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South and West Maui Come Alive for Hot Primary Race

In State Senate District 6, Baker vs. Amato.

June 16, 2014
Susan Halas , Maui Weekly

No state has a worse voter turn out than Hawai'i, and no districts have more apathetic voters than South and West Maui. Recent reports rank them right at the very bottom of the list, but this year both areas have become a hotbed of political activism. One key race pits a powerful incumbent against a first-time challenger in the Democratic primary contest for the Sixth District State Senate seat.

The primary election is Saturday, Aug. 9.

Voters must live in the district and select a Democratic ballot to vote in this race. The primary winner goes on to face opponents from the Republican and Libertarian parties in the November General Election for a four-year term in the Hawai'i State Senate.

Article Photos

MAUI STATE SENATE DISTRICT 6
SOUTH + WEST
Baker vs Amato
Primary

To review past election results for this and other races, see hawaii.gov/elections/results.

Financial reporting for current and past elections can be found at the Hawai'i Campaign Spending Commission Website: ags.hawaii.gov/campaign.

Sen. Roz Baker

Powerful incumbent runs on her record.

State Sen. Roz Baker, 67, a veteran Democratic lawmaker from Lahaina, is running for re-election in what promises to be one of the year's most interesting primaries. She represents Senate District 6, which includes all of South and West Maui.

The lawmaker is a 17-year veteran of the State Senate. In the last session, she chaired the powerful state Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee, considered one of the three top committee assignments. In years past, Baker has also headed the Senate's other two top-tier committees--Ways and Means, and Judiciary. Long active in the Democratic Party, she is considered an important player in state politics and one of Maui's longest-serving and most influential legislators.

She has delivered significant benefits to the district. In the last two years, Baker can point to the largest single item in the state's capital improvement budget--a $130 million appropriation to build the new Kihei high school. She also helped secure an additional $20 million appropriation for the Lipoa Point (Honolua Bay) land purchase in West Maui.

Issues that are important to her include domestic violence, minimum wage, healthcare and education. She also noted that this year, special-purpose revenue bonds were authorized that could provide an eventual funding mechanism for a West Maui hospital.

Voters interested in her record can find details of her work over the last two years online at www.mauiweekly.com/pdf/news/532563_1.pdf and www.mauiweekly.com/pdf/news/532563_2.pdf.

Because redistricting occurs every 10 years, the terms on state Senate seats are staggered. In the past decade, Baker has competed in and won a four-year term in 2004, a four-year term in 2008 and a two-year term in 2012. She is running in 2014 for re-election to a four-year term.

Ballotpedia, an online voter information resource, reports that since 2008, she has spent a little over $350,000 campaigning; Baker con-firmed, "That's about right."

But this year, the main issues in the campaign seem to be as much about style as substance, and Baker finds herself facing an opponent who thinks the senator is insensitive to the voices of her constituents.

Baker refuted the claim that she held back a 2013 bill relating to labeling genetically modified organisms (GMOs) food products. This, she said, is "not a valid criticism." She pointed out the measure had multiple referrals to the state's Agriculture and Health Committees, as well as her Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee.

"All three committees had to agree," Baker said. "My committee did not have the votes to pass it out. It did not matter what the chair wanted."

Baker said she feels she's being made a "scapegoat."

"They want somebody to blame, and they decided I'm it," she said.

"We were all in the same room for hearing and later to announce the decision," said Baker. "I think since I announced the decision for the joint committees, that is why I got tagged with 'killing' the bill. My colleagues asked me to announce the decision for the joint committees and I did."

In 2014 Legislative Session, Baker said the state Senate passed a resolution requesting Hawai'i's congressional delegation to introduce legislation to clarify food labeling requirements pertaining to GMOs (SCR141 SDI).

"I voted yes on two committees that held a joint hearing on this SCR and then on the floor," said Baker.

Early in June, Maui's proposed GMO moratorium petition achieved the number of signatures required to put the measure on the November ballot.

Asked for her reaction, Baker replied that she sees it as "an opportunity for voters to decide if they want to go forward."

"It means there will be a larger debate," and Baker sees that as "healthy," adding, "Anytime more people go to the polls, that's good."

As for her own campaign activities, she reported, "It's early in the process. I'm talking to voters and I'm finding them interested and receptive."

"I will continue to do what I do--talk story, direct mail and go door-to-door. I'm not a single-issue person. I want to give voters information and engage them. I use the media, but I also have a personal campaign style."

To the perception that she is hard to reach or indifferent to what public has to say, she replied in some detail by email:

"I try to respond to the many calls, letters and acknowledge my email--especially email from Maui personally. My staff doesn't answer the email or letters. They are very good at giving me messages, and sometimes those messages are just to express an opinion.

