Yamashita, Lawrence face off in round two

Tiare M. Lawrence

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s election feature, part of The Maui News coverage of contested Maui County races in the Aug. 11 primary election, focuses on candidates seeking the 12th House District seat. Stories on other races will be published in the days leading up to the election. A primary election voter guide offering details on all county and state House and Senate contests was included in Sunday’s edition.

Democratic incumbent Kyle Yamashita and challenger Tiare Lawrence are gearing up for round two of their winner-take-all primary election contest for the Upcountry 12th House seat that was decided by just a few hundred votes two years ago.

Yamashita, who has spent 14 years at the state Capitol, defeated then-political newcomer Lawrence for the seat that includes Upcountry, Spreckelsville and parts of Kahului. Yamashita tallied 2,763 votes, or 50.6 percent, in the 2016 Democratic primary to Lawrence’s 2,411 votes, or 44.2 percent.

Yamashita has a large campaign war chest advantage, reporting $92,000 in carryover and funds raised as of June 30, campaign spending reports show.

Of that, he expended $21,600 and was left with a surplus of about $70,500.

Kyle T. Yamashita

Lawrence reported having $17,600 in carryover and funds raised. She reported spending $9,600, leaving her a surplus of $8,000.

The winner of the Aug. 11 primary election will win the seat because there are no candidates from other parties.

Tiare Lawrence

The challenger for the House seat says that she is a proud “activist” but has evolved into an “advocate” in recent years.

The Upcountry resident is known for her passion for environmental, cultural and social issues, which was highlighted by her act of civil disobedience in 2015 at the Central Maui Baseyard in Puunene. She and 19 other protesters were arrested while attempting to block convoys delivering parts for the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope atop Haleakala.

Lawrence said her activism has evolved in recent years and now she prefers the term advocate, pointing to her legislative policy work as a full-time community organizer for the Hawai’i Alliance for Progressive Action.

HAPA’s mission is to empower the community to bring systemic change by valuing the environment and people ahead of corporate profit, its website says. HAPA’s work includes transitioning Hawaii from genetically modified organisms and pesticides to a more sustainable and safe food system; interrupting corporate influence in government; protecting and restoring sacred sites; and addressing the structural ways that economic inequality is perpetuated.

Through her job, Lawrence works closely with unions, state agencies and more than 40 organizations to ensure that their concerns are heard by decision-makers.

“I’m proud to be an activist, but for this time in my life I think advocate is more appropriate,” she said. “I’ve really grown a lot over the past few years and being more effective getting my points across as an advocate.”

In her second election battle with Yamashita, Lawrence is focusing her campaign on improving the quality of life for future generations and ensuring local families have access to affordable housing. She said she has sought to engage the community and address its problems directly.

“I know what it’s like to live here, so I know the issues at hand,” she said. “It’s important to have elected officials who are present and engaged in the community. . . . I’m only as strong as my community.”

Lawrence said the most encouraging sign she received from her community was the last primary election, in which she fell 353 votes shy of winning. She said the vote shows her district is “ready for change.”

“It tells me that the community is tired of status quo,” she said, adding that she owed it to her supporters to run again. “I think what it’s going to take is new, young voters and the community in general taking the primary elections seriously. It’s sad that a lot of people don’t even know what a primary is.”

Only 30 percent of Maui County voters turned out for the 2016 primary, and Lawrence is banking on new voters to help push her over the top.

If elected, she said she plans to roll out a series of workshops with representatives on all sides to communicate the priorities of the main issues facing Upcountry. Lawrence said she would not let her personal bias affect her decision-making and understands “the complexity of issues on both sides of the fence.”

“We may not agree on everything, but how can we work on better solutions that will benefit residents, and most importantly future generations,” she said.

Lawrence questioned Yamashita’s support for his district and criticized him for introducing a bill last year that would have completely phased out the counties’ share of the transient accommodations tax revenue over a three-year period. The bill also would have implemented new income tax brackets over the same period.

“My opponent rolls deep in that good ‘ol boy network,” she said. “I think it’s important to have a legislator that has Neighbor Island interests at heart. Anyone who follows the Legislature knows it’s very Oahu-centric with the way the factions are. A lot of issues fall on deaf ears because of the power structure.”

Lawrence acknowledged her opponent’s important position on the House Finance Committee, where Yamashita is in charge of managing capital improvement projects in the state. She said she would work to gain the same clout as well as address a “systemic problem” at the state Capitol.

“It’s about policy changes,” she said. “It’s about thinking outside of the box. Money is important, and my job is to get as much money for my district, but at the same time I would like to address systemic issues affecting our vulnerable communities.”

Kyle Yamashita

The incumbent said he is more prepared to address “negative campaigning” this time around.

