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Hopefuls for Ing seat come from diverse backgrounds

Hawaii House of Representatives, District 11 (Kihei, Wailea and Makena)

Don Couch

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s election feature focuses on candidates seeking the 11th House District seat, part of The Maui News coverage of contested Maui County races in the Aug. 11 primary election. Stories on other races will be published in the days leading up to the election. A primary election voter guide offering details on all county and state House and Senate contests was included in Sunday’s edition.

For The Maui News

When South Maui voters head to the primary polls to cast their ballots for the 11th District state House of Representatives, they’ll have three Democratic candidates to choose from.

A fourth contender, nonpartisan candidate Daniel Kanahele, would need to get 10 percent of the vote cast in the August primary contest or receive votes equal to or greater than the nominated partisan candidate to advance to the November general election.

The three Democrats — a former Maui County Council member, a special education teacher and a small-business owner — hope to fill the seat that will be vacated by Rep. Kaniela Ing, who is in the race for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District in urban Oahu.

Lee Myrick

The Democratic candidate who receives the most votes in the primary election on Aug. 11 will advance to the general election on Nov. 6. If Kanahele fails to garner the needed votes, the winner of the primary will become the state representative for South Maui.

Kanahele did not respond to requests for election information from The Maui News.

Tina Wildberger

Twenty years ago, as she stood watching bits of black ash rain down from the smoky Kihei sky, Tina Wildberger decided she’d had enough.

That’s when she sat down and started writing. At first, it was letters to the editor; then it was a series of social media posts. It wasn’t long before her name became synonymous with “clean air,” and in 2012 she joined Maui Tomorrow Foundation’s board of directors and chaired the organization’s clean air committee.

Tina M. L. Wildberger

At the time, Wildberger had no intention of entering the political arena, but after months of advocating for and educating residents about clean air initiatives, she developed a keen interest in legislative matters.

In 2016, she managed the campaign of first-time candidate Kelly King and helped her win the South Maui residency seat on the Maui County Council. That same year, Wildberger became a member of the inaugural class of The Kuleana Academy, a leadership development and nonpartisan candidate training program.

Two years later, Wildberger says she’s proud to be part of the record-setting wave of women running for office and is inspired by the primary victories of Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York. Like Abrams and Ocasio-Cortez, Wildberger is a progres-sive Democrat and says she decided to toss her hat into the ring because she couldn’t stand idly by and watch “the systematic dismantling of our democracy.”

A top-priority issue is the completion of the long-delayed Kihei high school, which Wildberger proposes be named Patsy Mink High School to honor the late U.S. representative, who grew up on Maui. Noting the comparatively expeditious construction of the new Kihei Charter School campus, which opens this month, she said, “It should not be taking this long.” Even if requires daily visits to the state Department of Education, Wildberger says she would take all necessary measures to ensure continued progress.

In addition, if elected, Wildberger says she would advocate for a decentralized state Department of Education, noting there are more than 1,000 vacant teaching positions statewide. By increasing teachers’ pay and ensuring classrooms are up to par — including air conditioning in every room — she said the state can attract and retain high-quality educators. And to fund Hawaii’s schools, Wildberger said the state should move toward legalizing adult-use marijuana, which would not only raise tax revenue but also create other economic opportunities.

Affordable housing is another top priority for Wildberger, who would collaborate with her fellow legislators and the Maui County Council to secure property and funds to build more workforce housing. In addition, she would push for a larger percentage of the transient accommodations tax to be returned to the counties to fund workforce housing projects.

An unapologetic environmentalist, Wildberger takes clean water issues as seriously as clean air issues. As a volunteer for the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, Wildberger routinely conducts water quality testing and says state oversight is sorely needed but is lacking due to inadequate staffing and funding.

With that in mind, she proposes a reorganization of the state departments of Health and Agriculture and the creation of a state Department of Environment, a state EPA. Wildberger said she would also work diligently to increase “collaboration, cooperation and communication” among state agencies, as well as members of the House and Senate.

“I’m running for office because I want to stand up for South Maui,” she said. “I walk my own talk.”

Don Couch

When he was hired by Hewlett-Packard as a company troubleshooter in 1986, Don Couch fielded a seemingly endless stream of phone calls. He didn’t know it at the time, but the experience would prepare him to address, consider and respond to the concerns of constituents as an elected official.

Couch worked in the computer industry for several years before moving to Maui in 1990. During the 1998 election, he got a crash course in Hawaii politics when he co-moderated debates and hosted candidate forums on his twice-weekly show, “Opinions Maui,” on Akaku Maui Community Media. That same year, he joined the Maui County Board of Ethics, an experience that led him to consider a career in public service.

Couch entered politics in 2002 when he ran for the state Senate 6th District seat, ultimately losing to Sen. Roz Baker. Not long after, he went to work as an executive assistant to Mayor Alan Arakawa during his first term. In 2010, he threw his hat in the ring for the South Maui residency seat on the Maui County Council and won. He went on to serve three consecutive terms, lost a bid for a fourth term to Kelly King in 2016 and currently is again an executive assistant to Arakawa.

During his tenure as council member, Couch says he accomplished a great deal; he is particularly proud of paving the way for Kihei’s Fourth Friday Town Party events; championing infrastructure improvements and spearheading efforts to make South Maui more walkable and bikeable; and addressing traffic issues — including fighting for the construction of Maui’s first roundabout in Kihei.

“The people in the administration nicknamed it ‘the Couchabout’ due to my constant passion to get it instead of a traffic signal,” he said.

