Farmer takes on veteran Upcountry House member

Winner of District 12 primary will claim seat

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last of The Maui News profiles on major races in the lead-up to the Aug. 8 primary election. Voters have received their ballots and begun mailing them in as part of the state’s first all-mail election. Today’s story focuses on the race for the House District 12 seat. Information on all contested races for the County Council and state House in the primary election are published in a special primary issue in today’s paper.

A farmer and watershed conservationist faces off against a veteran lawmaker and business owner in the Aug. 8 primary election for the Upcountry seat in the state House.

Voters in the district will have to decide between Makawao resident Simon Russell, a second-generation farmer who advocates for sustainable agriculture and water systems, or Kyle Yamashita, who has held the House of Representatives District 12 seat since 2004 and currently holds a key post on the powerful House Finance Committee, overseeing capital improvement project allocations.

Sustainable agriculture, economic growth and education are shared passions among the candidates in the Democratic primary. Both also are focused on increasing water access in the district, which includes Pukalani, Makawao, Spreckelsville, Olinda, Pulehu, Kula and Ulupalakua.

The winner of the primary will win the seat.

Simon Russell


Russell grows produce not only for the enjoyment of tending to a farm, but because he sees the potential in sustainable agriculture on a grander scale, especially Upcountry where the district is known for its small ranchers and business owners.

If elected, protecting and preserving Maui County’s water systems are a top priority for the candidate, a longtime farmer and father of four, who currently helps local producers through Hui O Malama ‘Aina LLC, an agricultural consulting company, and Farm Maui LLC, a licensed contracting company focused on farm operations and management.

“That’s why I grow food, because it makes people happy. I’m not growing it to get rich, but I love the looks people give when I give them a fresh box of produce, and it’s really gratifying to be a producer,” Russell said. “I think for our economic functionality here, we need a change in direction. We’ve been a service-based economy for decades.”

Ohana, kumu, loli and aina — family, educators, climate change adaptation and land — are the pillars of his campaign and the guiding principles to Upcountry’s future success, he said. That future includes food and job security for families, safe and sustainable education systems, as well as a diversified, modernized and resilient economy.

Kyle Yamashita

And realizing that vision begins with water.

“Without secure and healthy watersheds, life on these islands will not thrive,” he said. “I’m really inspired to run for office to make sure Upcountry has plenty of water and also be able to store water at elevation, and get rid of that water-meter waiting list that’s about 3,000 people long.”

The county has a list of parties waiting for meters as water becomes available.

Given the economic rifts that the COVID-19 pandemic caused, Russell said this is a good opportunity to reach a “better normal” by refocusing on production rather than tourism and hospitality.

“I’d like to have an agricultural and semi-industrial base to make materials for building,” he said. “I’d like to see hemp and bamboo and other wood fibers on our ag lands to produce houses, combined with modern technology like 3D printing and artificial intelligence, and keep all the money here if possible.

“We could make really good jobs, and we could do it quick,” he added. “Every house needed to be built on Maui could be done in five years with hemp and bamboo.”

Ideally, the candidate envisions a self-sustaining community.

“We can’t be reliant on the Mainland for our nutrients,” he said. “We have to be able to fish, and grow our food, fuel and fiber. As a farmer, I know that I have to be realistic. I know that growing vegetables for a living will not pay a modern day mortgage.”

There are also many “good paying jobs” in creating public works programs that involve growing native species, eradicating invasive plants, fixing roads, building pipelines and clearing ditches, as well as managing and restoring the East Maui watershed, which needs major repairs and upgrades.

Up to 40 percent of water in East Maui is lost in transmission to Central Maui and Upcountry due to cracks in the system, Russell said. He plans to address these concerns to ensure that cultural practices, nearshore ecosystems, farmers and fish have continued access to water.

“In my core, I think that’s the kind of work that would benefit all future generations and that everybody can agree on,” he said. “I think people will feel uniquely obligated to help with and participate in this because it’s always in our interest to make sure we have water.”

Beyond water and reducing the impacts of climate change, the candidate wants the state Department of Education staff and students to be “well cared for and well educated.”

He envisions offering cost-of-living adjustments for teachers and other DOE workers, subsidizing housing for teachers on state lands, and creating college tuition waivers based on time served in the DOE.

“If we are losing 60 percent of the new hires at the same time as the workforce is aging out and retiring, that’s catastrophic for our future, so I’m determined when I’m elected to back all of our teachers and to make sure they can live here,” he said. “The starting pay for teachers is too low to afford the cost of living here. I think the cost of living will be lowered by an affordable housing component in their contract, as well as, hopefully, no student debt.”

When asked how he would make the transition to become a lawmaker, the candidate said he has spent many years in leadership positions, including as a former Hawaii Farmers Union Foundation president, U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency member and HFUU U.S. Legislative Committee chairman.

“I really like systems of governance, lines of authority, accountability and transparency,” he said.

“Those things are really important to me and how our society is directed and managed.”


