This piece is part of Splinter’s series The New Guard, where we interview progressive candidates who are running in 2018 midterm races across the country to shake up the Democratic Party establishment.
Hawaii Democratic state representative Kaniela Ing was first elected to the state legislature in 2012 at the age of 23, winning a five-person Democratic primary and then shellacking the incumbent Hawaii House minority whip by a stunning 27 points. Now, he serves in the House leadership as one of two “majority policy leaders” in the most Democratic state legislature in the country.
Now, Ing is looking to the next step: he’s running for Congress in Hawaii’s First Congressional District, a seat being vacated by Congresswoman and gubernatorial candidate Colleen Hanabusa. The opportunity doesn’t come around that often—just seven people have held the seat since 1970— and so naturally, Ing has a decidedly tough battle ahead of him: his opponents in the primary include lieutenant governor and former Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin.
Ing’s accomplishments and quick rise in a party led by aging politicians—all before the age of 30—is notable enough. Perhaps what’s most interesting, however, is that Ing is a self-identified democratic socialist, a small but growing ideological identification among young Americans.
Ing’s platform is a laundry list of progressive, social democratic priorities: a $15 minimum wage and guaranteed collective bargaining rights, Medicare for All, defending reproductive and LGBTQ rights, and an aggressive plan to tackle Hawaii’s astronomical cost of living and rates of homelessness. And progressive groups have taken notice: Ing has been endorsed by Democracy For America, Justice Democrats, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Our Revolution.
He’s also backing up his words with actions. In March, Ing made statewide news when he called longtime former Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye—for whom the international airport in Honolulu is named—an “alleged serial rapist.”
I spoke to Ing about his stand in spite of Inouye’s lasting influence over Hawaii politics, the movement to impeach Donald Trump, and whether or not he thinks the Democrats can ever truly become a party of the working class.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Why did you decide to run this year?
I’ve been in the state House since 2012 and the things I set out to accomplish we did. Our district needed a high school, we made it happen, we got more school funding than a district in the history of our state…We passed same day voter registration, we helped prevent fracking and natural gas from reaching our islands.
I thought it was time for me to push my progressive ideas as much as possible. I looked at the field and out of the candidates who were interested, and none of them cared about the issues that I do. Those issues weren’t part of anyone’s platform. So I decided to take a chance.
You’re a Democrat who describes himself as a democratic socialist, which is pretty rare. Do you think the Democratic Party can ever transform itself into a party of the working class?
I think it’s already happening. In democratic socialism, we want to democratize everything, we want worker-controlled corporations, we talk about community-owned broadband, that’s the kind of thing that democratic socialists believe in, and it’s popular even in red states.
But when it comes to whether or not we’re a capitalist party, sure—for now—but I think that’s changing in some ways. The thing about the Democrats is that it’s OK to move incrementally, but you can’t think incrementally. I don’t think establishment Democrats know where the hell they’re going.
We have a goal in mind: in the richest country of the history of the world, people should be able to meet their basic needs. Housing, jobs, education, healthcare—our basic needs should be met, and we know that.
Which one of those priorities would be the first thing you’d work on once you got to Congress?
The first thing I’d like to do, which I don’t know if a lot of people on the left agree with, is impeach Donald Trump. I am sick of worrying if our government’s controlled by Russia or the threat of nuclear war, or if our taxes are just getting handed out to Trump’s friends. I want to focus on the things that really matter.
Like in Hawaii, we have the highest cost of living in in the nation, but some of the lowest wages, which means one of the highest rates of homelessness. We have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, but that’s only because people are working two or three jobs. Those are the issues that really matter, policies that address the things that keep coming up at the dinner table. That’s why we need living wages and Medicare for All.
Hawaii has one of the worst homelessness and affordable housing crises in the country right now. Would you support a housing guarantee and, given that that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon, what would you push for Congress to do to ease that crisis?
I would absolutely support a housing guarantee-type of proposal, and when it comes to livable jobs, I came up with this platform very, very early. Generally, anything that’s a human need shouldn’t be exploited as a for-profit commodity.
One of the biggest issues in Hawaii was trying to build a rail for mass transit, and costs just boomed and there hasn’t been accountability, so people feel ripped off. We have some of the lowest rates of federal funding, and it’s because we don’t have the power our delegation used to because we have a very young delegation. We can’t get those special earmarks, so we need to get creative. And that’s why I want to champion a $3 trillion infrastructure spending deal, so we don’t have to break the backs of Hawaii residents again.
In a tweet, you called former longtime Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye an “alleged serial rapist.” What made you decide to publicly denounce Inouye?
I’ve been talking about this ever since I found out in 2016. He was my hero growing up, and I voted to rename our airport after him. And then a woman very close to me showed me an article from The New York Times, and it turned my world upside down. We lionize these people who are alleged to have done really horrendous things, and whether or not those allegations are true, the [name of the] airport sends a message to victims everywhere that we do not believe you, as a state, we don’t believe you.
A lot of brave women have been speaking up, but literally not one man in power has said “I believe you,” and [then] held other men accountable. That’s the key if we want to make it last. He’s just a symbol. It’s what we can do to amplify the voices of survivors. The airport was a mistake.
What has the response been like generally since you did that, and do you think it’ll have any impact on your congressional campaign?
I’m sure it will. Inouye’s approval rating is, you know, is very, very high. This wasn’t a political move...It’s important. We need to end sexual violence. It’s incredible how we’re seeing women unleash their stories across the country. One of my opponents, he’s criticizing me as part of that old way infrastructure that protects their own. The old boys network.
You’ve talked about the need for the Democrats to stand for more than just being against Donald Trump. Do you have any fear that this wave that seems to be building against Trump and the Republicans might fall apart once he’s out of office, and how do you think the left can prevent that?
I’m all for all hands on deck. I don’t want to rehash Bernie versus Hillary. We need to make sure we have an affirmative vision of a world we want to live in. People are struggling. They feel like they’re getting had and ripped off by the government and corporations. People are skeptical of institutions in general right now. They want to feel like democracy is real. And we go on stage in a debate and say, ‘America is already great’?
My partner and I were in Nevada and Arizona on vacation, passing through all of these desolate towns…They felt abandoned. They feel ignored. We need to say, ‘We see you struggling.’ Our presidential nominee didn’t even campaign in places like Wisconsin. We need people who aren’t millionaires and billionaires. The only reason I got involved in public service is because I saw people who looked like me talked like me, dressed like me, and I thought it was something I could do…if you want to bring everyone to share our vision, we need to make them represented and heard.