Sen. Roz Baker, one of the Hawaii Senate’s longest-serving members, is retiring this year.

Baker, who has represented parts of west and south Maui for more than three decades in both the Senate and the House, is one of Maui’s most seasoned politicians. She’s used her position as the chairwoman of a key Senate committee to push forward numerous laws on health care along with direct funding to programs on Maui and statewide. Getting money for a new high school in Kihei is cited by both critics and supporters as one of her major accomplishments.

But Baker also has been the subject of criticism, particularly over her handling of issues facing condominium residents. She’s also faced opposition in her own district over laws relating to pesticide use and plans for a new hospital that never materialized.

Baker won her last Democratic primary election in 2018 by just 89 votes.

Sen. Roz Baker is retiring from the Legislature. The longtime Maui lawmaker has helped push through many issues affecting her home county as well as the state. PF Bentley/Civil Beat/2014

“I don’t think in general, the community would be disappointed if she left,” Michael Moran, president of the Kihei Community Association, said.

Others, particularly in the health field, see Baker’s departure as a huge blow for health advocates.

“One of the things that will be a challenge for us and the Legislature will be finding a champion for health policy that relates to caregiving and kupuna in general,” AARP Hawaii State Director Kealii Lopez said.

Baker, who publicly acknowledged that she is retiring in the Senate’s closing session Thursday, said it’s been a privilege to serve in elected office for more than 30 years.

“I think that’s long enough, but maybe I’m having second thoughts,” Baker joked in a farewell speech.

Baker’s departure will leave Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran as Maui’s senior senator. Former Sen. J. Kalani English retired in 2021 and is now awaiting sentencing in a federal bribery case. His replacement, Sen. Lynn DeCoite, is wrapping up her second session in the Senate.

Sens. Clarence Nishihara and Brian Taniguchi are also retiring this year. And key House members — most notably, Finance Committee Chair Sylvia Luke — are moving on too, mostly in pursuit of higher office.

Focused On Health Policy

Baker was first elected to the Legislature in 1988, and appointed to the Senate in 1993 following the departure of former Sen. Russell Blair.

Baker, who previously worked as a federal lobbyist, rose quickly through the legislative ranks. She was named House majority leader during her first term and also served a brief stint in the late 1990s as Senate Ways and Means co-chair with Carol Fukunaga. The post put those two in charge of the state’s multi-billion dollar budget and capital improvements plan.

Since 2009, Baker has maintained her positions as chairwoman of different iterations of the Senate Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee. That panel is one of the Senate’s “A Bracket” committees, along with WAM and the Senate Judiciary Committee, that hears nearly every bill that passes through the chamber. She’s managed to maintain that position through three regime changes in the Senate.

Her influential positions have come in handy for Maui, particularly in the area of health care.

Mark Hyde, a Kihei resident and community organizer, said Baker was instrumental in pushing for the privatization of Maui hospitals over the years. The Legislature did that in 2015. The year prior, hospitals had an operating deficit of more than $40 million.

Maui Memorial Medical Center hospital. 3 aug 2016
Baker was instrumental in privatizing the Maui Memorial Medical Center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

Hyde said the statewide health care system was intended to save money and create efficiencies along the way. What transpired instead was a “hodgepodge” of different policies across the islands. Baker, Hyde said, helped to sort it all out.

“She was very aware of how the system worked and how it didn’t work,” said Hyde, a former member of the now defunct state board overseeing the Maui health care system. “She was very smart about that, and that was really useful for us.”

Others describe Baker as an expert in health care policy and financing for health care systems. The senator, who is also a cancer survivor, has pushed for legislation to restrict flavored tobacco products in the state and ban smoking in certain public spaces.

She’s been named AARP’s “Capitol Caregiver” four times for helping to push funding toward kupuna care programs and tighter care home licensing rules.

Lopez, a former director of the Hawaii Democratic Party, points to a 2016 law Baker forwarded that requires hospitals to provide training for caregivers before a patient is discharged.

She’s also been a champion of women’s issues as a member of the legislative Women’s Caucus, which has taken on issues like easier access to abortion services, violence against women, and police reform.

Baker could often be seen in committee hearings with a mug that says “Nasty Woman” – an insult used by former President Donald Trump to describe Hilary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race. The phrase has since been adopted by the feminist movement.

