Six-term state Rep. Kyle T. Yamashita is facing a challenge in the Aug. 13 Democratic primary from a former businesswoman who has criticized his legislative support of Alexander and Baldwin Inc.’s stream diversions in East Maui.
Tiare Lawrence said she decided to run against Yamashita partly because of his vote during this year’s legislative session in favor of a bill extending A&B’s control over the stream water. Lawrence said the bill provided special benefits to A&B despite a state court ruling invalidating the company’s water diversion permits.
A&B announced its closure of its sugar plantation on Maui this year, raising hopes among some taro farmers that streams feeding their paddies in East Maui would receive more water.
But state lawmakers including Yamashita have supported continuing the diversions as A&B awaits its application for long-term water permits from the state.
Yamashita, 56, represents District 12 (Spreckelsville-Upcountry Maui), an area extending from the ocean to the mountain slopes along Mount Haleakala with a diverse community that includes ranches, truck farms and residential subdivisions.
Yamashita said he voted for legislation allowing the diversion of water, for now, because it’s tied to jobs and some vital community services.
“If water rights were to be terminated abruptly, that would have a critical impact on Maui’s farmers and the reliability of water for schools and hospitals,” said Yamashita, who is the father of two children.
Yamashita, 56, has received the endorsement of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the labor union whose workers will be facing layoffs as a result of the closure of A&B’s Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. plantation.
Also, Yamashita, a senior member of the House Finance Committee, said he was instrumental in securing financing for an auditorium at King Kekaulike High School.
The lawmaker also serves as vice chairman of the Public Safety Committee and as a member of the Labor & Public Employment and Transportation committees.
In light of A&B’s sugar plantation shutdown as well as the closure of Makena Beach and Golf Course this year, Yamashita said, the state and county needs to focus on developing Maui County’s most promising industries, including tourism and diversified farming.
“Future directions may lie in diversified agriculture, high technology, sports tourism and film and television production,” he said. “For the short term, we need to implement rapid retraining for employees to find jobs in other fields.”
Lawrence, 34, a mother of two children, is active in environmental groups including Aloha ‘Aina Project and Malama Olowalu.
In tandem with environmental groups, she helped to organize opposition to the Olowalu Town Development, expressing concerns about the urban development plan’s potential impact on coral reefs.
In that case, Lawrence said she was pleased that the state Land Use Commission decided the developer’s environmental impact statement was inadequate. “That would have had a devastating impact on the environment and cultural resources,” she said.
Among other matters, Lawrence said, she worries about whether children growing up on Maui will be able to afford to live on the Valley Isle as adults. “I’m a mom, and I want my children to enjoy the Maui that I grew up to love,” she said.
Lawrence, who has received the endorsement of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said she closed her boutique shop Otaheite in Wailea several months ago to run for the seat.
Lawrence criticized Yamashita for failing to participate in political forums and debate with her.
“He had three opportunities to show up,” she said. “I believe Upcountry Maui should have a representative that’s community-engaged and people-driven.”
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser offered him the opportunity to respond to Lawrence’s criticism, but he did not respond.