KAHULUI -- Wailuku attorney Gil Keith-Agaran has been working hard to keep his 9th House District seat from being taken by challenger Joe Pontanilla.
Both Democrats are in a winner-takes-all race because the winner of Saturday's primary contest will go unchallenged in the Nov. 6 general election.
Keith-Agaran, 50, kicked his re-election campaign into overdrive after Pontanilla announced his intention to seek the 9th District seat (Kahului, Wailuku, Puunene, Spreckelsville and Paia) during a campaign fundraiser in late March.
Last week, Keith-Agaran reported raising $83,383 (not counting the $7,375 his campaign had before this election cycle) and spending $79,549. His expenditures are nearly three times the $28,833 Pontanilla has reported spending, while the council member has raised $23,324 (not counting cash on hand of $9,035 carried over from previous campaigns).
Pontanilla isn't just being outspent and left lagging behind in campaign contributions. He also has no union endorsements, he acknowledged last week.
Meanwhile, Keith-Agaran said he has the endorsement of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (agricultural and hotel workers); the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers; the Hawaii Government Employees Association; the Hawaii State Teachers Association; the United Public Workers, the Hawaii AFL-CIO; the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly (university professors); and the support of the plumbers union, operating engineers, iron workers, teamsters, laborers and the Building and Construction Trade Council. And, Keith-Agaran has the backing of the Sierra Club, as part of its "Green Slate" of candidates.
So, with an impressive collection of endorsements, an overflowing campaign war chest and the benefit of being a two-term incumbent, one might think Keith-Agaran would be confident of retaining his seat.
But, actually, he's worried.
"I'm definitely the underdog," he said in an interview last week.
Keith-Agaran said Pontanilla has better name recognition and is such a strong candidate that someone suggested the state lawmaker consider running for Pontanilla's Kahului council seat.
Calling his bid for a third term his "toughest campaign," Keith-Agaran said he has responded by working hard to meet voters and keep them informed about his candidacy.
"I'm not just taking my opponent seriously," he said. "I'm taking the voter seriously by putting in the time by knocking on their doors."
Keith-Agaran's contention that he's the race's underdog came as a surprise last week to Pontanilla.
"Having no endorsements, it's like an uphill battle for me," Pontanilla said of the campaign.
He said he relies on members of his campaign committee for manpower and guidance.
"I'm fortunate that they've stuck by me for over 10 years," he said. "We're sticking to the grass roots, walking the streets, sign-waving, and he (Keith-Agaran) does the same thing."
Pontanilla, 70, has served five consecutive two-year terms in the Maui County Council's Kahului residency seat, and term limits are forcing him to leave the council.
For more on this story and to read coverage of other races in The Maui News' primary election supplement, see Sunday's issue of the newspaper.