EDITOR’S NOTE: The Maui News is beginning a series of stories profiling contested state legislative and county races in the lead-up to the Aug. 13 primary election. Today’s feature focuses on candidates seeking the House District 9 seat that covers Kahului, Puunene, Old Sand Hills and Maui Lani. A voter guide offering details on all mayoral, County Council and state House and Senate contests that will appear on the primary ballot will be featured in the July 23-24 Weekender edition.
After going uncontested in the August 2020 Democratic primary, incumbent state Rep. Justin Woodson now faces a challenger for his House District 9 seat that covers a well-populated portion of Central Maui.
Sam Peralta, a Maui High School graduate and newcomer to politics, is looking to unseat Woodson to represent his hometown district after years of volunteering abroad. Woodson is banking on major legislation at the state level, including a large funding package for housing, to help secure his position in the State Capitol.
Their race will be decided sooner than most, as it’s the only state legislative contest for a Maui County district that will be determined by the primary election.
After graduating from Maui High School in 2005, Sam Peralta went to see the world.
From 2007 to 2012 as part of the Youth With A Mission program, he went to Australia and other areas, where he was tasked with reaching out to indigenous groups and getting people in rural areas to get engaged and “have a voice in the cities.” His work also included collecting glasses and toothpaste for outreach in Papua New Guinea and serving as a chaplain and scripture teacher abroad.
But even as he worked in communities across the globe, “I felt bad as I was serving the world, but I didn’t know how to serve my hometown,” Peralta said.
Now running as a Democrat for the state House District 9 seat, Peralta hopes to do what he’s wanted to upon his return, which “is to represent Kahului.”
“This is my hometown, so if I cannot lead my hometown … what makes me think I can be a global leader, a global citizen?” the 34-year-old asked.
Peralta said he took up Hawaiian language at the University of Hawaii Maui College to increase his cultural literacy and knowledge of the host culture language. That led him to get his associate degree in Hawaiian studies.
He is currently a senior at UH-West Oahu majoring in political science.
Peralta is making his local debut in politics and will face incumbent and fellow Democrat Justin Woodson in a winner-take-all primary election on Aug. 13.
Among the issues in his district, Peralta said one of the larger ones is education reform. He said a lot of times the focus on schools has been on teachers or administration, and “the students get left behind.” He said he would like to give schools more freedom and decentralize power.
“So teachers and principals can create learning environments where students can actually express themselves and leave room for divergent thinking,” Peralta said.
This could include removing Common Core state standards and not focusing too much on standardized testing.
House District 9 includes Peralta’s alma mater, which has the largest enrollment in the county, as well as Maui Waena Intermediate, which has the highest middle school enrollment.
Affordable housing is also an issue in a district that typically has some of the most home sales per month. Peralta said that “a lot of money had been opened up for that,” but wondered if the state could look at different types of housing, such as bamboo, concrete 3D and structures that have already been framed and “ready to go.”
Peralta also pointed to different ways of building housing and different types of energy as ways to keep down expenses for residents dealing with skyrocketing costs.
“The bottom line to keep things cheaper or to bring down costs is to increase the education of our younger generation because when we do that, we increase our brain power for our youth and our next generation. They are going to hold the answers that we don’t have the answers to now,” he said. “Because of development in modern technology, development in international trade, and in development in what is happening in the schools.”
Peralta believes having a new person at the Legislature would be beneficial, as that person “will have different questions, that way we can have different ways of looking at things.”
“That’s not saying I have the answers but I know that the people that are in the government right now, I think they are willing and ready to take risks, but calculated strategic risk,” he said. “So I think my piece is bringing that, especially with my traveling and especially with just my studies and being who I am. I love innovation, I love progression, but I understand it has to be stable for everybody.”
State Rep. Justin Woodson grew up on the outskirts of Topeka, Kan., which he says is “very similar to Hawaii in social interactions.”
“Everyone is nice and genuine, we try to look out for each other,” Woodson said.
While he grew up in the Midwest, Woodson said his heart is in Hawaii, where he has been for around two decades.
“I’m not from here, but I feel like I’m from here,” the Kahului resident said on Thursday.
But Kansas is where Woodson learned hard work as his father woke up at 5 a.m. on Saturdays for a whole day of yard work.
“When I heard the riding lawn mower, that was my signal, I better get up and go outside and help him,” Woodson recalled.
Woodson attended the University of Oklahoma and studied microbiology, later transferring to California State University, Fullerton. He was close to getting his degree in biology at Fullerton, but his interest in politics took hold and he majored in political science instead.
“I was really attracted to how, through politics, you can do good for people,” he said.
California is where he met his future wife and Maui native Stacy Suyat and got acclimated to the Hawaiian culture with frequent trips to Maui.
After moving to Oahu, Woodson got “heavily involved in politics,” especially with the local Democratic Party.
In 2013, he was appointed to his current seat by then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie to fill a vacancy in the House.
Woodson said he knows the general public was thinking at the time, “Who is Justin Woodson? How did he get picked?” However, he pointed to his involvement in local Democratic politics.
“That’s how, I knew people on Maui and also on Oahu, they were familiar with me,” he explained.
Woodson hopes voters will keep him in office, saying that changes take time.
“In my mind, I would appreciate the opportunity to continue because policy and making change and contributing to the conversation, it’s a process, it’s a continuum,” he said. “I know people want things to happen immediately, but there is just many parts and processes involved and it takes sustained energy and focus. And there’s just so much to do.”
For example, Woodson said generating affordable housing takes time “because you got to convince people that things actually work.”
Now people are starting to back the idea that the government should pay for the infrastructure and understanding that both lawmakers and the community need to work with developers.
“It’s things we’ve known for a long time, now we are only (ready) to embark upon that change,” he said.
In the last session, Woodson and other lawmakers approved more than $300 million for affordable housing and the state’s Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corporation.
They also approved more than $1 billion toward Native Hawaiian projects and initiatives, including $600 million to tackle the Hawaiian homestead waiting list, he said.
Woodson, the chairman of the House Education Committee, pointed to other bills passed during his time in the Legislature, including House Bill 2543 (later Act 46) in 2020 that sets the goal of providing access to early childhood learning by 2032 to all children who are 3 to 4 years old.
Woodson, who guided the passage of and rewrote the bill with others, said it will help subsidize the costs of child care for parents.
Making child care and housing affordable continue to be issues in Central Maui, as well as homelessness and kupuna care. Woodson said funds for programs to help people who are homeless as well as being “vigilant” on keeping up the funding for senior programs are also essential.
Woodson pointed to long-term solutions for easing cost burdens on residents, such as the bill passed in 2020 to lessen child care costs on families, but said something that can be done more immediately is exempting certain taxes for residents. He said lawmakers are in talks about this but must analyze how collecting less taxes will affect government services.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at [email protected].