Friendly To Condos

Baker is not without her critics. In 2008, another issue with hospitals drew some political opposition. Baker did not throw her full support behind a new hospital proposed in Kihei. When plans for the hospital fell through, a candidate running against her pinned the proposal’s failure on Baker, according to a Honolulu Advertiser story on that race.

Baker denied that characterization but said she had concerns with the hospital’s impact on the community and the level of services it would provide.

Moran, president of the Kihei Community Association, said some residents, fairly or not, group Baker into Maui’s “old-boy network” that is generally pro-development and seen as friendly to corporations.

He said some on Maui didn’t feel that she came out strongly enough against pesticide use in the county. Pesticides in Maui County specifically was a hot-button issue and was somewhat related to the debate over genetically modified organisms in local agriculture.

Chemical company Monsanto, which has been fined millions of dollars for its use of pesticides in Maui County, supported Baker’s last reelection efforts, donating $4,250 to her campaign since 2006. She has denied that her campaign donations had any bearing on her policy decisions.

View of Kakaako from Manoa showing the Honolulu skyline with the same height limit.
Critics point out Baker’s support of condo associations. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Since 2006, her campaign has received more than $691,000 in donations from various entities and individuals. Baker’s top supporters include the Patsy Mink PAC, a group set up to support candidates who advocate for women’s issues; the statewide teachers union; other labor unions and groups that represent the real estate and timeshare industries.

Over the years, Baker has also put forward bills that favored condominium associations and management companies. She’s pushed for laws to settle foreclosure disputes and others that would allow associations to pass on unpaid fees from previous owners to new buyers.

In 2019, Baker pushed a bill that eventually became Act 282. The purpose of the measure was to clarify the meaning of certain condo laws that gave associations greater powers to conduct nonjudicial foreclosures.

In practice, the measure would have reversed several court decisions that were favorable to condo owners and could put associations, management companies and the law firms that represented them on the hook for millions of dollars in damages.

Musical Chairs

Baker’s departure sets up an opportunity for another senator to take over the Senate Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee.

The seat also represents an opportunity for Senate President Ron Kouchi and his coalition that rules the Senate to reward a member with that choice post, or to bring a newcomer into the fold.

“We’re going to really be losing institutional knowledge,” Kouchi said of Baker’s departure during a press conference last week.

Who her successor may be could depend on how the election plays out, as there are two other senators also departing: Nishihara, who chairs the public safety committee, and Taniguchi, chair of the labor committee.

The Senate will need to do some reshuffling with its committee chairs after the election. But its primary leaders including Kouchi, Vice President Michelle Kidani and Ways and Means Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz are expected to stay in power.

The Senate’s departures also start a game of political musical chairs for those looking to take a seat in higher office.

Rep. Henry Aquino has pulled papers to run for Nishihara’s Senate seat, which now includes parts of Ewa, Waipahu, Waikele and Pearl City after the Hawaii Reapportionment Commission redrew district lines earlier this year.

Aquino’s move would create another opening in the House.

Honolulu City Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga is considering running for Taniguchi’s seat representing Manoa. It’s an area she used to represent in the Senate, but reapportionment in 2012 eliminated her district. She lost in a race against Taniguchi that year.

Ian Ross, the Makiki Neighborhood Board chair, is also actively campaigning for the Manoa seat and has raised about $28,000 for the run so far, according to a press release.

Luke is running for lieutenant governor, leaving a seat in the House representing Makiki that she was first elected to in 1998.

Some names in the running to replace Baker included Rep. Angus McKelvey and Maui County Council member Kelly King. Rep. Tina Wildberger was expected to run, but she recently announced that she would no longer seek reelection.

Correction: King has since pulled papers to run for the South Maui seat being vacated by Wildberger. McKelvey considered running for Congress but is now eyeing Baker’s seat. Former Maui County Councilwoman Elle Cochran has pulled papers to run for McKelvey’s West Maui seat.

Baker said she has not endorsed anyone, but indicated she still plans to stay in tune to the Legislature’s business.

“You can be certain that if that successor deviates from what I think he or she ought to be doing, then I think I’ll get on the phone, or send a text and make that point,” she said.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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