Two days after the Hawaii Legislature concluded its 2014 session, another big political story of the year entered a new phase: the primary election.

While candidates are already busy campaigning, raising money and running advertisements, with less than 100 days to go before the Aug. 9 primary there’s now a sense of urgency.

On Saturday, island chapters of the Democratic Party of Hawaii held conventions on Oahu, Maui and the Big Island. (Kauai held its convention last month.) It was the first time for many party members to see most of the major candidates all in one setting.

Civil Beat was at the Oahu convention, held at Moanalua High School.

First, a little news.

Tony Gill, former chairman of Oahu Democrats and an attorney for the party, is running to be chairman of the state party. Dante Carpenter is stepping down after several terms as chair; on Saturday, he urged Oahu Democrats to register like-minded people to vote.

Gill, part of the well-known Gill family, handed out business cards promoting his candidacy that read “Give meaning to membership.” Thus far, Gill has no opponent, and unless another Democrat files before this week’s deadline, Gill will get the job.

Gill is also appealing a recent U.S. District Court ruling on a Democratic Party lawsuit that argues that only people who publicly support a particular political party should be able to vote for that party’s candidates in a primary. The lawsuit has divided Democrats, as many oppose ending Hawaii’s open primary election.

Civil Beat

Congressional candidate Mark Takai with campaign manager Ellen Zeng.

Oahu Democrats also adopted several platform amendments that will be voted on at the state party convention May 24-25.

One amendment supports limitations on political, campaign or issue-related donations by organizations, corporations and individuals — a reaction to U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010 and McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission in April that opened the floodgates for campaign contributions.

Another amendment supports passage of laws and enforcement banning “conversion therapy,” which refers to treatment that attempts to change sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. The Legislature this session heard but did not pass a conversion therapy bill.

Oahu Democrats, however, killed a resolution proposing to eliminate Good Friday as a state and county holiday and replace it with a holiday that honors Queen Liliuokalani. The rationale, as Michael Golojuch Jr. explained, is that Good Friday gives the “false narrative that we are a Christian state.” But the resolution attracted a lot of opposition, including from Native Hawaiians who are also Catholics.

The leading candidates with statewide races — the contests for governor and Senate — spoke at all three island conventions, staggering their schedules so that they could catch flights. Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui, who thus far faces only token opposition, also spoke at all three events.

Each candidate at the Oahu convention had just three minutes to speak to several hundred delegates, who will have to decide who to vote for in three very competitive primaries — the governor’s race, the U.S. Senate and the 1st Congressional District.

(U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, who is not up for re-election this year, sent a proxy to speak to the Oahu delegates, as did U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who also faces only token opposition in her re-election.)

Here’s a summary of the speeches from the top tier:

Governor

Neil Abercrombie, the incumbent seeking a second and final four-year term, said that the Oahu delegates were doing the same thing Saturday as those in Hilo and Kahului — putting a “human, three-dimensional face” on what it means to be a Democrat in Hawaii. Despite “cynicism and skepticism and dismissal” in the media and in social media, party conventions show members working to “make a difference” and to uphold and commit to party values and priorities. Those values are personified in increasing the state’s minimum wage, preserving Turtle Bay and taking care of seniors, all legislation coming out of the Democrat-controlled Legislature. Abercrombie cited the McCutcheon decision and warned that its impact would be felt locally, not just at the federal level, and that the only way to combat that is to stick with the ideals of Democrats.

David Ige, a state senator, thanked Oahu Democrats for allowing him to speak — a not-so-subtle allusion to the fact that he had to fight to get a speaking position at the state convention. As many other Democrats did as well, Ige harkened back to the 1954 elections, “the revolution” when the party first took control of the Legislature, then territorial. Ige’s late father, Tokio Ige, served during World War II in the fabled 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team. For Ige, his party stands for a culture based not on class or race but of the integrity of individuals. He credited Democrats for helping pass the minimum wage increase — “the decent thing to do,” he said — and the Turtle Bay funding agreement. And Ige said he was against building more luxury condos and high-rises, perhaps a dig at Abercrombie’s support for development in Kakaako.

U.S. Senate

Brian Schatz, the incumbent, focused on Social Security and college affordability in his remarks. “There is an old saying in Hawaii politics that everything in Hawaii is political except politics, which is personal,” he said. For Schatz, the fact that 220,000 people in Hawaii rely on Social Security, including his father-in-law, is personal; for half of those receiving Social Security, which averages $14,000 a year, it is their only income. As for college affordability, Schatz said college debt is second only to mortgage debt, and it is only growing. When the senator has to make tough decisions on votes in Washington, he says he consults with his staff, his “brain” and his conscience, but mostly he thinks about what’s best for his family, friends and constituents back in Hawaii.

