Three Democrats vie for Maui Senate seat
|||Map: State Senate District 4|
Neighbor Island Editor
WAILUKU, Maui It's no small hurt that incumbent state Sen. Jan Yagi Buen failed to win the endorsement of labor unions in her bid for re-election in the newly redrawn 4th Senate District that encompasses Central Maui.
She is the daughter of the late Tom Yagi, who was an organizer and leader of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union on Maui for more than 40 years. Yet the ILWU, plus the Hawai'i Government Employees Association, United Public Workers and other labor groups have endorsed one of her opponents in the Sept. 21 Democratic primary, political newcomer Shan Tsutsui.
Despite the rejection by ILWU leaders, Buen said she maintains the backing of those longtime union members loyal to her father. "My heart will always be with the workers. I will never lose that because I was brought up in the ILWU," she said.
Businessman and community leader Thomas Cerizo is also on the Democratic ballot. With no Republican challengers, the winner of the three-candidate Democratic primary will capture the 4th District seat, which covers Wailuku, Kahului and Pa'ia.
Occupation: State senator Family: Married with three children, four grandchildren One big idea: To help families with three or four jobs get better-paying wages so they can have a quality family life. Shan Tsutsui (D) Occupation: Financial adviser with PaineWebber, owner of Keiki Time baby store Family: Married with one daughter One big idea: "The return of an air ambulance system on Maui." Thomas Cerizo (D) Occupation: Insurance agency owner Family: Married with four children One big idea: To build a scenic walkway around Kahului Harbor for cruise ship passengers.
Jan Yagi Buen (D)
Occupation: State senator
Family: Married with three children, four grandchildren
One big idea: To help families with three or four jobs get better-paying wages so they can have a quality family life.
Shan Tsutsui (D)
Occupation: Financial adviser with PaineWebber, owner of Keiki Time baby store
Family: Married with one daughter
One big idea: "The return of an air ambulance system on Maui."
Thomas Cerizo (D)
Occupation: Insurance agency owner
Family: Married with four children
One big idea: To build a scenic walkway around Kahului Harbor for cruise ship passengers.
Wailuku, the county seat, with a population of 12,300, includes more affluent neighborhoods and has experienced growth over the last decade from new subdivisions for middle- and middle-upper-income households. The connecting communities of Waiehu and Waihe'e, with 7,300 residents, also have expanded and contain several Department of Hawaiian Home Lands housing developments.
Like Kahului, Pa'ia population 2,500 includes a sizable number of current and former sugar workers with strong union ties.
Buen, 59, acknowledges her campaign has suffered because some unions have used what she called "scare tactics" and misrepresentation of her support in the Legislature for privatization.
"I believe in efficiency in government, not taking away anyone's job," Buen said.
Buen also ran afoul of the public employee unions when she joined other senators in passing a 2001 bill to overhaul the way health benefits are provided to state and county workers. The measure eliminated health plans that were provided through the unions, and set up a trust fund to purchase a package of health benefits for public workers at the best cost available.
The new law addressed concerns that some of the health funds held by unions could not be accounted for, and it was estimated the state would save $65 million in the first year alone. Buen said the law also protects benefits for retirees and their spouses.
Buen was not afraid to mix it up early in her first term at the Legislature. She joined four other freshmen lawmakers, led by Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nanakuli, Wai'anae, Makaha), to push for reorganization of Senate leadership because they felt not enough was being done to improve the economy.
The new senators also were being shut out of the decision-making process, Buen said, and were being denied vital information from the Ways and Means Committee.
"We not only wanted to make noise, we wanted to make a difference," she said. "We were told to sit back and learn the process, to listen and not so much do. I didn't think that we should just be there and not do anything. We wanted to make a lot of changes."
More recently, Buen voted "no" on two high-profile issues in the 2002 session: physician-assisted suicide, which was defeated, and the "bottle bill" that requires a 5-cent deposit on beverage containers, which passed.
Her opposition to the bottle bill was one reason the Sierra Club endorsed Tsutsui over Buen.