For almost 16 years, the incumbent House member has been representing the Upcountry district, a community where he and his wife, Karen, raised their two sons, who graduated from King Kekau-like High School in Pukalani.

While he supports sustainable agriculture, he also continues to be committed to economic growth by balancing the needs of business and labor.

“We are a unique district, with many challenges but also many opportunities,” he said Friday. “I am passionate about supporting our local schools, working families, farmers and business owners, making Maui a better place for the next generation.”

If reelected, one of his top priorities will be increasing the area’s access to water and already has been working on building more infrastructure to increase water supply for residents, as well as exploring ways to store water when it rains to reduce the impacts of stormwater runoff on streams and shorelines.

“Many families in Upcountry Maui are still on the waiting list for a water meter,” he said. “I will continue to seek funding to build a well and transmission system that can pump water Upcountry.”

To show support for small farmers and businesses, Yamashita organized two food donation drives with local produce from farms to help families and organizations in need this past month. He said he’s also making sure that funds given by the U.S. Department of Agriculture will “reach small farmers and help them survive in these difficult times.”

If reelected, he also wants to continue to address the high cost of living in Hawaii. For the past several years, Yamashita said he’s asked local economists and tax experts “to make recommendations to improve our tax structure and reduce land purchases or ownership by nonresidents.”

“This has artificially inflated the cost of land and reduces availability for affordable housing and local businesses,” he added. “We need to revisit our tax structure to try to address the underlying causes of the high cost of living.”

Affordable housing has long been a priority, Yamashita added. He has advocated for resources needed to build affordable rental units and to help developers with infrastructure costs.

When asked if Maui County should focus on diversifying the economy after seeing the impacts of COVID-19, Yamashita said he supports innovation industries, like astronomy, aquaculture and advanced research.

He introduced bills to support local breweries, farmers and ranchers, as well as to create a manufacturing grant program.

“I voted in favor of research tax credits, film tax credits and high technology tax credits to promote investment in these areas,” said Yamashita, who is a member of the House Finance Committee and member — and former chairman — of the House Committee on Economic Development and Business.

During the pandemic, he has been working to ensure that everyone entitled to unemployment benefits is receiving them and that unemployment claims are being processed.

“My office has assisted many constituents who are frustrated with the delays and lack of response from DLIR (Department of Labor and Industrial Relations),” he said. “This past session, I also supported Senate Bill 126, which included $36 million for retraining and workforce development programs. We also appropriated $10 million in the CIP budget to upgrade the UI (unemployment insurance) computer system.”

Yamashita has been a member of the Parent Teacher Student Association at King Kekaulike and a scoutmaster for Pukalani Troop 75, as well as working closely with the State Broadband Taskforce to help rural communities gain more access to the internet.

Education is “foundational for our economy and state,” he said, and is one of his top priorities for Upcountry. Last month, Yamashita said he supported House Bill 1523, which provided $6.4 million for the DOE to purchase supplies for distance learning.

“We are carefully monitoring the DOE’s plans to reopen our local schools and trying to support students, families and staff as they adjust to this new normal,” he said. “It is my hope that after a few months of schools operating, we can revisit the procedures and social distancing requirements to welcome back more students on campus in a safe environment.”

Since being in office, Yamashita said he has helped fund many CIP projects for Upcountry, including $40 million for the King Kekaulike Performing Arts Center and track and field improvements; $93 million for Kula, Makawao, Pukalani, Kalama and Kekaulike schools; $12 million for Hawaiian Home Land Waiohuli-Keokea lot development and improvements; $500,000 for University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Kula Ag Station irrigation improvements; and $8.5 million for expansion and infrastructure at Kula Agricultural Park, which consists of 31 farm lots.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.



Age: 46

Residence: Makawao

Party: Democrat

Current occupation: Farmer and landscaping contractor

Volunteer or community organization experience: U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency State Committee member, State of Hawaii Board of Agriculture Maui County representative, Makawao Elementary School PTA president, Agriculture Working Group member, Haleakala Chapter Hawaii Farmers Union United member, Maui County Farm Bureau member, Upcountry Rotary Club member, Hawaii Farmers Union Foundation founding president, HFUU State Legislative Committee chairman, HFUU state vice president, GMO Free Maui founding member and secretary, Maui Community College Student Government treasurer and secretary

Military service: No

Political Experience: Registered lobbyist with Maui County and the State of Hawaii for Hui ‘O Malama ‘Aina LLC, 2018-present; advocate for food security and sustainable agriculture with the Hawaii State Legislature and Maui County, 2012-present

Family: Married, four children



Age: 60

Residence: Makawao

Party: Democrat

Current occupation: State legislator

Volunteer or community organization experience: Currently Boy Scouts of America Merit Badge Counselor, formerly Eagle Scout Annual Recognition Dinner Committee member, Boy Scouts of America Annual Council Dinner Committee member

Military service: No

Political experience: Hawaii House of Representatives, 2004-present

Family: Married since 1984, two adult sons


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