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Longtime Maui senator retires, cites long-term COVID

Sen. J. Kalani English calls Rep. Lynn DeCoite ‘ideal’ replacement

Hawaii Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English takes part in the May 14, 2019 dedication ceremony for the $340 million Consolidated Rent-A-Car facility at the Kahului Airport. The longtime East Maui lawmaker announced Tuesday that he would be retiring from the Senate, effective Saturday, as he deals with the long-term effects of COVID-19. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Battling the long-term effects of COVID-19, lifelong Hana resident and Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English announced his retirement from the Hawaii State Senate on Tuesday “after many discussions with my doctors, talks with those close to me and careful thought.”

“I have been blessed to give back to the communities that have reared and nurtured me — it will be a daunting task to walk away from 25 years of service to my island home,” English said in a statement Tuesday morning.

His retirement will take effect Saturday.

The 55-year-old Democratic lawmaker, who represents Hana, East and Upcountry Maui, Molokai and Lanai, said that he contracted COVID-19 in November while with family out of state.

“My symptoms were mild and I did not physically suffer at the time of infection from the virus, unlike many of our friends and family,” he said. “I was grateful to have healed.

Sen. J. Kalani English holds a Barack Obama likeness on election night, Nov. 4, 2008, while appearing on live television coverage from Maui Community College. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“Upon my return to Hawaii, I noticed a change in my energy, pervasive lethargy, memory challenges and a fogginess in my thought process. I was not sure what to make of the challenges and thought I was suffering from depression or issues related to depression.”

English said he was deemed a “long hauler” and diagnosed with the long-term effects of COVID-19.

“My new normal will require me to address some of the challenges left to my short- and long-term memory and other cognitive issues derived from the virus,” English said. “These challenges have placed a number of things into perspective for me, including the need to take better care of my health.”

English told The Maui News on Tuesday afternoon that the cognitive concerns were a driving factor in his decision.

“This job is all about that, right? About being able to process and think through things,” said English, the Senate Majority Leader since 2014. “And I’ve always been pretty high functioning in that area, but I need to be able to be at the top and be able to do this very well.”

Sen. J. Kalani English waves after exiting his election night bus on Nov. 2, 2004. He was first elected to the Senate in 2000. The Maui News file photo

He compared the brain fog to “a bad hangover for a long period of time” and said that he’s been trying to reduce his level of stress over the past session, stepping down from several committees and relying on the rest of the Maui delegation, Sens. Roz Baker and Gil Keith-Agaran, “to help carry a lot of the heavy weight, which we’ve always shared.”

Driving in and out of Hana and flying to Oahu a couple of times a week has also taken its toll, and English said that retirement will help alleviate the fatigue and stress.

“I’m really looking forward to just really going home to Hana and planting again,” he said. “I miss being in the land, and so I’m going to go home and do that for a few months.”

Raised by his grandparents in Hana, English said he’s “always had a strong grounding in Maui and East Maui in particular.” He graduated from Kamehameha Schools in 1984 and went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in Pacific Islands Studies at Hawaii Loa College in 1989 and his master’s degree in the same field at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1995, according to his website.

Bilingual in English and Hawaiian languages and proficient in Mandarin, English worked at the United Nations in New York City before deciding to come home to take care of his grandparents. In his 20s and fresh out of the city, English grew bored back home. The concepts of sustainability and recycling were gaining steam at the time, and English started to wonder why Maui couldn’t do the same.

People told him he should run for office.

In 1997, English was appointed to replace former Maui County Council Member Tom Morrow and won the seat outright in the 1998 election. He was elected to the State Senate in 2000.

Representing a rural district that had to compete with big-budget projects on Oahu, English said he learned early on that the best way to get a policy passed was to “hitchhike” other bills. About 3,000 measures get introduced in the Senate every year, and only about 150 to 200 actually make it through, he said.

“I learned that the big policy changes, it was easier to put it in bigger bills that are moving,” English said. “So once you give up the idea of ‘it has to be my bill’ and say, well, if this idea makes it through and gets in then I’m happy. So that’s what I learned early on, was that it’s better to get it put into policy than have your name on it.”

Some of the projects that stand out most in English’s mind are the improvements he secured for the small communities in his district. One of his goals was to fix up Hana Highway, which is now paved all the way to Hana with guardrails in most places. He also worked with former Rep. Sol Kahoohalahala to put funding toward Manele Harbor, transforming it from a cluster of stones and a small pier into what is now “the gateway to Lanai.” With a laugh, he recalled the time that he needed to convince other lawmakers to fund the repaving of Kamehameha V Highway from Kaunakakai to Halawa Valley on Molokai’s east end.

“On Oahu there’s Kamehameha Highway, right? So I asked my colleagues, I just dropped the fifth and I said, you know, I need to fix Kamehameha Highway. And they said, ‘Oh yeah, how much? Put it in,'” English recalled. “And then they were like, ‘Oh, it’s Kamehameha V Highway on Molokai.’ But we got the money and we paved the road from Halawa Valley all the way into Kaunakakai.”

Elected officials on Tuesday praised English’s career and wished him well in retirement. Gov. David Ige, who worked with English for about 14 years in the Senate, said he would be “greatly missed” at the Capitol.

“He has proven to be a dedicated public servant who has improved the quality of life for the people of Maui and across the state,” Ige said. “Sen. English was also known as an ambassador to the Pacific, using his advanced degrees in Pacific Island Studies to do what we could to help those in need in the broader Pacific.”

Rep. Lynn DeCoite, who also represents East Maui, Molokai and Lanai, got to know English as a voter and later as a colleague.

“As his constituent, I would see him fighting for his whole district making sure each area and island was looked after,” DeCoite said. “In my time serving with him at the State Capitol, I’ve gotten know him as a colleague, mentor and lifelong friend.

“Over the past few years, we really became teammates working together to benefit our district, we’d decide which of us would take the lead on different issues and check in with each other on the progress and get the other involved when it was time.”

According to state law, Democratic Party officers from the 15 precincts in Senate District 7 will select three names to send to Ige for consideration to fill English’s position. The governor has 60 days to fill the vacancy. The Democratic Party of Hawaii said Tuesday that a formal call for candidates would be issued soon.

English said DeCoite is his pick to take his place.

“Representative Lynn DeCoite would be the ideal next senator for the seventh district,” he said. “She has the compassion and the dedication. At this time we’ve been to every nook and corner of this district.”

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

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