Healthcare continues to be a focus for Buen, who said she has a longtime commitment to Maui Memorial Medical Center, one of 12 state facilities operated by the Hawai'i Health Systems Corp.
Buen, a co-founder of the Friends of Maui Memorial Hospital, said $38 million in general obligation bonds was made available in the last session for much-needed improvements at the hospital. But she was disappointed that a measure that would have granted Maui Memorial financial independence from HHSC was defeated.
The hospital must share its revenues with less-profitable hospitals in the system, leaving little incentive for Maui Memorial staff and administrators to improve their performance, Buen said. Fears that rural hospitals that depend on subsidies would lose funding could be addressed by allocating money from the General Fund, she said.
Buen has also been criticized for not being accessible, and some constituents have complained they have been turned away from her office at the state Capitol. The senator said her schedule often places her in time-consuming meetings and hearings.
"I cannot be in my office all the time. I am as accessible as possible. I do respond. I'm sorry that I'm not in my office when they come in," she said.
Tsutsui said it is his commitment to listen to all constituents and not any particular pro-labor position that garnered union support.
"The unions want someone who is able to listen, who listens to their needs and issues," Tsutsui said. "The unions understand that things have changed, that it's not like it was in 1954."
Labor groups and other lobbyists just want someone who will let them "share their side of the issue," he said. "I can't imagine making a decision otherwise."
Tsutsui questioned Buen's decision to support Hanabusa's bid for Senate president a goal he said he would like to keep in his sights.
"I don't want to be a follower, I want to be a leader," he said.
Tsutsui, a financial adviser with PaineWebber who also is co-owner of a Kahului store that sells upscale baby goods, admits being "brand new" to politics, although he is being guided by veteran Maui Democrats.
"Being only 31, I spent the last 10 years building my career and family, but I was always interested in politics," he said.
Tsutsui said he initially thought about running as a Republican because he didn't think he'd be accepted by the "old-boy network." He said he was surprised to get encouragement from local Democratic leaders.
"My feeling was that the Democrats were very exclusive ..." he said. "The Democrats' recent woes have forced the party to make a concerted effort to be more inclusive."
Tsutsui said it became apparent that the Democrats "need younger guys. The old way of doing things is not working anymore."
Education, healthcare, jobs and the economy are the foremost concerns among voters in the 4th District, according to Tsutsui.
Instead of raising taxes, one proposal is to offer tax breaks to small businesses that employ full-time workers and pay full-time benefits, he said.
"Many people work three or four jobs and still don't have medical benefits," he said.
The candidate would like to see tourism promotion more focused on the convention and special-event trade. Hawai'i should build more world-class sports arenas and other facilities, he said, and perhaps aim at hosting the World Cup soccer tournament, for example, and compete with places such as Las Vegas and Florida to attract events of global interest.
Cerizo, who owns his own insurance agency in Wailuku and several commercial and residential real estate interests, said two of his priorities are improving Hawai'i's public high schools and insurance reform.
Cerizo, 55, said he became aware of "serious inefficiencies" in the secondary education system through his daughter, a special-education teacher. He said many of the students who are put in special-ed programs are troublemakers who are simply bored with school.
Those students and others who will be entering the job market directly after graduation would find school more engaging if vocational and occupational programs were offered, along with classes to improve their reading skills, according to Cerizo, who also favors "old-fashioned detention centers" for disruptive students.
The cost of mandated insurance programs makes it difficult for many small businesses in Hawai'i to succeed, Cerizo said.
He said would press for legislation that would allow small- and medium-sized businesses to take larger deductibles on employer-paid health insurance to lower premiums. He also said that businesses should not be required to pay temporary disability insurance for their workers. Cerizo said it's not fair that companies have to pay wages to workers who can't work.
Instead, employees should have the option of paying for disability insurance out of their own pocket, he said.
All three candidates oppose gambling, but unlike his two opponents, Cerizo supports school vouchers. Cerizo is a graduate and past PTG president of St. Anthony High School in Wailuku.