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Ricebird Roz flies high for Maui

By Staff | Feb 3, 2011

Sen. Roz Baker, a strong advocate for education for decades, joined a young student and other protesters to sign waving event against teacher furlough in 2010.

She once was a “Ricebird,” strutting as a medal-winning majorette on a football field alongside a high school mascot named for the birds that flew over swaying fields of rice that dominated her hometown of El Campo, Texas.

This daughter of a school teacher and school business manager soon wound up in Washington, D.C., building — at an early age — an impressive record whose impact still resonates today.

She’s Roz Baker, savvy politician, public servant in the best sense of the word and a 16-year veteran in the Hawaii State Legislature now representing West and South Maui.

Securing a teacher’s certificate and degree in political science, she graduated from the same college as President Lyndon Johnson.

“I enjoyed politics and government,” she noted. “I was on the debate team. I guess I was an opinionated kid. This was in the Vietnam era. There were lots of protesters on campuses, but I felt we needed to work within the system.”

While studying for a master’s degree, Baker got a chance to join the National Education Association (NEA) in her early 20s and she moved to Washington, D.C.

There she played a key role as a lobbyist in pushing legislation and the 26th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving the right to vote to 18-year-olds. She headed an influential youth coalition that helped get it done.

Helping the NEA become active politically, she also lobbied to create a separate U.S. Department of Education under President Johnson. She especially enjoyed the moment when the President signed the bill at the Texas state college where they had both gone to school.

In 1980, she had Maui on her mind. Traveling to the islands to play golf, she and her husband (now ex-husband) had a yen, like many, to open a business “as an excuse to return,” she said.

They acquired a small business that operated from a store in Bob Longhi’s restaurant building on Front Street. Later, Roz opened a swim apparel shop in Kapalua.

Politics again beckoned in 1984. She joined the Hawaii House of Representatives, rising to be majority leader in 1993. Appointed to fill an un-expired term in the State Senate, and except for a four-year stretch when she lost her Senate seat, she has been there ever since.

In the Senate, she rose to be co-chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee on finance, before political maneuvering pushed her aside last term.

A cancer survivor, Baker has long made healthcare a priority. She introduced and helped pass the Clean Air Act, one of the most progressive in the nation, banning smoking in workplaces and public buildings. She successfully secured a new ambulance station for Wailea and backed Medivac helicopter ambulance service.

Baker brands criticism she faced on some fronts that she did not support the planned West Maui Hospital as “unfair.” Though she opposed early plans because she said she felt they were impractical, she became a backer of experienced hospital developer Brian Hoyle.

Baker brokered a compromise site deal with Kaanapali Land Management Corp. for the hospital that had been passionately backed by Joe Pluta of the West Maui

Improvement Foundation and this columnist’s firm, Maui Communicators.

Construction has been delayed, because the former approved site was too costly to build upon. Today, this daughter of the Texas prairies is trying to help iron out technical issues with the state relating to a new site near Kaanapali Coffee Farms.

One of the amazing things about Roz — unlike many office holders — is she has not let public office turn her into a rock star.

Time after time, Baker is there for the community, picking up spent fireworks on Baby Beach after the Fourth of July a few years ago, serving as president of the community-minded Rotary Club of Lahaina Sunrise, selling Rotary Christmas trees and willing to volunteer on other projects at the hint of a request.

In addition, she has played a key role in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life annual march and is a strong advocate of women’s rights, aiding Women Helping Women in its effort to aid domestic violence victims.

At a time when so many office holders act like celebrities, Roz Baker quietly goes on contributing to the community. She supported a new high school for Kihei, a $16 million cafeteria for Lahainaluna High School and numerous other projects.

BREAKING NEWS: Baker said she will run for the Senate again in 2012, enjoys the job and would like to keep serving as long as she can. More power to her.

Columnist’s Notebook. The last column referring to the old Chico’s restaurant and El Crab Catcher struck a responsive cord with readers.

A friend noted that today’s nachos are not as good as the Crab Catcher’s, because they are not made with real cheese.

Lahaina News restaurant critic Helen Reed loved El Crab Catcher so much, she managed to rescue a Eureka palm from the demolition site. It is still growing in her yard in Kahana.