Jane Sanders visits Maui

The wife of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders came to Maui on Monday and heard about the end of sugar – its lost jobs as well as the harms of cane burning – reached out to Native Hawaiians and offered advice to a community grappling with the issue of genetically modified organisms in food.

Jane Sanders’ home state of Vermont is the first to require food companies to include GMOs on their labels. Maui County voters passed an initiative by a slim margin in 2014 to place a moratorium on GMO farming until health studies are completed. The case is currently on appeal in the federal courts.

Sanders said that her husband, who has built is campaign on fighting for the little guy or the “99 percent of Americans,” has battled with multimillion-dollar lobbyists of companies like Monsanto, which has seed farms on Maui and Molokai, and added that she hoped “that people make their feelings known through their purchases.”

Hundreds of Sanders fans on Maui showed their support for the candidate during his wife’s visit to the Valley Isle for a few hours Monday, part of campaign visit to the state ahead of Saturday’s Hawaii Democratic preference poll. She headed back to the Mainland on Monday after appearances Sunday on Oahu.

Nearly 500 residents showed up to a meet-and-greet event in Wailuku, according to the candidate’s staff, and several others met with Sanders privately. Many of them said they’re voting for the Vermont senator because of his concern for “the little guy in the face of big corporations.”

“He’s a candidate that you know where he comes from,” Kihei resident Brad Edwards said. “He has always held himself in the highest integrity, and I feel he’s willing to hear and support and back the middle class and the little guy.”

Jane Sanders heard from plenty of residents on issues of agriculture, health care, education and economy.

Kihei resident Deborah Creagh is such a passionate supporter that she came to see Mrs. Sanders despite a dislocated patella. She said that Bernie Sanders’ appeal comes from his stand against corporate abuse.

“There are really good companies out there that give people jobs and also a lot of that serve the bottom line, which is money,” said Creagh, leaning on a pair of crutches decorated with Sanders stickers. “I appreciate the revolution Bernie Sanders has ignited because I think his administration will put people, resources and the community’s health before the wealth of corporations.”

With the backdrop of the plumes of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.’s Puunene Mill’s smokestacks, residents discussed the end of the sugar industry on Maui and in Hawaii and its effects on jobs, land development, Maui’s stream water and a final year of cane burning.

Some residents said they had to close up their homes and turn on the air conditioning during the burning.

“I came here thinking I had heard about the sugar plantation laying off 675 workers. I was coming just to learn a little more about that,” Jane Sanders said. “We have since learned about so many other issues in terms of pesticides, in terms of burning sugar, in terms of health.”

Alexander & Baldwin, parent company of HC&S, announced the closing of the sugar plantation at the conclusion of the harvest at the end of the year. It cited nearly $40 million in losses.

Sanders said that her husband is against the very type of trade agreements that have led to the decline of sugar in the U.S.

The Vermont senator has voiced his concern about the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs in America and the effects of trade agreements on domestic industries, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, which the candidate said is part of what led to the dumping of Mexican sugar into the U.S. market that lowered prices and profit margins.

Sanders added that she was surprised to learn that, in a place with such seasonable weather, Hawaii imports the majority of the food it consumes.

“We would help in any way possible to encourage sustainable agriculture so Hawaii can go back to being self-sustaining and having multiple agricultural crops,” she said.

Although not clearly defined as yet, HC&S is proposing to do just that with its 36,000 acres.

Maui resident Trinette Furtado, an opponent of cane burning, said that she appreciated that Jane Sanders “would take this opportunity to ask the kinds of issues and things that are going on here on Maui.

“I have yet to see another presidential candidate or his spouse or any member of the family come ask us,” she said. “Especially here in Hawaii, you don’t tell us what you going do and do it. You have to ask.”

Sanders, who along with her husband, has been increasing outreach to Native American tribes around the country, said it was important for her to meet with Native Hawaiians.

“We’ve been trying to learn about indigenous people and their concerns and how we as a government are meeting their needs as well,” she said. “Because the stories we’re hearing are that we’re not doing very well.”

Sen. Sanders voted for the resolution in 1993 that apologized for the U.S.’s role in the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, but “unfortunately nothing much has happened since then,” his wife said. The senator wants to see Native Hawaiians “directing the conversation” instead of the federal government. Legislation-wise, the senator also wants to expand funding for the Hawaii Education Act, as it’s “inadequate right now,” she said.

With Hawaii’s Democratic presidential preference poll approaching on Saturday, both Sanders and Hillary Clinton are vying for visibility in the Aloha State. Shortly before Jane Sanders’ visit, a campaign headquarters for Clinton opened last week in Wailuku.

The former secretary of state and first lady leads the Vermont senator in the polls – Clinton has 1,630 delegates to Sanders’ 870, according to bloomberg.com. That total includes “superdelegates,” which are not chosen by election.

However, Jane Sanders said Monday that her husband’s campaign continues to push forward and that he’s “done better than expected” in several states.

Supporters encouraged him to “hold on till the last aloha.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.