Maui race echoes '02 primary
By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor
By Christie Wilson
WAILUKU, Maui — Democrat Jan Yagi Buen is attempting to recapture the 4th Senate District seat she lost to Shan Tsutsui in the 2002 primary election, in a race she says was marred by negative campaigning and last-hour "scare tactics" that misrepresented her support for public workers.
During her single term, Buen was involved in several Capitol dramas, including joining an unsuccessful attempt to reorganize the Senate leadership. She was targeted by unions for her positions on privatization and overhauling healthcare benefits for public workers that she said would result in a more cost-efficient system.
Tsutsui, who was taken under wing by veteran Maui Democrats, won by a convincing 1,300 votes. Despite the bitter loss, Buen said she wants to return to the Senate because of her deep passion for Maui and to take care of unfinished business, especially issues related to long-term care for the elderly.
With no Republican candidates in the race, the Democratic primary on Sept. 23 will determine the winner.
The 4th Senate District comprises Wailuku, Kahului and Pa'ia — Maui's civic and commercial core. The district includes the county seat and is home to Maui Memorial Medical Center, Kahului Airport, Maui Community College and Kahului Harbor. It spans some of the island's richest and poorest neighborhoods, and is in a construction boom growing out from the Kehalani and Maui Lani residential developments.
Tsutsui, 35, has been most visible to Maui voters as a critic of the Hawai'i Superferry, which plans to start interisland service next year at overcrowded Kahului Harbor. Environmentalists, farmers, small businesses, canoe clubs and other harbor users complain the ferry will bring further traffic congestion in Kahului, increase shipping costs, introduce invasive species and endanger humpback whales.
Although Tsutsui and other lawmakers wary of the Hawai'i Superferry and its potential impacts were unable to stop a $40 million spending package for harbor improvements related to the new service, they were able to push the company and the state Department of Transportation to conduct several rounds of public meetings to answer citizens' concerns.
"I've always been a supporter of alternative transportation for the residents of Hawai'i, but part of my concern was the way the state is dealing with lack of infrastructure and the lack of addressing community concerns ... It seemed like they wanted to do this at any and all costs, and would move forward with the Superferry and deal with the problems later. I just felt that they were doing it backward," Tsutsui said.
Gov. Linda Lingle has yet to release the second half of the $40 million, and Tsutsui said he is consulting with Senate attorneys to see if any other action can be taken to temporarily ground the Superferry.
"If we really believe the Superferry is something that's going to be good and beneficial to the residents of Hawai'i, then we should do it right," he said.
Buen, 63, said she, too, thinks the ferry needs a thorough environmental study.
"Even though it's not required by law, we need an environmental impact statement, and when the people give their input, then we can decide and go from there," Buen said.
Both candidates named healthcare as a primary focus, and in particular, funding for Maui Memorial Medical Center — the island's only acute-care hospital. During the 2002 campaign, Tsutsui listed as one of his chief goals the establishment of air ambulance service for Maui. That has come to pass, with state and county funding, and Tsutsui said he wants to see the service expanded and a helipad built at Maui Memorial.
Buen is a longtime supporter of Maui Memorial, heads the nonprofit Friends of Maui County Health and has been active in West Maui health issues.
Because of her own experiences with aged family members and the state's rapidly growing elderly population, Buen said she has a special interest in long-term care and more senior health and caregiver respite programs. During her Senate term, Buen worked with other Maui legislators to propose tax credits for those with long-term care insurance, something she'd like to again pursue.
With the state enjoying a $600 million budget surplus, Buen said she would use the money to clear the backlog of repairs and maintenance at state facilities and to further restructure the education system.
Tsutsui agrees on the need to tackle deferred maintenance projects but said "you should never try to spend money just because you have it."
"We need to anticipate a slowdown in the economy. With higher interest rates and energy costs going up rapidly, it is less and less affordable for working families and people on fixed incomes to survive here, and that has a trickle-down effect on the economy," he said. "While we may have experienced good times over the last couple of years, we need to make sure we save for a rainy day, because that rainy day could be right around the corner."
For his part, Tsutsui said that as one of the younger lawmakers, he has helped bring about "a new age of open government and transparency" at the Legislature.
Buen said she would work to restore a collaborative spirit and integrity to the Senate, which remains factionalized.
"We cannot be fighting with the leadership, fighting with the administration. All this constantly fighting for power is not good and keeps us from doing the people's business," she said.
Reach Christie Wilson at email@example.com.