Colleen Hanabusa, the U.S. representative, said one of the most important messages she had to deliver Saturday morning was that the party’s own mission statement helped explain why she got into public service. That mission, she said, means being “the servants of the dreams and aspirations of Hawaii’s people” and trusting in their wisdom and concerns. Hanabusa said she was a girl who grew up in Waianae, the daughter of a father who did not make it beyond the ninth grade and a mother who graduated from Waipahu High School. During Hanabusa’s teen years, her mother drove her the long drive from the Leeward Coast to St. Andrew’s Priory in town; along the way, Hanabusa learned to sleep in a family car that also served as the vehicle that transported auto parts for the family’s service station business. Stressing the concepts of fairness and equality, she reminded Democrats that she was the first woman to head one of Hawaii’s state houses (the Senate) and the first Asian woman to lead such a body in the nation. “Look at our records and compare us and vote,” she said.

A third Democrat in the Senate field, Las Vegas crooner and part-time Big Island resident Brian Evans, also spoke; he opposes genetically modified organisms and supports oversight of hospitals and patient care.

U.S. House of Representatives

Donna Mercado Kim, president of the Hawaii Senate, said she is the only candidate in the CD1 field that started and ran her own business. Kim has a background in sales, public relations and communications. Citing her 31 years of legislative experience — it includes time on the Honolulu City Council — Kim said she has never shied away from controversial issues and making tough decisions. In a 435-member House, she said, Hawaii needs “a strong voice” and “a proven leader.” She said she believes she is the best Democrat to take on a Republican like Charles Djou in the general election.

Mark Takai, a state House representative, also said he believes he is the best opponent against Djou; both are military veterans. Takai talked about the hard work of his ancestors who immigrated to the islands, including a grandfather who carried blocks of ice during the plantation days in Kahuku — “back-breaking work,” Takai said. Their sacrifices allowed Takai to attend the University of Hawaii and enter a career in politics. Takai wants to serve in Congress so that his two young children “and all the children” in Hawaii can enjoy the good life. But that means closing the income gap, increasing the national minimum wage and cutting taxes for the middle class.

Civil Beat

Oahu County Democrats Chairman Josh Wisch.

Kathryn Xian, a community activist, pointed out that she had worked to end human trafficking and reform prostitution laws. She was instrumental in helping pass legislation this year to close a loophole in the law that allowed cops to have sex with prostitutes as part of investigations. Xian said she is a “traditionalist” when it comes to a woman’s place; it should be in the house — that is, the U.S. House. Ending corporate welfare, regulating Wall Street and supporting fair trade, “not free trade,” are among Xian’s priorities.

Stanley Chang, a Honolulu City councilman, said he wants to continue the progressive legacy of Hawaii’s Democrats distinguished by pre-paid health care, equality in collegiate women athletics and abortion rights in the 1970s. It continues through the marriage equality movement that began in the early 1990s. Chang said his father came to Hawaii from China “with nothing,” started work as a Waikiki beach boy, joined a union, taught at UH, bought a home and put his two sons through school. In a state with the highest cost of living in the country, Chang said, “We have an obligation to fight for change.” That agenda includes closing tax loopholes for billionaires, expanding Medicare and Social Security and pushing for marriage equality across the country.

Ikaika Anderson, also a councilman as well as a Kamehameha Schools graduate, said he is “a son of Hawaii.” He has served in government since 1997, as a budget analyst at the Legislature, for the late Councilwoman Barbara Marshall and then on the Council, where he is vice chairman. During his tenure, Anderson said he has passed more than 100 bills and resolutions including measures that help keep parks and beaches “clean and free of cigarettes” and determines where homeless people “may and may not live.” He said Hawaii needs to send a person to Congress who understands the working classes of the islands that struggle to pay their mortgage and feed their families. Marriage equality, health care and taking care of kupuna also top Anderson’s agenda.

Civil Beat

Oahu Democrats met at Moanlua High School.

Will Espero, a state senator, shared how he grew up as a military brat in the Navy: born in Japan, with tours in California, Italy and Guantanamo Bay, among other places. Espero came to Hawaii 31 years ago to stay. “I’m 53 years old, the tail end of the Baby Boomers, and this is our time to give back to future generations and to make Hawaii a better place.” Espero said his 22 years in government service and 10 years in the private nonprofit sector make him a CD1 candidate with diversity and experience. He joked that the younger candidates in the race, like Chang, have “a great future” ahead of them, “but what’s needed is someone with a track record.” Espero’s includes legislative work on the judiciary, the prison system and aerospace development.

A seventh Democrat in the CD1 field, Councilman Joey Manahan, did not attend the Oahu convention.

In other political news Saturday, the Maui County Hawaii Republican Party held its convention and a candidate rally in Kahului. Gubernatorial candidate Duke Aiona was one of the invited speakers.

The Hawaii Republican Party‘s state convention is set for May 17 at the Koolau Ballrooms and Conference Center in Kaneohe. Civil Beat will be there.

Contact Chad Blair via email at cblair@civilbeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

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