Wildberger, Couch in rematch for South Maui district seat

Incumbent state lawmaker defends seat against former council member

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Maui News will be featuring the profiles and platforms of candidates in the lead up to the Aug. 8 primary election. Today’s story focuses on the race for the House District 11 seat. Stories on other races will be published in the coming days, with a special primary issue to be released on July 25.

State House Rep. Tina Wildberger says she is running for re-election “to continue the work of bringing accountability and responsiveness to our governance.”

“Over the last two sessions my office has worked with community members to address a variety of concerns involving our state departments,” she said by email.

Whether with state departments of Labor and Industrial Relations, Health or Agriculture, “South Maui constituents experience regular challenges with which my office is pleased to assist,” she said.

She faces a Democratic primary challenge from Don Couch, who ran for the seat two years ago.

Tina Wildberger

As the candidate filing deadline approached this year, Couch said he realized “I’m not seeing the cooperation and the collaboration that I used to see, so I’ll give it a try again.”

In his job as an executive assistant to Mayor Michael Victorino, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, “I have seen how very important teamwork is and collaboration with your colleagues,” Couch said.

“We’re not getting that at the state level,” he said. “I have a lot of good relationships with all of our delegation and also relationships with members of the House and Senate. I have experienced what it takes, especially during a situation like this, how the county and the state have to work together and be in more contact.”

The race is a rematch of sorts for the District 11 seat, which covers Kihei, Wailea and Makena.

In the 2018 election, first-time candidate Wildberger received 2,181 votes, or nearly 57 percent, to 1,505 votes, or 39 percent, for Couch, who previously held the Maui County Council South Maui residency seat for three terms starting in 2011. Lee Myrick received 161 votes, or 4 percent.

Don Couch

Looking back over her time in office, Wildberger, who owns Kihei Ice Inc., pointed out that she was “the first ‘no’ vote on the water theft bill” last year that would have continued Alexander & Baldwin’s temporary water diversion permits from East Maui streams.

“I have been outspoken about the need to protect our health care workers at our only hospital,” added Wildberger, who has previously criticized Maui Memorial Medical Center administration’s handling of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Most recently, she said she is working with conservationists to prevent the state Department of Health and the U.S. Navy from “bombing Molokini, South Maui’s most precious public trust resource.”

Agencies are considering ways to remove two World War II era unexploded ordnance off Molokini.

Both Wildberger and Couch said there’s a need to develop jobs outside of the tourist industry.

“As we continue to address this unprecedented pandemic, we cannot lose sight of our impending climate crisis,” Wildberger said. “I will work with colleagues to bring Green New Deal concepts to address our employment issues. Hawaii can put people to work doing energy efficiency projects all over the state. We can build an army of tree planters to sequester carbon. We can develop electric vehicle infrastructure statewide and mandate rental car companies convert their fleets to electric cars. All of these jobs are outside the tourism sector.”

Couch said the state needs to do more to support agriculture and high-tech businesses.

“We can see how bad it is when we rely almost 100 percent on tourism. Obviously, it’s not 100 percent, but it’s bad enough to be worrisome,” he said. “People have been saying we’ve got to diversify with agriculture. That sounds great, but we don’t have enough people who want to farm.

“We need to get farmers trained and make it easier for people to do agriculture on Maui.”

He said the state would attract more high-tech businesses with new cables to the Mainland and to Asia.

“One of our biggest limitations is our connectivity to the internet is old and we haven’t upgraded it,” said Couch, who works part time in IT.

As for tourism, Wildberger said, “With some imagination, we can improve our most lucrative economic sector by pivoting to a managed tourism model. Hawaii can implement a visitor environmental fee to help pay for impacts related to our visitor industry. The concept that more isn’t necessarily better will help Hawaii realize more revenue while minimizing negative impacts.”

She didn’t respond to an email asking for more details about the fee and how it would be imposed.

Couch said, “We can’t put an entry fee without all kind of legal issues with the U.S. Constitution.”

“If we just put a higher cost for coming here, we’re only looking at one segment of tourism,” he said.

The state might be an attractive location for retiring baby boomers “if we can get high-end medical facilities,” Couch said.

“It kind of could be medical tourism,” he said. “People are wanting to come here because we have done a good job of keeping the virus out.”

He said tourism needs to change from the way it was before the COVID-19 crisis.

“It was too much the way it was,” Couch said. “We can’t go back to the exact way it was, even the hotels know that. Everybody in the industry knows that. We have to get together with the leaders in the industry to figure out how we can control it a little bit so it’s not as devastating to the economy, to the environment. It’s a cumulative effect.

“We have to have that discussion. It’s got to be a hard discussion. We got to work on it, and now’s the time to do it.”

He said those discussions are occurring in the mayor’s office.

Wildberger, who has lived in Kihei for 26 years, was chairwoman of the Maui Tomorrow Foundation’s Clean Air Committee from 2013 to 2015.

She said she looks forward to completion of South Maui’s Hawaii Hazards Awareness and Resiliency Program to prepare the community for potential disasters.

Both she and Couch claim roles in starting the Fourth Friday Town Party in Kihei.

Couch, a 28-year Kihei resident, has volunteered with Hoaloha Aina, which recently completed a sand dune restoration project at Kamaole Beach Park I. As a council member, he initiated a fast change in zoning for land for the new Kihei high school. He also advocated to have the first traffic roundabout implemented in Kihei.

While working in the administration of former Mayor Alan Arakawa, he persuaded the mayor to use county funds to buy land in north Kihei for beach access. He said another potential buyer had planned to build houses on the land, which would have left no beach access along a stretch of South Kihei Road.

This time around, Couch said campaigning has changed because of the pandemic.

For example, he’s not going door to door. “And sign-waving is just inappropriate at this point. It doesn’t feel right,” he said. “It’s going to be mailers and social media and word of mouth.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.


Tina Wildberger

Age (optional): Declined

Town of Residence: Kihei

Party: Democrat

Current occupation: State representative, small business owner of Kihei Ice

Volunteer or community organization experience: Spearheading the Hawaii Hazards Awareness and Resilience

Program in South Maui; Chair, Maui Tomorrow Foundation’s Clean Air Committee

Political experience: Hawaii State House of Representatives, 2018-2020; Maui representative, Hawaii Invasive Species Council, 2018-2020; Member, National Conference of State

Legislatures Natural Resources & Infrastructure Committee, 2018-2020; Member, Council of State Governments West Energy Committee, 2018-2020

Family: Married


Don Couch

Age (optional): 64

Town of Residence: Kihei

Party: Democrat

Current occupation: Community liaison for Mayor Michael Victorino

Volunteer or community organization experience: Board member, Boys & Girls Clubs of Maui, 2004-2019; vice-chair/board member, Akaku Maui Community Media, 2010-present; Rotary Club of Kihei Sunrise.

Political experience: County Council Member, 2011-2017; Executive Assistant to Mayor Alan Arakawa, 2003-2006, 2017-2019; Community liaison to Mayor Michael Victorino, present

Family: Married


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