Four candidates vie for Gladys Baisa’s vacant Upcountry council seat
* Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of profiles on contested races in the primary election, set for Aug. 13. Stories will appear most days through Aug. 10. A complete look at all of the contested races was published in a special section on July 17.
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As one of two council seats open due to incumbent term limits, the Upcountry residency race is one of the most hotly contested this primary election.
Four candidates have stepped up to take Council Member Gladys Baisa’s place, and while all are new to the council scene they are no strangers to public service. As organizers, advocates, educators, musicians and volunteers, these candidates believe their experience, commitment to service and deep island roots have prepared them to represent the people of Upcountry and Maui County as a whole.
Only the top two candidates in this countywide nonpartisan race will move on to the general election on Nov. 8.
As a teacher and a performer, Napua Greig-Nakasone is skilled at taking the pulse of an audience. One sweep of the room will tell her whether she needs to adjust a lesson or a song to keep people engaged. It’s an ability that Greig-Nakasone plans to channel into government.
“I’m very much paying attention to my students and not just wanting them to pay attention to me,” Greig-Nakasone said. “And I think the same thing goes for leadership. If you’re connected and paying attention to the people you’re trying to work with, you can tell if they’re getting it or not getting it. And then you have to be able to switch.”
The 42-year-old Kula resident, an educator, kumu hula and entrepreneur, is running for the council seat because she “feels strongly that it’s time for my generation to lead.” Born and raised Upcountry, Greig-Nakasone was steeped in community, in a place where many parents had to work out of town and families looked out for each other’s kids, she said.
“Growing up Upcountry was certainly a treasure,” she said, smiling at the memory of rodeos and Komoda doughnuts. “I’ve never even thought of living anywhere else.”
Greig-Nakasone said her father, the late Jay Nakasone, was “extremely compassionate and community driven.” She said her mother, Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey, an Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee, is the “epitome of a strong woman” whose brutal honesty has prepared her daughter for the harsh light of public office.
A 1992 Kamehameha Schools graduate, Greig-Nakasone has taught cultural arts at Kalama Intermediate, Haleakala Waldorf, the Montessori schools in Makawao, Kamehameha Schools and Seabury Hall, while earning five Na Hoku Hanohano awards and leading her top-placing halau at the prestigious Merrie Monarch Festival.
A mother of four, Greig-Nakasone has co-founded two halau in Japan and said her experience marketing internationally taught her negotiation and interaction with diverse audiences. This, she said, would help her serve as a bridge between government and citizens.
“This community wants to be let in and included,” she said, adding that as a council member she would be willing to hold more night meetings to allow community participation. “We have to physically show our community that we’re not trying to hide and make decisions when they’re all busy at work.”
Greig-Nakasone said her foremost issue is affordable housing. She wants to see housing projects again require half of the units to be affordable and believes in creating more housing that’s affordable in perpetuity. She thinks the approval process needs to be more efficient and also likes “outside-the-box” options like tiny houses. As a former member of the state Land Use Commission, Greig-Nakasone said she’s experienced in balancing development and agriculture.
“Look at us on Maui. We are so unique,” she said. “I think that gives us strong negotiating power to say, ‘You want to build here? Then you make sure you’re building to suit this community.’ “
This year, Greig-Nakasone completed her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, covering everything from economy to agriculture to anthropology.
“Maybe I didn’t know that political office was in my career future, but I knew I had to be informed and educated on the different challenges that Maui County was facing, because I knew I had to be a part of some kind of solution,” she said.
For 12 years, Eric Molina’s voice traveled the airwaves as a radio disc jockey on Mana’o Radio 91.5 FM. On the Historic Iao Theater stage, his voice brought characters to life. Now, Molina hopes to become known as a different kind of voice – the voice of the people.
There are few things that the council candidate hasn’t been involved in. He’s been a Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. mill wright, a forester, a TV variety show host and an event planner. He’s a musician and a singer whose musical roots go back to when his family headlined the “number one dance band in the islands” from the 1930s to 1950s. But what’s also in his blood is politics. His uncles Manuel Molina and John Bulgo served on the county Board of Supervisors, and cousins Mike Molina and Joe Bulgo were County Council members.
“My family has always bred it into me that servitude and being involved in the community was so important,” Eric Molina said.
Molina was born on Maui but moved to Oregon with his mom, a nurse, when he was 8. Growing up among fishermen and hunters, he gained a passion for the environment, so after receiving his bachelor’s in history from Eastern Oregon University, he got a degree in forestry management at the University of Idaho.
