Newcomer hopes to fend off challenger

In one of Maui’s most heavily Democratic districts, state Rep. Justin Woodson will try to fend off a primary election challenge Satur-day from former Maui mayor and County Council member James “Kimo” Apana, who has deep family ties in the Democratic Party.

They’re in a winner-takes-all contest for the 9th House seat, which includes Kahului, Puunene, Old Sand Hills and Maui Lani. No other parties have fielded candidates for the seat.

Woodson is a political newcomer, making his debut in 2013 when Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed him to the Central Maui House seat vacated by Gil Keith-Agaran, who ascended to the state Senate to fill a seat left by Shan Tsutsui, now lieutenant governor. Although he did not gain his seat via the ballot box, Woodson, 37, has garnered campaign contributions and endorsements from unions, which he maintains reflects support from his working-class constituents.

“It shows broad support. It shows relationships that I have,” said Woodson, who was born in Kansas but has spent many years in Hawaii after marrying Maui girl Stacy Suyat.

Apana said that while endorsements show “you are doing a good job” as an incumbent, Woodson should have gotten nearly all endorsements, “which he did not.”

“The jury is still out on him,” Apana said.

Apana, 51, said he is pleased to have received the endorsement from the Hawaii State Teachers Association. He credits that endorsement, in part, to his support for teachers and schools while he was mayor, even though schools are a state responsibility.

“It’s not a state or county thing. It’s an ‘us’ thing,” he said.

On one hot-button issue, same-sex marriage, the candidates have contrasting views of the measure that passed during a special session in November.

Woodson was one of 19 House members, including Maui state Rep. Mele Carroll (East Maui, Molokai and Lanai), to vote against the controversial marriage equality bill. Woodson has said he would have preferred a legislative proposal that would provide equal rights to same-sex couples while maintaining the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.

“My reading was that a majority of the community was not in favor of changing the definition (of marriage),” he said.

He explained that the big issue with the bill was that the Legislature was enacting its own definition of marriage. He didn’t like that 76 legislators could impose such a change.

He said he would have preferred voters decide the matter in a referendum.

When asked if his personal beliefs as a Christian and a member of the King’s Cathedral church influenced his decision, Woodson said: “I think all of us, whatever we do, we are the sum of all of our experiences put together. I am no different.”

He later added he has nothing against same-sex couples and that “equal rights is something that should be afforded to everyone.”

Woodson said the Legislature’s vote on the bill was very divisive, and bill opponents “felt like they lost.” But now is the time for healing and moving forward, he said.

Apana said he would have voted in favor of the bill.

“I’m a firm believer in giving people choices in life. . . . I’m Catholic, I believe in marrying my wife. But everyone is different,” he said.

He added: “By voting no, it takes away the (person’s ability) to choose for himself, and you choose for them. That’s not my way of legislating.”

As for the 9th District, Apana said his priorities include assisting senior citizens on fixed incomes as well as assisting with the homeless problem.

For the seniors, he said he would think of ways to economically help them.

“As I walk door to door and visit the coffee hours at senior centers, the seniors have come out (and say) ‘Kimo, it’s so expensive. It’s very difficult for us.’ “

As for the issue of homelessness, Apana said it’s not a problem “we no longer turn our heads to.”

“We need to start solving it,” he said.

Apana said it wouldn’t be a matter of getting rid of the homeless population but “putting them in the right place.”

Other issues that his constituents have noted include lower property taxes and more bus shelters. While Apana said he knows that these are county issues, he said people may not know that and in the end legislators are the representatives of people living in their districts.

So, if a constituent brings up a county issue in Central Maui, then Apana said he would call the council member of that area to discuss the matter.

For Woodson, his priorities include affordable housing.

Now, the Legislature is “looking seriously” at micro-homes, in which the homes are smaller than regular homes but the cost is reduced.

As vice chairman of the House’s Housing Committee, Woodson said that if the cost to build and buy a home is reduced, then that could lower the cost of the rental market.

“Right now it’s hard to even rent a place,” he said.

Woodson has seen rentals in Central Maui hover around $1,800 per month.

“That’s hard for working families,” he said.

Another priority for Woodson is economic diversification, and he said some of that can be done through the film industry, which has received support from the state Legislature.

He said he would like to also shine a light on public schools and help teachers.

Woodson said there is a misconception that public schools are underachieving. But test scores and extracurricular activities have indicated otherwise, he said. Maui High School’s award-winning robotics program stands as an example of achievement, he pointed out.

Woodson said that overall he is “attempting to bring a new energy, a fresh energy” to the Legislature.

Although his prior political experience may be thin compared to Apana’s, Woodson has worked as a legislative analyst in both the state House and Senate.

He has also worked for Maui state Rep. Mele Carroll, state Sen. Carol Fukunaga and state Rep. Thomas Brower.

“I’ve known some of the legislators for 10 years,” Woodson said.

Not only does he know the politicians, he said he also knows the county political players, stakeholders, unions and representatives of small-interest groups.

Woodson also noted his community ties with various clubs and school-based organizations.

But Apana touts his roots in the district where he was raised and went to school.

“I really know the people there,” he said. “I understand the community and local style of the area very, very, well.”

He said that being a former Maui County Council member and mayor, he understands the county’s needs. Apana has also worked in the state Legislature, where he said many colleagues are now leaders in the Legislature as well as leaders in various industries and government.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at

* Editor’s note – This story is the first in a series of stories this week covering contested election races for state and county political offices. The primary election is Saturday. Winners advance to the Nov. 4 general election.