During the 2016 election, Yamashita decided to take the “high road” and not respond to his opponent’s criticism, which he believes resulted in the close primary. In the early printouts of the election, Yamashita held a clear lead, but as the day went on the gap shrunk.

“I think the mistake was if you don’t say anything, people believe it to be true,” he said. “This time, we’re more prepared to deal with that.”

Yamashita refuted Lawrence’s claim about the bill that would have phased out the counties’ share of the TAT, saying that she missed the point of the bill and that it was meant to “start a discussion.” He said the bill’s primary purpose was to decrease income taxes for residents and to increase property taxes for nonresidents. House Bill 1586 was deferred last year.

“All the states that brag they have low taxes is because they export their taxes to people who don’t live in state,” he said. “They tax their natural resource, they tax oil, they tax coal. Our natural resource is paradise. Everybody wants a piece of paradise. But what happens is because our property tax is the lowest in the nation, we’re giving them a windfall. If you have a million dollar property here and one in Florida — you probably pay four times as much in Florida.

“I’ve always believed we need to restructure the tax code to where it doesn’t give investors from out of state the advantage.”

The longtime lawmaker stressed his experience and said he now “understands the budget better than ever” and can “make things happen faster than ever.” He noted that his focus has always been his district, the Neighbor Islands and the state — generally in that order.

He is the manager of capital improvement projects in the House and has gained a reputation among his colleagues for making fair and justifiable decisions. Yamashita also serves on the Economic Development and Business and the Labor and Public Employment committees.

“It takes time to earn the trust of your colleagues,” he said. “Even if you disagree on certain things, you can still have a good dialogue, and I think that’s healthy. The longer I’ve been here the more I understand that it does matter. It would be poho (not good) to stop now.”

Yamashita said he has never been one to tout his accomplishments but has been encouraged by others to advertise more and to speak about his work at the Legislature. Campaign literature lists dozens of accomplishments and money he has secured for Maui County projects.

The projects include $570 million for affordable housing and homelessness, $35 million for the King Kekaulike Performing Arts Center and $34 million for the Maui County public hospital system. Yamashita also helped pass legislation that protects keiki, coral reefs, communities and the environment, as wells as preserving the affordable rental project Front Street Apartments.

“When we succeed it’s never one person. It’s a group effort,” he said. “It’s a collaboration with many people, so I tend not to say it was me because I truly believe it’s a collaborative effort.”

One of the main issues facing Upcountry residents is the state law outlawing cesspools by 2050. Both Yamashita and Lawrence feel long term solutions and other alternatives need to be explored by the state Health Department, rather than placing the burden on residents.

Maui County residents railed on the state Health Department during meetings earlier this year over the law that could cost them $20,000 to remove a cesspool. In response, Yamashita and other county lawmakers helped pass legislation to push the department to consider other solutions.

The legislation that passed last session includes expanding the cesspool tax credit for property owners to upgrade, convert or connect to sewer systems; establishing a working group within the Health Department to develop a comprehensive plan; and requiring the University of Hawaii to conduct a comprehensive statewide study of sewage contamination of beaches.

Yamashita said the department must provide a preliminary report before the next session opens and a final report before the following session in 2020.

Yamashita said he and Lawrence share similar goals in building a “better future for our children” through affordable housing and education. He rejected her notion that he is part of an “old boy network” and noted that the majority of state lawmakers have spent less than 10 years in office.

“When I listen to her we have similar goals, but how we get there may vary,” he said. “I think I’m in a better position because I have the experience and know what things can move quickly.

“Everybody wants to make sure Maui stays Maui. We want to keep it beautiful, but at the same time we don’t want to put obstructions in place that add to the cost of living.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.

Tiare M. Lawrence

Party: Democratic

Age: 36

Birthplace: Maui

Residence: Pukalani

Occupation: Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action, community organizer, 2016 to present; Otaheite Hawaii, retail boutique owner, 2012-16

Political experience: State House candidate, 2016

Education: Lahainaluna High School; Kapiolani Community College; Ka Ipu Kukui 2010; Kuleana Academy 2016 

Community service: Democratic Hawaiian Affairs Caucus Maui rep, 2018; Hamakua Alohalua board member, 2017-18; Ka malu O kahalawai board member, 2018

Family: Two children

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Kyle T. Yamashita

Party: Democratic

Age: 58

Birthplace: Honolulu

Residence: Makawao

Occupation: State representative since 2005

Community service: Boy Scouts of America Annual Council Dinner, committee member, 2009 to 2016; Eagle Scout Annual Recognition Dinner, committee member, 2009 to present; Boy Scouts of America merit badge counselor, 2007 to present

Family: Married, two adult children

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