Missing his family on Maui, Molina moved back in 2000 and took a job as a millwright, to the delight of relatives who grew up in Skill Village in Paia. Meanwhile, he landed a job at Mana’o Radio, initially working from midnight to 6 a.m. before his 6:30 shift at the sugar mill.
In 2007, his career shifted to resource forester with the Department of Land and Natural Resources and to manager of the Kula Vista Protea Farm in 2012.
“That gave me a lot more information about what is happening here with the aina,” he said.
Molina is interested in land rehabilitation and food independence and supports “positive and sustainable growth,” including the long-planned Upcountry-Kihei highway that he said would bring needed water and electric infrastructure.
One of the issues Molina plans to address is homelessness and housing. Recognizing the different categories of homelessness is crucial in finding solutions, he said, and wants to see the county work with more nonprofits to address mental health and drug issues. He also thinks the county must rethink “affordable” and diversify its housing.
Molina, 45, juggles three jobs, including events manager at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Keeping culture alive is his passion.
“There needs to be some changes to really promote culture and the arts in a way for more people to be involved,” he said.
Molina’s unique career path has taught him mediation skills that he said he would bring to the council. As a practitioner of “nonviolent communication,” he seeks out the needs beneath emotions.
“It’s trying to understand where people are coming from,” Molina said. “In my career, I’ve done a lot of personnel management. . . . Everybody has needs, and it’s important to make sure everyone’s needs are met.”
As a leader, Molina said he’s a listener.
“In management, you don’t tell somebody how to do something. You tell them what you want done and let them surprise you by their ingenuity,” he said. “I don’t have all the answers, and if somebody has a better decision or can open my eyes to another process, I am open.”
Stacey Moniz knows her story could’ve gone in many different directions.
A relationship with an abusive ex-husband who introduced her to drugs and threatened her family could have derailed her life. But Moniz shed the addiction, escaped the relationship and went on to run a nonprofit for domestic violence victims on Maui. Now, the Pukalani native has her sights set on the County Council.
“I’m very real. I have a very colorful past,” Moniz said. “That’s why I think I understand the experiences of real people because I’ve been there, done that, and I’ve made it through.”
Born in New Mexico but raised on Maui, Moniz said she’s always had a heart for the underdog. Her father was a car salesman and her mother was a nurse, whose example instilled Moniz with a compassionate nature. As a kid, she witnessed a best friend abused by her parents. In school, she stood between bullies and their targets on “Smear the Queer” and “Kill Haole” days.
But one of the toughest stands Moniz had to make was for herself – when she gathered up her two kids and moved to Oregon in 1988 to get away from her abusive ex-husband.
“Moving away from everyone I knew . . . changed my life completely,” Moniz said. “I came home, I was completely different. I was stronger.”
Women Helping Women, the nonprofit that came to her aid, offered her a job. In 1990, she got clean from cocaine and turned her energies to the nonprofit, of which she became deputy director in 1998 and then executive director in 2001. She’s served on multiple nonprofit and anti-domestic violence coalitions and helps train police recruits, court officials and medical professionals.
As director, Moniz said she understands how to interact with government and to bring together different parties for a common cause, which she believes will prove useful on the council. At times, the confidentiality of her nonprofit has been at odds with police. However, she’s learned how to “work with the system” and has helped change policy to benefit both investigators and victims.
Moniz believes “there’s room at the table for everyone” and said she seeks out diverse perspectives when making decisions.
“I’ve worked in systems that don’t always see eye to eye, and yet we come to a really good collaboration based on what’s in the best interest of our community,” Moniz said. “I think I’m good at finding win-win solutions.”
Affordable housing is her top issue. She advocated “smart growth” by preserving green spaces and building in places already equipped with infrastructure. Houses don’t have to be “two story with vaulted ceilings,” just simple and well-built, she said. She added that the county needs more homes affordable in perpetuity, and rental assistance for groups including the elderly, transient homeless and former inmates.
Moniz, 52, said she decided to run for County Council because she wanted “to have the biggest impact where it matters the most, which is my home.”
“Growing up in Pukalani gives me a connection to the area, a history, a unique understanding of how much things have changed in our community,” Moniz said. “I am helping to raise my grandchildren again in Pukalani, which feels so perfect.”
A 1982 Maui High School graduate, Moniz was the first girl to make the school’s football team. She lined up as an offensive guard – a metaphor for her career.
“I’ve been making holes for people ever since,” she said.
YUKI LEI SUGIMURA
When Yuki Lei Sugimura returned to Maui in the late 1990s, Wailuku was a “ghost town.” The “center of commerce” she’d known as a kid was in need of revitalizing, and then-Mayor James “Kimo” Apana asked her to take on the task. Organizing grass-roots efforts is what Sugimura does best, and her reward is seeing a place like Wailuku begin to regain its footing as a business and cultural hub.
