise. I hate to get into this—for outsiders, it’s like, oh, they’re just fighting for power, but I think it’s more than that. If our organization is based on retribution, what does that say about the decisions we make on substantive issues? I’m concerned that the way decisions are made is not transparent or on the merit of an issue, that there is too much emphasis on protecting our offices.

Q: Were there any repercussions to your opening-day statement?

A: Are all of our ideas being adopted? I’m not sure. Are some of them being quashed? The jury is still out, because the session isn’t over. But I’ve had a lot of positive feedback from the outside, constituents who call and say, “Keep them on their toes,” or, “Way to hold your ground.”

Q: You’ve also shown a rare willingness to work across the aisle.

A: There are differences between Democrats and Republicans, but where I see an opportunity to cross the lines, I’m not going to be afraid to do that. We need to index the elements of the tax code to inflation—every time I talk about it, people’s eyes glaze over, but that’s been a big push by the governor and introduced by Republican members. I think it’s a great idea. It would eliminate the “shadow tax” that applies to everyone in the state. On the first day, I also said I think we should pass [a local] earned income tax credit, which was originally a Republican federal proposal. I know Republicans will want more aggressive income tax policies, but I hope to reach across the aisle to pass this targeted piece of tax relief.

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Honolulu Magazine February 2018
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