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DeCoite seeks Senate seat with English retiring

Democratic Party will nominate three candidates, governor to decide

LYNN DECOITE Seeks Senate seat

Rep. Lynn DeCoite, Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English’s pick to take his place once he retires, is throwing her hat into the ring for English’s Senate District 7 seat, which covers a broad swath of East and Upcountry Maui, Molokai and Lanai.

DeCoite is the first to publicly announce her intention to vie for the District 7 seat after English on Tuesday revealed plans to retire as he deals with the long-term effects of COVID-19.

“There is no doubt that Senator English leaves very big shoes to fill,” DeCoite said in a statement on Wednesday. “Our district needs someone who will foster the relationships that he has built and continue to ensure that resources are properly allocated to our rural communities.”

DeCoite, who represents East Maui, Molokai and Lanai, said that since coming to the Legislature in 2015, she’s worked with English to help secure more than $600 million in grants and capital improvement projects for the district. English said Tuesday that he supported DeCoite to fill the seat, given her familiarity with the district.

“I’m confident that if appointed, I can hit the ground running and continue my work of improving the quality of life for all who call Maui Nui home,” DeCoite said. “I’m deeply honored to have Senator English’s confidence and support and look forward to engaging with the Maui Democratic Party and their members during this appointment process.”

Rep. Lynn DeCoite (left) and Sen. J. Kalani English visit Lanai in March. After English announced his retirement on Tuesday and endorsed DeCoite as his replacement, DeCoite said Wednesday that she planned to vie for the seat. Democratic Party officers from the precincts will select three names to send to Gov. David Ige, who has 60 days to fill the vacancy. LYNN DECOITE photo

According to state law, Democratic Party officers from the 15 precincts in Senate District 7 will select three names to send to Gov. David Ige for consideration to English’s position. The governor has 60 days to fill the vacancy.

Stephanie Ohigashi, chairwoman of the Maui County Committee of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, said that the officers of House Districts 12 and 13, which are within Senate District 7, will coordinate the process of replacing English.

Maui County Council Member Yuki Lei Sugimura and Kaupo resident Jonathan Starr are the chairs of Districts 12 and 13, respectively. (Ohigashi said there are no restrictions on elected officials also serving as Democratic Party chairs.)

A group of electors in the districts will decide which three names to send to the governor. Ohigashi said that the deadlines for applications, interviews and elections are still to be decided, but that they “hope to get everything done before the end of May.”

Applicants must be certified members of the Democratic Party of Hawaii for a minimum of six months, and Ohigashi said that party officials will also look into each candidate’s alignment with party platforms and their level of involvement at the precinct and district levels.

Maui state Sens. J. Kalani English (from left), Roz Baker and Gil Keith-Agaran are pictured in 2015. Baker and Keith-Agaran bid their longtime colleague a fond farewell after English announced his retirement this week. FRIENDS OF GIL KEITH-AGARAN photo

“It’s going to be really comprehensive on how these people are going to be elected by their peers,” she said.

The committee chairwoman, who doesn’t live in the district and won’t be voting in the process, said she is staying neutral.

“I think all the candidates that I’ve heard so far could be as dynamic and successful as Kalani,” said Ohigashi, who declined to say who else might seek English’s seat.

Sen. Roz Baker, English’s longtime colleague and one of three Maui County lawmakers in the Senate, is endorsing DeCoite to fill the District 7 seat. As a Molokai resident and representative for most of the district, DeCoite understands the issues of transportation, infrastructure and other needs in the area, Baker said.

“Of course they have different personalities and different styles, but I know that Lynn is going to be able to step right in and be effective for her district, and I look forward to working with her as a colleague,” Baker said, adding that she’s “excited” about the prospect of another woman lawmaker in the Senate. If DeCoite or another female candidate were appointed, women would make up 10 of the 25 state senators.

While English’s nearly 25 years of experience and seven years as Senate Majority Leader will be hard to replace, Baker said that “the Maui delegation has always been a strong one.” Baker, who’s been a state lawmaker for about 30 years, chairs the Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee, while Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, a state lawmaker since 2009, is the vice-chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, two of the three “A-bracket” committees that serve major roles in the Senate.

Baker said that she would miss English, not only for his leadership but also for his articulate voice on many issues.

“I’ll always treasure Kalani’s advice and counsel, and I expect that if Gil and I get stuck on a Native Hawaiian issue or something that we know Kalani was passionate about, we’ll not hesitate to pick up the phone and ask him for his advice,” Baker said.

Keith-Agaran, who’s known English since he served as a legislative staffer for former Sen. Avery Chumbley and Keith-Agaran worked for former Gov. Ben Cayetano, said Wednesday that he was “saddened by the circumstances prompting Kalani’s retirement because we have worked closely over the nine years I have been in the Senate.”

“He has always been passionate and attentive with a keen sense of what would be good for his community and our islands,” Keith-Agaran said. “What I most admired was his frankness and honesty and his knowledge of Hawaiian culture, protocol and basic values.”

Keith-Agaran did not say outright whether he would endorse DeCoite but stated, “I respect Senator English’s judgment about Rep. Lynn DeCoite.”

“Lynn has been a very capable, outspoken and passionate partner for their community, and I have enjoyed working with her,” he said. “I am sure that there will be other Democrats living in East Maui, Molokai or Lanai who will also offer themselves for the opening. If Lynn makes the list compiled by Democratic Party leaders in their community, and the governor picks her, then that will open another place and opportunity for someone to serve.”

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

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