Q+A: Barbara Uphouse Wong

Last month, Barbara Uphouse Wong became executive director of the state Campaign Spending Commission, replacing Bob Watada, who retired earlier this year. Wong was one of the first female police officers in Honolulu and headed the department's white-colla

Q: Is it tough filling the shoes of such a well-respected crusader against dirty campaigns?

A: I think it’s kind of nice. Bob Watada has built a solid foundation and he’s got a good staff, so it’s a good time to come in. Whether you’re in the police department or on the Campaign Spending Commission, there are laws on the books, and if they are not consistently enforced, then people won’t follow them. Bob had a huge impact in making the public and the candidates aware that there is a section of law that you have to follow. His whole basis was that the playing field needs to be level for everybody. He accomplished that; candidates now realize they need to toe the line.

Q: You went from police officer to lawyer, and now, to the head of the commission. Why’d you retire from the police force?

A: I had done everything in the department that I had wanted to accomplish. I felt there were some excellent up-and-coming people, and I thought it was a good time to go. I had always wanted to go to law school, and I was 47 at the time. I figured, law school is three years, so it’s now or never. Either I go, or I cancel that dream.

Q: After two years practicing law, what made you decide to change career paths a second time?

A: I was fascinated by insurance law, but I realized I’m not the type of person to be glued to the computer for the entire week and go to court maybe every other week for a couple of hours. I need more people interaction.

Q: What are some of your immediate plans as the commission’s new executive director?

A: We have an election coming up, so we’ll be busy. Some of my priorities would be to develop a plan for what we want to do over the next five years. I’d also like to market the fact that residents can contribute $2 to the commission by checking off a box on their state tax forms. A lot of people have forgotten what that’s for, and that’s primarily where our budget comes from. During election season, I’d like to run an advertising campaign reminding the public of what information is available about their candidates’ contributions and expenditures on our Web site (http://www.hawaii.gov/campaign/). If they’re going to give their hard-earned dollars to their candidates, don t they want to know who else is giving them money and how they’re spending it?

Q: What kind of challenges do you foresee?

A: Watada has been trying to get a law passed [banning] unions and corporations from contributing to campaigns. If you think about it, they can’t vote, so why should they be able to contribute? Getting that passed is going to be a big challenge, because a lot of the candidates’ money comes from that. We really need to rev up the public, and the timing is so good, because they saw a governor’s race that was so close the last time, a presidential race that was close. They’re realizing their vote does count. We need to jump on that, let them know that it doesn’t matter how much money corporations and unions pour in, because only the public can vote.

Q: We have to ask–is the investigation into former Mayor Jeremy Harris’ campaign contributions, which began in 2002, really over?

A: That’s something I wouldn’t be able to answer until I review the files.