Jo Anne Johnson Winer – Maui’s Veteran Public Official
By Anne Rillero
When Jo Anne Johnson Winer ran for student government during her freshman year of high school in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, her campaign slogan was simply “Vote 4 Jo.”
It worked, ultimately winning her four consecutive terms as class secretary.
Decades later, the plainspoken former Midwesterner dusted off the “Vote 4 Jo” slogan to launch her political career, challenging incumbent Dennis Y. Nakamura for the West Maui representative seat on the Maui County Council.
While volunteering with Lahaina Open Space Committee, Johnson had become frustrated with Nakamura’s inability to vote on critical issues due to his ties with Maui Land and Pineapple Company.
“If you can’t vote because you have to recuse yourself, how can you represent your district?” Johnson asked.
She lost the 1998 race against Nakamura by 7,500 votes, but came back in 2000 and won by 125 votes.
She was re-elected in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008, serving five consecutive terms over 10 years.
Term limits prevented Johnson Winer from seeking re-election at the end of 2010. But her public service career continued in 2011 when she accepted an appointment by Mayor Alan Arakawa to serve as director of Maui’s Department of Transportation.
Her role includes managing the successful Maui Bus program, which grew from 2.3 million passenger boardings in fiscal year 2010-2011, to 2.75 million boardings in the 2011-2012 fiscal year that recently ended on June 30th. “That’s without additional routes or increasing the fleet,” she
says. “Just think of all the cars we’re keeping off the road.”
She also oversees the air ambulance program and Maui Economic Opportunity’s human service transportation program.
“I really admire Alan (Arakawa) for fighting so hard to keep the air ambulance in West Maui,” says Johnson Winer. “If it wasn’t for the air ambulance, people here would be very vulnerable.”
Johnson Winer is also a fighter – albeit a genteel one. During her days on the County Council, she surprised many Mauians with her quiet strength, especially on matters relating to the environment.
“I was just persistent and sometimes would wear people down,” she laughs. “I believe that you should never give up.”
This year marks the 10th anniversary of one of her early accomplishments, a law passed in 2002 that bans the display of captive whales and dolphins in Maui County.
Johnson Winer introduced the bill after learning of plans to construct a dolphinarium in North Kihei.
“As a new councilmember, it was no small feat to get it passed – and have it be unanimous,” she recalls. Her bill generated what she describes as “the most mail-in support of any proposal before the council,” including letters from country rocker Bonnie Raitt and Free Willy producers Laura Shuler Donner and Richard Donner.
Johnson Winer also succeeded in converting unencumbered state land along Maui’s coastlines into county property, and established new beach accesses and camping areas. She also stopped development on Mokuhinia, a historic site adjacent to Moku’ula in Lahaina.
“Maui Tomorrow appreciated Jo Anne’s time on the council as she considered and weighed environmental impacts, as well as economic, when voting on various projects,” says Irene Bowie, executive director of Maui Tomorrow, the pro-environment advocacy group.
Johnson, who came to Maui after living in the Caribbean for almost 20 years, loves island life. “Because I grew up in a relatively small town, where you knew everyone and everyone knew you, I never suffered from rock fever,” she says. She is a proponent of “treating people the way I want them to treat me.”
In 2010, when Johnson Winer’s husband of 30 years, James “Jim” Johnson, died at age 84 of complications associated with Parkinson’s disease, she was at his side. A year later, she remarried, following a whirlwind courtship with Rabbi Larry Winer, an old flame from her “pre-Jim” days. “It was totally through a fluke that we found each other again,” she reflects.
“I felt that Jim was looking out for me,” she notes. “There are not many second chances in life, but Larry and I both got a second chance.”
At age 65, what’s her advice for other Maui residents? “If you love your community and if you think you have something to contribute, don’t ever hold back,” recommends Johnson Winer. “As long as you do the right things for the right reason, it all works out in the end.”