As a third generation upcountry resident and former head of the non-profit organization Maui Economic Opportunity (MEO), Maui county councilmember Gladys Baisa has always been passionate about her community. After serving 10 years in the Pukalani-Kula-Ulupalakua area residency seat and as current chair of the Water Resources Committee, Baisa plans to retire at the end of this term. We recently sat down with her to reminisce on the past and discuss her plans for the future.
MAUITIME: First of all, how long have you been involved in politics?
GLADYS BAISA: Actually, it’s a funny story. I had been at MEO for 37 years and I was planning to retire at the end of 2005. About a month earlier, I was invited to lunch with the chairman of the board and he said to me, “What are you going to do when you retire?” I said, “Well, what do people do when they retire? They take trips, they play with their grandkids and they volunteer. Do all kinds of fun things that they’ve wanted to do for a long time.” He looked me straight in the eyes from across the table and said, “I think that’s a big waste. Think about all you’ve learned here during your years at MEO. You have 37 years of working with the community, finding out what their needs are, creating programs for them, finding funding for it, working with all levels government in order to do that…You should run for county council.”
MT: And how did you react to the proposition that you should start a campaign?
GB: I said, “No, I don’t think I want to do that because it involves all this fundraising.” And he said, “I wouldn’t worry about it. I think people will help you once they know you’re running.” I went home and I asked my husband what he thought about that idea and he was unhappy because he had just retired from the water department because we had planned to retire at the same time. I said, “I can run but it doesn’t mean I’m gonna get elected. But it definitely means a campaign,” and he said, “I know you really well. If that’s what you’re gonna do, you’re gonna do it and I might as well go along with it if that’s what you want. Mom’s happy, everyone’s happy. Go ahead.” Everybody was encouraging, so I filed and that was 11 years ago. I’ve had four more elections and I’ve been very fortunate, I’ve had great support.
MT: Why do you want to retire at this point in your career?
GB: For one, I don’t have a choice. The county charter says that after five two-year terms, you must take a break. There’s term limits and what I could do, and what a lot of people like to do, is they take a two-year term off and then they run again. People ask me a lot about that and I keep telling them that isn’t something I’m thinking about. Actually, I’m kind of looking forward to the break.
MT: What have you learned while being on the council?
GB: That, to me, is the joy about being in this job. It’s what you learn. As a council member, you’re exposed to incredible amounts of information that you wouldn’t get any other way because the items that we look at in county government are so broad.
Not only did I meet all kinds of people–I’ve had the opportunity to meet foreign dignitaries, I’ve met kids, I’ve met students, I’ve met constituents of people that like me, people that don’t like me–but I’ve learned more people skills.
I also learned that you have to be really careful about promising to change everything. Change in government is very difficult and it’s because it’s a complicated process and you can’t do it by yourself. The mayor cannot tomorrow decide that he’s going to turn Ka‘ahumanu into a toll road, even if he thinks that might be a good idea. I think that’s the part that a lot of people who want to be politicians don’t understand. Most of the time, on the council, you have to have four other people agree with you. If you can’t get the other members to agree with you, you can’t do anything.
I would not have had the opportunity to learn about some of these things had I not been on the council, so I think it’s an education in itself.
MT: What are some of your greatest accomplishments since being on county council?
GB: I was able to reorganize and reactivate the Pukalani Community Association, which had not existed for a long time. I felt really bad representing a community that didn’t have a collaborative voice because others have one. It has become active and I’m really proud of the work that’s been done there.
MT: What is the strangest thing that happened to you while being in this seat?
GB: You wouldn’t believe the things people call us about! Everything from a dead dog on the street to, “I don’t have any water. What are you going to do about it?” I get a lot of those calls because I’m the water chair. “My taxes are too high. Why do I have to pay this amount?” Or, “The traffic in front of our school is terrible, it holds us up every morning and every afternoon.”
MT: What do you think is the biggest misconception about being in government?
GB: There’s a lot of misconceptions about how we’re just throwing money away. There are instances where we don’t spend money well, but isn’t that the truth with everybody? We can all sit there and have buyer’s remorse about the car we bought that was junk or the house we bought that had problems or the dress we bought that fell apart the next time you wore it. We all make stupid money decisions, but you make the best decision you can at the time.
People also need to understand that we cannot have our taxes and our rates stay the same year after year–it doesn’t work that way. Tell me, are you paying the same amount for your plate lunch that you paid for it a year ago? I almost fainted the other day, I paid $12 for a plate lunch and I thought, “Oh my gosh, this used to be $5.” But that’s what’s happening and yet when we tell people, we’re sorry but we have to raise your taxes, they just go ballistic and so meanwhile, the projects that we need to address don’t get done.
MT: When you look back, do you have any regrets?
GB: I do not regret coming here. It’s been an incredible opportunity. I’m very grateful to the community that’s been so supportive in electing me but I am really ready for a pause here. But if I had to do it over again, I would have done it much sooner than I did. I waited too long but then again, it never crossed my mind before. But I do wish that I had done it at least 10 years earlier because if I had, I think I might have been able to do a lot more and I would have had more opportunities.
MT: Say you could do anything you possibly wanted to once you retire, no restrictions at all. What would be the first thing you’d want to do?
GB: Personally, this may sound a bit crazy to you but I happen to be a neat freak. I want to clean out the closet and my files, and I want to organize the photos that are collected in a box. Everyone tells me you’re never going to do it because that never happens when you retire.
Then, I’d also like to spend more time with my family and my friends. My family has been wonderful. I’ve been neglecting them big time and they’ve been very gracious about it. They never count on me to be the babysitter or doing anything like that because they know I cannot commit.
Also, I think everybody knows I have this affiliation with Mexico and we go there every Christmas, every December, and we love it and we have friends there that are like family. 25 years ago, when we had no agricultural workers and I was at MEO, we brought in several thousand Mexican immigrants to help with pineapple and many of them decided to stay and through them they kept saying, you’ve got to see our country, it’s beautiful and I’d say, no I’ve been to Tijuana and they’d laugh and say, no that’s not Mexico! And so I finally took the trip and realized what a beautiful, wonderful country it is. I love to travel. I love different cultures, I love meeting different people. The world is wonderful if you ever have a chance to take a look at it.
Of course, I hope to get involved again with the nonprofit sector which is my true love. It’s where I spent the majority of my life and I totally get excited about what the non-profits do, so I’d like to go back. The problem is, my list is growing and I know it wouldn’t be wise for me to get involved in all that I want to. Now I have to figure out where do I think I can be of the most help? So, I don’t think I’ll just be sitting in front of the TV.
MT: What do you think of the candidates who are currently vying for your position?
GB: I think we have some really great candidates. I am so proud of them and everybody’s been very classy, everybody’s been very on the high road–they’re not putting each other down, they’re not calling out each other’s weakness. They’re talking about their strengths and what they want to do and I’m really happy about that because that’s the kind of campaigning we want to see here. Never mind about your opponent, it’s about you. What do you have to give? What do you have to bring to the table? And I’m really happy because that’s what I see.
MT: Do you have any advice for your successor?
GB: Yeah. You prepare to commit your life to this job. If you want to do it well, that’s what it takes. You have to look at it as a mission. You have to be able to express yourself well, you have to be able to be bold, you have to be able to take disappointment, you have to be aware of the fact that the community is always watching and you have to be careful how you conduct yourself because you are a public figure and I think we should be held to a higher standard.
Cover Design: Darris Hurst
Cover Photo: Sean M. Hower