Familiar foes clash in state Senate forum

Democrats Baker, Amato; Green Party Shishido appear at Kihei event

Melissah Shishido (far left), Green Party candidate for the state Senate District 6 seat that covers South and West Maui, answers questions alongside Democratic challenger Terez Amato and incumbent Democratic Sen. Roz Baker during a Kihei Community Association candidate forum Tuesday night at St. Theresa Church. With the Aug. 11 primary election less than a month away, the association invited Senate and House candidates to speak on issues facing South Maui. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

KIHEI – Familiar opponents went head to head over issues of pesticides, the Kihei high school, the minimum wage and lobbyist donations at a forum held for South and West Maui’s state Legislature candidates Tuesday night at St. Theresa Church.

Incumbent Democratic Sen. Roz Baker, Democratic candidate Terez Amato and Green Party candidate Melissah Shishido, all of whom are running for the Senate District 6 seat that covers South and West Maui, appeared at the Kihei Community Association forum Tuesday.

Baker has held the Senate District 6 seat since 2002. Amato is a bookkeeper and farmer and Shishido is a former Oahu high school teacher and full-time student pursuing her master’s in education at the University of Hawaii Maui College.

Baker and Amato face off in the Democratic primary on Aug. 11 with the winner to take on Shishido in the Nov. 6 general election. The two Democratic candidates battled in the 2014 primary, which Baker won by a vote of 2,699, or 52.6 percent, to 2,213, or 43.1 percent, for Amato.

On Tuesday night, candidates faced a hot button issue right off the bat — the use of chemicals in agricultural operations. Gov. David Ige signed Senate Bill 3095, which became Act 45, that prohibits the use of pesticides within 100 feet of a school during instructional hours and bans the use of pesticides containing chlorpyrifos starting in 2019.

More than 100 people packed the hall at St. Theresa Church to hear the House and Senate candidates speak.

The bill also allows the state to issue temporary permits through 2022 to allow businesses time to adjust.

Amato said that “100 feet is not a buffer zone.”

“That’s not a win for our community yet,” Amato said. “But we can do better. We can make these changes. And four years for a chlorpyrifos ban? That means four more years these toxic pesticide sprayers can spray these chemicals right next to our schools.”

Shishido said that as a high school teacher for 21 years, “I thought that was the most ridiculous thing that was being discussed in the state Capitol in my entire life.” She also disagreed with the four-year adjustment period and said in the six years she’s lived in Kihei, she’s been hospitalized four or five times and has severe upper respiratory issues due to the spraying.

Baker, who voted in favor of the measure, said it was just a start.

“I know that for a lot of people, what the Legislature started is not a finishing point, and I agree,” Baker said. “But we had to start some place, and you have to start with what the basic consensus is that you can get. And I’m proud that we made a start.”

Kihei Association President Mike Moran also asked candidates about their thoughts on creating a safe crossing option at Piilani Highway for future Kihei high school students. Original conditions of the land use change required a safe pedestrian bicycle path either above or below ground, though Moran said the community is concerned the Department of Education may ask to remove the condition.

“I asked DOE if they were going to come in and try to get that provision taken back,” Baker said. “They said they didn’t know. They’re still thinking about it. I think there may be another alternative rather than a very expensive overpass that places have shown on the Mainland kids don’t use. Rather than waste money here, I’d like to see if we can find something that’s actually going to be safe but that the kids will use.”

Shishido countered that “whether or not they do it on the Mainland or here, I think a study should be done here.” She also said the long-awaited high school is one of the reasons she’s running.

“I don’t understand why it takes that long,” Shishido said. “Whatever needs to be done, I plan on finding out what it is.”

Amato said she would work with the department “to make sure our kids get to school safely each and every day, even if I walk over there and I cross with the kids.”

“We’ve got to make sure our kids are safe whether it’s overpass or whatever,” Amato said. “I will also work very hard to get the job done so our kids are safe and the school is built now.”

The school had once been scheduled to open in 2014 on 77 acres mauka of the intersection of Piilani Highway and Kulanihakoi Street, but that opening year was pushed back to 2016 and later to 2020. The current plan is for students to be phased in.

All three candidates also supported raising the minimum wage to at least $15, which Amato said was “a great start, but what we need is a living wage.” Baker suggested a phased increase as has been done in the past with minimum wage hikes. Shishido expressed her support for a higher minimum wage by recounting her days teaching, tutoring and “throwing bags at the airport” to put her three children through school as a single parent.

“I would sleep standing up against the walls at Honolulu International Airport because it held me up because of the grooves on the wall,” she said. “So you’re talking to someone who lived on the level of poverty on my teacher’s salary.”

Throughout the forum, Amato took veiled and direct shots at Baker, saying that it was time for a new lawmaker who didn’t accept money from corporations and lobbyists. She touted her endorsement from the Hawaii State Teachers Association over Baker, “because they knew that it was time for a change, time for someone whose children actually attended Maui’s public schools.”

Amato also promised to install webcams in her office “so there will be no backroom deals,” and the public could listen in on all meetings.

Baker responded that “you actually have a full-time senator who works for the people, not for any corporation or not for lobbyists.” She added that it was “curious that my opponent said she won’t take any money from lobbyists, yet she had a $2,000 check from the HSTA, which is primarily a lobbying organization.”

(The HSTA is a union that represents more than 13,700 public school teachers statewide and also has seven registered lobbyists, according to the Hawaii State Ethics Commission website.)

“Be that as it may, the point is you have to work with all kinds of people,” Baker said of being a senator.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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