EDITOR'S NOTE - This is the first in a series of stories covering contested legislative and County Council seats leading up to Saturday's primary election. For more on Maui County, state and federal candidates, see The Maui News' primary election supplement in today's issue.
KAHULUI - Wailuku attorney Gil Keith-Agaran has been working hard to keep his 9th House District seat from being taken by challenger Joe Pontanilla.
Gil S. Coloma Keith-Agaran (D)*
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, ironworkers, 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 that 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.
Pontanilla said last week that with his years of council service he has come to know the needs of Central Maui and wants to see if state and county governments can work together more efficiently - perhaps cooperating for better school bus and public transportation services, for example.
"Does anybody sit down and really take a look at how we can as government become more efficient?" he asked.
Pontanilla serves as the council's vice chairman and chairs its Budget and Finance Committee. He said he has been campaigning for the Central Maui House seat, but his priority from March through May has been leading the council in its annual review of the county budget and, more recently, working on the council's review of the Maui Island Plan.
Pontanilla said he wants to continue with elected public service and believes he can bring a unique county perspective to lawmaking sessions on Oahu.
If elected to the state House, Pontanilla said, he would seek passage of a bill to give county councils more time to review state fast-tracked housing projects. Now, councils have only 45 days, but that's "not enough time," he said.
He said he has sought a 90-day review and compromised to a 60-day review, but the measure has not passed in the Legislature.
"It's still stuck," he said.
Pontanilla also wants to see if he can advocate to do more to address the unfunded liability of government employees' pension and health funds. Keith-Agaran said state legislators already have made changes - including disallowing overtime for new state employees in calculating retirement benefits - to give state and county governments more time to address the problem.
Pontanilla said he's confident he can make the transition from County Council member to state legislator. He noted that other former county council members, including the late Bob Nakasone, who held the Central Maui House seat for years, have successfully made the transition.
Keith-Agaran has extensive experience with state government. His first term in the House came in January 2009, when then Gov. Linda Lingle appointed him to serve Nakasone's unexpired term.
Prior to that, Keith-Agaran served as chairman of the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, director of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations and deputy director of the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs. He's also a former director of the county Department of Public Works and Waste Management.
"My experience helped me hit the ground running," he said. "There wasn't much of a learning curve."
Keith-Agaran said there's a "big difference" in policymaking between being a member of the County Council and a member of the state Legislature.
"The real difference is the perspective I have," he said, citing his experience with state administrations. "I can look at bills coming through . . . and have an understanding if this is really going to help or not."
Keith-Agaran said he has gained the respect of his fellow lawmakers, who've entrusted him with one of the House's "toughest assignments," the chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee. It handles "hot-button" issues such as civil unions and "bread-and-butter" issues of criminal justice, he said.
He also serves on the House's Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee.
Keith-Agaran said he has co-sponsored bills aimed at leveraging the state's buying power to promote locally grown food. Those include House Bill 794, which facilitates vegetarian meal options in schools; House Bill 892, which creates a farm-to-work program in schools; and House Bill 797, which requires serving fresh local produce in school lunches at least once per week.
Instead of Hawaii residents sending billions of dollars out of state to purchase food, that money could be encouraged to stay in the islands to support the economy here, he said.
Among the state agencies with the most buying power is the state Department of Education, which buys millions of dollars worth of food for school lunches, he said.
"There should be a way where we can have them buy more locally grown, more locally produced food products," he said.
* Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.
HOUSE DISTRICT 9
(Kahului, Wailuku, Puunene, Spreckelsville and Paia)
* * *
Gil S. Coloma Keith-Agaran (D)*
Born: Sept. 27, 1962; Wailuku
Education: Bachelor of arts, Yale College, 1984; juris doctorate, Boalt Hall School of Law, the University of California at Berkeley, 1987
Community involvement: Chairman, Maui High School Community Council/School Community-based Management Committee, 2003-09; member, Maui High School Foundation Board, 2011 to present; member, Friends of Maui Waena Intermediate School, 2012 to present; member, Maui Food Bank board; and vice president of the Tri-Isle Resource Conservation and Development Council, 2002 to present
Family: Married, one hanai child
* * *
Joe Pontanilla (D)
Born: April 22, 1942; Puunene
Military: U.S. Army
Education: Associate of arts degree, Maui Community College, 1986
Community involvement: Kahului Lions Club, member; Kahului Federal Credit Union, board member; Maui Waena School Community Council; Mental Health Association of Maui, board member; Cameron Center, Facility and Risk Committee, member
Family: Married, two children
* House District 9. Because of reapportionment, the geographic size of House District 9 was reduced and no longer includes Paia and Spreckelsville. Also, Democratic state Rep. Gil Keith-Agaran will turn 50 years old on Sept. 27. His age and the description of his House District's areas were incorrect in a story published on Page A1 and continued on A3 on Sunday.
The Maui News apologizes for the errors.