“What I really do is community building,” Sugimura said. “Probably the most rewarding thing is to bring people together and have everybody be part of the solution.”
The Maui-grown small-business owner and event planner believes she’s ready to do the same as a council member.
“It’s always been kind of woven through my life. I’ve always been involved in politics and understanding how I can help people,” she said.
Sugimura, 63, said her drive for community service came from her father, a physician who made regular house calls even in the middle of the night. Civic involvement was something she “always wanted to do,” even at Baldwin High School, where she was senior class president.
After graduating from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Sugimura moved to California, where she and her husband ran a car dealership. Wanting their son to grow up “where you could walk down the street and see friends that you know,” the family moved to Upcountry in 1996.
In 1999, Sugimura began working for the county Office of Economic Development and became the Wailuku revitalization coordinator. She worked with business owners “to build trust and bring people back” to an area where many storefronts were closed. She helped build up the Wailuku First Friday block party started by business owner Teri Edmonds.
Since then, Sugimura has helped coordinate events that include the Maui Matsuri Japanese Festival and the 51st Makawao Rodeo Parade. She started her own event planning and promotions company, Connec Maui, in 2002.
Her work has given her experience building partnerships and including many voices in the decision-making process, she said. What Sugimura also believes has prepared her for the council is 15 years of government experience. She’s worked for former Mayor Apana and former Council Members Alice Lee and Dennis Nakamura, as well as the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, former U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka and current U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono.
Sugimura said she has a “good working relationship” with the current administration and council members and could foster healthy relations between the two branches. However, she’s “loyal to the people” over any political connections, and said as a legislator she would make decisions based on how they will impact “the common man.”
“What I think is really important is to speak out for the little guys, and that would be the working families of Maui,” she said. “The economy is being built on the backs of the common man. How can we be there to support them?”
Sugimura said her main issue is creating affordable housing while keeping Hawaii “a paradise.” She sees solutions in changing the minimum lot size for houses. She’s interested in down-payment assistance programs for first-time homebuyers. The county, she said, should sit down with developers to find out why approved projects haven’t been built yet, while finding ways to improve its approval process.
“There are so many stipulations added on . . . that we become our worst enemy,” she said. “What can we do in terms of helping ourselves?”
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at email@example.com.
Occupation: Halau Na Lei Kaumaka o Uka, nonprofit, president; Seabury Hall, educator; Pihana Productions, business owner
Education: Kamehameha Schools, Class of 1992; University of Hawaii at Manoa, Bachelor of Arts degree in interdisciplinary studies
Community service: Commissioner, State Land Use Commission, 2010-13; Halau Na Lei Kaumaka o Uka, nonprofit cultural organization, 1996-present; Waiohuli Hawaiian Homesteaders Association, board member, 2010-present; Maui Nui Botanical Gardens, board member, 2015-16
Family: Married, four children
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Occupation: Event manager, Panache Destination Management and Maui Arts & Cultural Center; former vice president, account manager with Larry John Wright Advertising
Education: Bachelors of Science degree (major in history, minor in music), Eastern Oregon University, 1993
Community service: Board member, Maui Academy of Preforming Arts, 2012-14; commissioner, county Commission of Culture and the Arts, 2011-13; board member, Akaku: Maui Community Television, 2011 to present; board member, Maui on Stage, 2009-12
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Birthplace: Albuquerque, N.M.
Occupation: Executive director, Women Helping Women
Education: Maui High School, Class of 1982
Community service: Soroptimist International of Maui, vice president, member 2012-present; Maui Non Profit Directors (past president), member 2001-present; Hawaii State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (former board member) member 1997-present; National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (former board member) member 2000-present
Family: Two children
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Yuki Lei Sugimura
Occupation: Small-business owner, Connec Maui, an event planning and promotions company, 2002-present; field representative for U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, 2013-15; field representative for U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka
Political experience: Maui Democratic Party, Maui vice chairwoman; State Central Committee, Coordinated Campaign; Maui re-election co-chairwoman for former U.S. Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka
Education: University of Hawaii at Manoa, Bachelor of Science degree; Baldwin High School graduate
Community service: 51st annual Makawao Rodeo Parade, co-chairwoman, 2016; Maui Memorial Medical Center Foundation board, 2016; Maui Korean War Veterans, honorary member, 2016; Maui Filipino Chamber of Commerce, board and member, 2015 to present; Epic Ohana, foster youth community coordinator, 2014 to present
Family: Married, one son