Kahului state Rep. Gil Keith-Agaran was tapped Monday by Gov. Neil Abercrombie to serve in the state Senate, filling the Central Maui seat vacated by newly appointed Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui.
Keith-Agaran, a Wailuku attorney who has served in the state House since 2009, was selected from a list of three finalists complied by state Democratic Party officials.
His appointment to represent Senate District 5 - which includes Wailuku, Waihee and Kahului - is effective immediately.
"Gil brings a wealth of experience from the practice of law and work in county and state government. His passion for the people of the Valley Isle is evident, and I am confident he will continue to serve them well," Abercrombie said in a statement.
Tsutsui accepted the lieutenant governor post after Abercrombie named Brian Schatz to fill the U.S. Senate vacancy created by the Dec. 17 death of Sen. Daniel Inouye. As state Senate president at the time, Tsutsui was first in line to succeed Schatz.
Keith-Agaran, 50, said that while he has mixed emotions to be leaving the House, he plans to get to work right away.
"It's somewhat bittersweet in the sense that I loved working with my colleagues and I had an opportunity this year, if I stayed in the House, to have a fairly important leadership position," he told The Maui News. "But I was elected by my community and my responsibility is to make sure that my community is well represented in both the House and Senate. I think this is one of the reasons I thought I had to apply for the vacancy."
Wailuku state Rep. Joe Souki, who says he has the backing to be elected speaker of the House, had chosen Keith-Agaran to be majority leader.
Keith-Agaran said he intends to follow through on priorities for Central Maui that he, Tsutsui and Souki have identified.
"I'm going to be basically following up on a lot of projects that Lieutenant Governor Tsutsui and Speaker Emeritus Souki have initiated, and bring those to a finish," Keith-Agaran said. "There are a number of projects that we started that still need someone to make sure they get constructed and put into place."
He cited as examples funding for the planned Central Maui Regional Park and Maui Memorial Medical Center.
Keith-Agaran, who previously served as chairman of the influential House Judiciary Committee, said he plans to speak with Senate President Donna Mercado Kim about possible committee assignments later this week.
"There are a number of committees I'd like to sit on, but I realize the Senate has already organized," he said. "There may be an opportunity, perhaps, to sit on Ways and Means, and perhaps others that Senate President Kim had sat on before she became president, so there may be some slots."
Kim released a statement shortly after Keith-Agaran's appointment, congratulating him and saying: "We look forward to working with him as we prepare for the upcoming legislative session," which convenes Jan. 16.
The other two names given to Abercrombie earlier in the day Monday were Natalie "Tasha" Kama - pastor, president and administrator for Christian Ministry Church - and Mary Wagner, business continuity plan manager for Maui County.
Debi Hartmann, executive director of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, described Keith-Agaran's appointment as "an excellent choice."
"I know that not only will he serve Maui extremely well, but he'll be an excellent member of the Senate. They're lucky to have him," Hartmann said.
Party district and precinct officers within the senatorial district had comprised an official nominating committee, which met over the weekend and narrowed down a list of seven applicants to the three finalists.
"We reviewed and vetted the applicants, and they are great prospects, so any one of them would be awesome," she had said before the governor's pick was announced.
Keith-Agaran was appointed to the House in 2009 by then-Gov. Linda Lingle after Rep. Bob Nakasone died. He was elected to the seat in 2010 and had again won re-election last year.
Abercrombie's appointment Monday happened to fall on the same date as Lingle's 2009 appointment.
"I don't know if it's a coincidence. . . . It was the same date," he said, noting that it also coincides with his wife, Kallie's, birthday.
"It's supposed to be her day. It really should be her day."
Keith-Agaran, a Maui High School graduate, holds a bachelor's degree in history from Yale College and is a graduate of Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California at Berkeley.
He's a partner in the Wailuku law firm of Takitani Agaran and Jorgensen.
Keith-Agaran previously held several state government positions, including as chairman and deputy director of the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources, director of Department of Labor and Industrial Relations and deputy director of the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs.
He also was a former director Maui County's Department of Public Works.
Mayor Alan Arakawa added his congratulations, saying in a statement: "Gil served as my Public Works Director during my first administration and has always proven to be very intelligent and capable. Gil was a fine representative, and I am confident he will be an exemplary state senator."
Hartmann said a nearly identical process would start to now fill Keith-Agaran's House District 9 seat, which covers Kahului, Puunene and parts of Wailuku.
"The district party chair will put out the call for candidates that would like to apply," she said. "With the upcoming legislative session, we all feel a sense of urgency to get this filled. So I'm sure we'll get the call out immediately and get the process going so that the House will have all of its members at the start of the session."
Interested candidates can visit hawaiidemocrats.org for more information.
* Nanea Kalani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.