Veteran, new face offer a diverse race in C. Maui

There is lots of diversity in the candidates for the Central Maui state Senate seat.

Appointed incumbent Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, 52, of Wailuku is a former state House member, a lawyer, a former chairman of the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, a former county director of Public Works and a Maui boy, who returned home after earning degrees at top-notch universities.

Christy Kajiwara Gusman, 36, of Waihee Valley is a mother of four, a farmer, a businesswoman, a former state highways inspector, and a member of the team that built the first electric vehicle in the state at the Pacific Missile Range on Kauai in the early 1990s.

The candidates for the District 5 seat that includes Wailuku, Kahului and Waihee also have different legislative priorities. Keith-Agaran, who replaced Shan Tsutsui when he was appointed lieutenant governor in 2013 in the wake of the death of Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, named health care as his top priority. Gusman called for improving the education and child welfare systems.

“The difference between Gil and I . . . I feel that it’s education versus experience,” said Gusman, a self-acclaimed “Kauai girl” who came to the island with her Maui husband in 2003. “He’s an attorney. He has a good education. I’m a mom. I’m a wife, I’m a business owner. I’m a farmer. I have experience. I’ve been on the working end of the blue-collar side.

“Basically, it’s education versus common sense. I am more compassionate about what I do because I’ve been there. I know the struggles.”

Keith-Agaran points to his being born and raised on Maui, saying that he is “someone that approaches things from being rooted in this community.”

“I was born and raised in Central Maui, and I chose to return here to raise my family,” said Keith-Agaran, a Maui High graduate who earned his undergraduate degree from Yale College and his law degree from Boalt Hall School of Law, University of California-Berkeley.

Keith-Agaran said that he’s not your typical charismatic politician with a quick wit, and he’s not sure if he would have run for office if not appointed. He entered the House in January 2009, succeeding the late Bob Nakasone, and won two elections for his seat, before moving to the Senate to succeed Tsutsui.

“I think they (voters) get someone who is like any other person in the community, who wants Central Maui to be Dream City in reality and not just a developer slogan,” he said. “It is a place where you want to live, work and grow old.”

Health care, “the continuum of care . . . from the time of birth through your middle age until your older years,” is a top legislative priority. And he has a special affinity for caregivers, after watching his mom, who turns 86 in the fall, care for his uncle, his father and his grandfather.

And his mother has shown him “that the issues that have really affected her are the things that are going to affect everybody in the community as we get old,” he said, such as health care and medication prescriptions. She is very active, but she wants to live at home as long as she can, he adds.

For Gusman, it’s about education and her frustration with the system. She said it took her three years to get assistance from the public school system for her special-needs child. Going through all the avenues to get her child help, she even wrote Keith-Agaran, “who never gave me an answer.”

“There is still a lot of kinks in that system that need to be worked out,” she said. “We need more classroom help, more one on one for kids who are a little bit behind.”

Often those children who fall behind end up as dropouts and become a problem for the community, she said. She would like to see more programs for those children and for strengthening the family and keeping them together.

“I think if we had more intervention or more programs that would bind the family, then we wouldn’t have as much of a problem with the children,” she said.

Gusman is employed as an indoor environmental consultant with ENPRO Environmental and is owner/operator of Kahiau Enterprises LLC, doing business as Maui Roll Offs, an environmental waste management and consulting firm.

She and her husband, Kyle, who works for Maui Electric Co., grow taro, bananas and papaya on her husband’s family land in Waihee Valley. They have four children, Jaylicia, John, Jayhart and Justin.

Keith-Agaran is a partner in the law firm of Takitani Agaran & Jorgensen in Wailuku and is married to Kallie. He also helped raise his niece Leah, whom he lists as his hanai daughter.

Kallie Keith-Agaran and Gusman had a little run-in during the selection process to replace Tsutsui in the state Senate. Gusman filed an ethics complaint because Kallie Keith-Agaran did not step down as the head of the selection committee that was considering, among other candidates, her husband.

“To me it was inappropriate, that it was making the Democratic Party look exactly like what our Republicans call us,” Gusman said, noting that she was on that panel too, and only wanted Kallie Keith-Agaran to step down from the leadership position while still allowing her a vote.

Her complaint was ignored, she said.

Gil Keith-Agaran responded by saying that the committee that nominated him was made up of active Democrats, including his wife, mother, law partners and campaign supporters, “as might be expected of longtime Democratic Party campaigners.”

“As I said at the time, I certainly hope my wife, my mother and my friends on the committee did vote for me,” he said. “As in any election process, you don’t disqualify your loved ones from voting for their relatives.”

On the issues:

* Hospital system. Keith-Agaran favors a partnership between the Hawaii Health Systems Corp. that runs public hospitals on the Neighbor Islands, including Maui Memorial, Kula Hospital and Lanai Community Hospital, and a state or a Mainland health organization. “Obviously, the status quo is not working,” and HHSC needs additional capital, he said.

Gusman supports a Hawaii partnership as proposed by state Sen. Josh Green in the last legislative session. That measure called for a joint venture with a local private entity, but it did not make it through conference committee. Gusman also said she has not had the best of experiences at the Maui Memorial emergency room, where she has sought treatment for her children’s injuries.

* Genetically modified organisms. Gusman does not support the SHAKA Movement’s ballot initiative that calls for a moratorium on the growing of GMO crops until they can be proved safe. She does not believe the county should be putting Monsanto and Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. “on hold while they do their study or research.” Gusman does not believe GMO-grown foods are a health hazard.

Keith-Agaran, too, does not support the ballot initiative, calling it “conflated.” He’s concerned about the county’s ability to enforce the measure. “We talking about a lot of jobs that could be affected,” Keith-Agaran added. “It is a little callous to say that those people can find another job.” The jury is still out on whether GMO foods are unhealthy, he said.

* Lee Imada can be reached at