Couch noted he’s already familiar with the legislative process and has established rapport with many state legislators in his current role as the mayor’s executive assistant, and if he’s elected, he will pick up where he left off — but at the state Capitol instead of the Maui County Council Chambers.

He said his legislative priorities would include finishing Kihei’s north-south collector road and continue pushing the long-awaited Kihei high school to the finish line.

“I’m proud to have led the effort by the Maui County Council to initiate the change in zoning that was required for the land on which the new high school is located,” Couch said. And as the mayor’s executive assistant, he said, “I worked hard with several state and county departments to clear the permitting holdup for the new school.” 

Finding solutions to the affordable housing shortage would also be at the top of his legislative agenda. As a council member, he advocated for and got approved two affordable housing projects in South Maui that will add more than 300 rental units.

“But 300 is not nearly enough,” he said.

At the state level, he would work to obtain land and help the county with infrastructure so developers can build more affordable homes.

Couch also said he would work to expand services for chronically homeless individuals grappling with addiction and mental health issues.

It’s a hefty to-do list, but Couch says he’s up to the task and prepared to hit the ground running.

“I know how to get things done,” he said. “And I’m ready to go.”

Lee Myrick

Lee Myrick has worn a lot of hats: He is an Army veteran, former college football player, business owner, teacher, and now a candidate for public office.

Myrick decided to enter the race one week before the filing deadline; this is his first foray into politics.

“One of my students asked me, ‘Mister, why aren’t you running for office?’ ” he explained. “That’s when I decided to do it.”

Myrick is a special education paraprofessional at Baldwin High School. He says his job experience has given him a clear-eyed perspective of Hawaii’s public education system. And education is something he’s always taken seriously.

Myrick has six college degrees under his belt: liberal arts, communication management, accounting, supervision and management, hospitality and tourism and higher education.

“My education makes me prepared for any inevitability,” he said.

Myrick said he is “running on leadership” and points to his resume as evidence of his ability to lead. He joined the U.S. Army in 1986 and was named the 25th Infantry Division’s Soldier of the Year the following year. Additionally, the former University of Hawaii football player was honored with the team’s Scout Team Player of the Year Award his freshman year; he was also a member of the 1992 Rainbow Warriors team that was inducted into the 35th class of the UH Sports Circle of Honor in 2017.

Myrick moved from Oahu to Maui in 1996 to open two Fast Kine Tanning stores in Kihei and Lahaina. He also worked as a concert promoter and owned and operated Island Studios and Pizza Express.

In 1997, Myrick helped establish the South Maui Youth Basketball League and has coached youth sports and NFL Flag Football for more than 20 years.

If elected, he plans to tackle a number of issues but says the first order of business would be ensuring the Kihei high school is on the road to completion.

“It should have been done a long time ago,” he said. “I’ll be the first to get it done. Just check my history — I’ve been the first to do a lot . . . and I will be the first to get the school built.”

Myrick said his No. 2 priority is addressing homelessness, which he says has reached a crisis point on Maui and across the state. He said he would work to create a designated task force that would provide more comprehensive services to unsheltered individuals. He also would advocate for more rehabilitation centers and facilities that offer treatment tailored to the particular needs of the individual.

Myrick said immediate action must be taken to meet the housing needs of Maui’s lowest income residents. While it is largely a county issue, he said the housing crisis can be alleviated by eliminating barriers to the construction of more truly affordable homes.

“Every year we keep talking about this . . . and only luxury homes are being built,” he said.

Myrick said he would push to change zoning laws so developers could build smaller, more affordable homes. He is also a proponent of “tiny home” developments.

Additionally, he is in favor for increasing wages so the cost of living is within reach of Hawaii’s working class.

“I’m a fighter for the working class,” he said. “A good leader gets it done by prioritizing and being accountable. I’m that kind of leader.”

*****

Don Couch

Party: Democratic

Age: 62

Birthplace: Long Beach, Calif.

Residence: Kihei

Occupation: Assistant to the Mayor; former Maui County Council member

Political experience: Maui County Council member, 2011-16

Education: Boise State University; Long Beach City College

Community service: Board member, Boys & Girls Clubs of Maui 2004 to present; vice chairman/board member, Akaku Maui Community Media, 2010 to present

Family: Married

*****

Lee Myrick

Party: Democratic

Age: 51

Residence: Kihei

Occupation: Special education paraprofessional

Military service: 15 years Army veteran; Soldier of the year, 1987

Education: Walden University, Master of Science in higher education, 2016; University of Hawaii Maui College, associate of science degree in hospitality and tourism, 2011; University of Hawaii at Manoa, Bachelor of Arts degree in communication management, 1992; Leeward Community College, accounting, 1991; Leeward Community College, associate of science degree in supervision and management, 1990; Leeward Community College, associate of arts degree in liberal arts, 1989

Community service: Coach and mentor Maui Youth Basketball league for over 20 years; coached NFL flag football; University of Hawaii beach cleanup; donated over 100 turkeys for Thanksgiving holiday; high school public speaker about life choices

*****

Tina M. L. Wildberger

Party: Democratic

Age: 53

Residence: Kihei

Occupation: Owner, president of Kihei Ice Inc.

Education: Georgia State University, Bachelor of Arts degree in French/international business, 1988

Community service: Organized Kihei’s 4th Friday Town Party, 2011-12; board of directors Maui Tomorrow Foundation, 2012-15; chair, Clean Air Committee

Family: Married

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