"I value that input. I try to take as many phone calls as I can. However, during session, that is not always possible due to meetings and hearings. Some of the queries are involved, and my staff has the expertise to do casework, the time to go into the concerns in-depth, do the follow-up and get information or answers for the constituents in a more timely fashion. I have a friendly, helpful staff; they take our constituent service responsibilities very seriously.

"I always try to listen to all sides of an issue before making a recommendation to my committee for action or before voting on a matter. The issues, more often than not, are very complex--not black and white. And some are outside of the state's authority to act.

"On very controversial issues, any position I take will not make everyone happy. That's the nature of our process. I discern as best I can. If possible, I try to find the consensus or path toward a solution that works for most. How can we best move an issue forward to address the issue or problem, if that's possible?

"I've worked in the Senate to ensure that our processes are open, Neighbor Islanders have access to their government without coming to Honolulu and information is available online in a timely, usually real-time fashion."

Terez Amato

Challenger opposes corporate money.

Terez Amato, 38, is a first-time candidate. She opposes the influence of corporate and lobbyist money in Hawai'i's political process and has refused to take money from either--including lobbyists for nonprofit organizations and environmental groups.

"It' bleeds into everything," she said.

Amato cited examples: lobbying for privatizing Hawai'i's prisons and HECO lobbying against the solar industry. She also mentioned HC&S' lobbying against the banning of cane burning here. The so called "Banner Bill" in the last Legislative Session is another example of lobbying. Banner Health, a nonprofit Mainland healthcare organization, lobbied for privatizing Maui's hospital. Amato fears that could cost hundreds of unionized jobs here.

She supports labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMO) and feels strongly about a variety of other environmental issues.

Amato is a 17-year resident of Kihei. Formerly married, she is the mother of four teenage children. Her life partner and campaign manager is Joe Ritter, a physicist, optical and electronics engineer at the University of Hawai'i's (UH) Institute for Astronomy in Pukalani. Amato is a St. Anthony graduate who attended UH Maui College, and until recently was a businesswoman running a small bookkeeping service.

Amato said politics was "the last thing on my mind," until she happened to watch a 2013 TV broadcast of a State Senate hearing relating to labeling of GMO foods. She was appalled at the manner in which the meeting was conducted, and felt that Sen. Baker, who was chairing the meeting, was not responsive to the testimony.

"My observation was that the voices of the people were not being heard," said Amato.

This was Amato's first contact with the issue, but, she said, "I was so busy, I didn't know what I could do about it. What I saw just blew me away. It was the whole manner, and there were many unhappy people. I was not the only one."

"At that point, I joked that I would run," said Amato. "It was sort of lighthearted, but Joe said, 'If this is what you want to do, I will support you.'"

His help allowed her to stop working as a bookkeeper. Comments from others saying they would support her bid also encouraged Amato to focus full-time on the campaign. In April, she pulled papers to run and filed them at the end of May.

Amato sees herself as a person concerned with a broad spectrum of issues that focus on the environment.

"Here on Maui, our environment is everything: it's tourism, agriculture, quality of life," she said. "If we don't preserve our assets, we have nothing."

She pointed out that the SHAKA Movement ended up with more than 9,000 verified signatures, but altogether there were more than 19,000 who signed the petition. Her reaction was, "It sends a powerful message--first time ever, amazing, inspiring."

Amato said she is not sure how much money she will be able to raise. She estimated that to date, she has raised a little over $5,000.

"I spend very frugally, but I have spent all that I've received so far," she said.

To date, the only endorsement she has received is from the Sierra Club of Hawai'i.

Amato said she is running because she hopes she can make a difference and is spending most of her time going door-to-door in the large district that includes all of South and West Maui. The candidate said she's already visited most of the residents of the district at least once.

As she campaigns, she finds many people who are concerned about the cost of living.

"They are saying that it is impossible for a young person to afford housing here, and that many Maui residents are forced to go elsewhere to earn a living."

She said she finds residents "hungry for someone who works for them; that they want a senator they can contact and is willing to listen."

"My message is timely," she said. "People are ready for a different vision."

Amato, a strikingly attractive young woman, acknowledged that "Looks help; but beauty and charm only get you so far. At the end of the day, intelligence wins the race. I will be a senator who works for the people. That's a solid commitment, not just a slogan."

"Losing," she said, "is not an option."

As for her impressions of Sen. Baker? "I've always voted for her in the past, but I won't be voting for her this time."

 
 

 

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