Longtime incumbent faces off against political newcomer
Mike Molina and Aja Eyre in race for Makawao-Haiku-Paia seat on the council
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Maui News will be featuring the profiles and platforms of candidates in the lead-up to the Nov. 3 general election. Today’s story focuses on the race for the County Council’s Makawao-Haiku-Paia residency seat. Stories on other races will be published in the Weekender; a special general election issue was published in last Saturday’s issue.
As he seeks reelection to his seventh term on the Maui County Council, Mike Molina says he wants to continue working on long-term projects, including ones focusing on affordable housing.
“I have a passion for public service,” said Molina, who holds the council’s Makawao-Haiku-Paia residency seat. “I will continue to prioritize affordable housing, address the needs of houseless individuals and help rebuild and diversify our economy.
“I will continue to support open and responsive government and to be a cooperative bridge builder on the council. We live in challenging times, which require calm, level-headed leadership with a strong cooperative work ethic. These are qualities that I possess, and I would be honored to serve Maui County again.”
He is facing a challenge from political newcomer Aja Eyre, a small business consultant who concedes, “I’m going against the most well-known politician on island, probably.”
“People have teased me, ‘Why did you choose to run against the nicest guy on the council?’ “ Eyre said. “Mike is a great guy, and he does a great job. But it’s kind of time for a changing of the guard.
“I’m frustrated with how the county runs, so I felt like there was an opportunity for new leadership. I’m a young parent and have a lot of skin in the game here. I have a vested interest in how well the county does and the services it provides and the way it helps small businesses and farms. Those are all very important to me because I’m raising a family here and running small businesses.”
Eyre said she “felt really honored” to be endorsed by the Maui Pono Network coalition, which describes itself as a grassroots organization of volunteers.
Molina has received endorsements from the Sierra Club of Hawaii, United Public Workers, Hawaii Government Employees Association and Hawaii Fire Fighters Association. “I look at it as something unique that I can appeal to diverse groups, which is something you seldom see,” Molina said.
Before term limits kept him from running again, Molina served on the council from 2001 to 2010.
He authored the charter amendment to create an affordable housing fund, created the first-time homebuyers program and introduced an outdoor lighting bill meant to minimize the impact of lighting on flight paths of birds.
He also introduced the bill that led to a ban on plastic bags, which he calls “my big baby.”
“I’m very proud of that,” he said.
Molina worked as an executive assistant to Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa from 2011 to 2018 before running again for the council seat when council Chairman Mike White decided not to seek reelection.
When he took office in 2019, Molina noted he became part of the first council with a majority of women as members.
He says he has a “positive working relationship with all members.”
“It’s been an interesting term,” he said. “I have enjoyed every moment.
“I just enjoy the dynamics of politics, engaging with people, hearing ideas and opinions. I think it’s healthy. We can learn from each other.”
If reelected, Molina said he would like to continue pursuing creation of a county Housing Department by separating the function from the Department of Housing and Human Concerns. His proposal to do that was one vote short of being included on this year’s ballot as a proposed charter amendment.
“If we had a separate housing department, they could put more energy and more time into seeking more housing opportunities on county land,” he said. “People’s needs are multiplying by the day, so we can have one department focus on housing.”
Molina also has proposed a comprehensive affordable housing plan.
“We really have no plan at all for where we want to establish affordable housing here on Maui,” he said. “You can’t start something without a plan.”
As it is, developers approach the county with proposals.
“I think the county should go into the business of building housing again, like we used to at one time,” Molina said. “We should initiate the development of affordable housing, rather than have the developer initiate it.”
Another proposal would establish a Haiku-Paia advisory committee that would be modeled after the Hana Advisory Committee to the Maui Planning Commission.
Had the committee been in place at the time, it could have done an earlier review to try to alleviate residents’ concerns over the controversial Northshore Zipline, Molina said.
“We should empower our communities with a bigger say rather than waiting for a matter to go to the planning commission,” he said. “Why not start it off right in the heart of the community?”
Eyre, who is from Blakely Island in Washington state, has lived for 10 years on Maui, where her husband has extended family.
Her community work has included being parent representative on the King Kekaulike High School Community Council and serving in leadership and volunteer roles with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I’m new to politics, but I’m definitely not new to involvement,” she said.
She said she decided to run for office after seeing the difficulties faced by small businesses that she works with.
“I would like to see the county be more friendly to small businesses and farms,” she said. “There’s a lot of regulations, a lot of taxation, and it’s still incredibly difficult to run a business here.
“It seems like there’s no one that can really help through the maze and the confusion of what regulations there are in the county. It shouldn’t be that way. It should be more profitable to run a small business here.”
Eyre said she supports a charter amendment that would create a county Department of Agriculture as a way of helping smaller farms to get established.
She also supports fewer taxes on small businesses.
“We should tax our small businesses less,” she said. “We overtax our local and small businesses and our farms, and we under-tax the other corporations.”
Eyre said she understands that a majority of tourism dollars don’t stay on the island.
“So we don’t have a lot of wealth that stays here. Our economy is upside down. We have a booming economy, but none of that stays here.
“I don’t think it’s because the people that are in office aren’t well meaning and don’t want to change it,” she said. “Sometimes, you got to have a change of leadership to get some creativity in there.”
As for affordable housing, “The same people have been in office for the last 20 years, and I’ve heard them say the same thing about affordable housing,” Eyre said.
“And nothing’s changed,” she said. “In fact, it’s gotten worse. You don’t see any remedy. More and more families are not able to afford to live here.”
Eyre said she and Molina agree on most things.
Both candidates said the COVID-19 pandemic could have been handled better.
“We needed just a very clear and intelligent plan that made sense,” Eyre said. “Things like saying you can’t sit on the beach but you could walk on the beach — the regulations that were put into place didn’t match up with how viruses transfer.”
With four school-age children in distance learning at home, she questioned why schools haven’t come up with a plan for having students return to the classroom despite having seven months to plan.
Molina said there should have been more emphasis on using personal protective equipment and maintaining social distancing. “Too many people stopped observing these requirements when restrictions were lifted,” he said.
He also said “there were several missed opportunities” to help with economic recovery.
State and local governments should have implemented temporary hiring, Molina said. He said he proposed to the mayor that the county increase federal CARES Act funding to the Hawaii Laulima Emergency Partnership to help county residents pay for essential needs. The program gave $400 to a family of four in the county, compared with $2,000 handed out on Oahu, Molina said.
With a drop in revenue during the pandemic, “the next council will have to prioritize the needs of the community,” Molina said.
“It’s going to be a challenge, but we’ll just have to take it one item at a time,” he said. “You may see a little tug of war between council members. The council’s going to have to make some tough decisions.”
While services like trash pickup and police service will be among priorities, he said “nonprofits may be affected by the lack of revenue.”
Eyre said less government spending is in line with her philosophy.
“I am very fiscally conservative, for sure,” she said. “I see more of it as government get out of the way, government not have fingers in everything. I’m very anti throwing money at problems.”
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.