In a U.S. Senate candidate forum Monday night in Lihue, Kauai, Democrats Brian Schatz and Colleen Hanabusa found they agreed on many things.

One day later in Hilo, the leading Democratic primary contenders met at Sangha hall to reintroduce themselves to Hawaii County voters.

This time, there was also much agreement on important issues, including on development of renewable energy, preserving the Jones Act on maritime shipping, enticing young doctors to work in rural areas on the Big Island and protecting Native Hawaiian language-immersion programs.

But several sharper distinctions came into focus, something instigated by Schatz, the incumbent.

Colleen Hanabusa and Brian Schatz Split

Colleen Hanabusa and Brian Schatz have three more debates scheduled this month.

The first came early on in the 90-minute forum, when the candidates were asked what vote they were most proud of.

Hanabusa, the U.S. representative who believes the military presence in Hawaii is key to both local prosperity and national security, cited voting for the National Defense Authorization Act because it meant allocating appropriations for the islands. For Schatz, it was a vote on the Social Security Enhancement Act.

The next question stayed on Social Security, and Hanabusa explained how she had urged President Barack Obama to not calculate future payments from the entitlement program based on the Consumer Price Index — the so called “chained CPI.”

Several sharper distinctions came into focus, something instigated by Brian Schatz, the incumbent.

That’s when Schatz pointed out that the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy group, had asked members of Congress to vote against an amendment related to Simpson-Bowles, which called for tax and entitlement reform.

The bipartisan presidential-commissioned committee, named after its chairs, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, offered a fiscal plan to address the national debt and deficit. Hanabusa voted for the amendment, which did not pass.

In response, Hanabusa explained that most legislation typically evolves as it goes through the hearing and floor process, and she reminded the Hilo audience that the entitlements advocacy group endorsed her in her 2012 congressional race. She said it was “uncalled for” and “unfair” for Schatz to scare kupuna (senior citizens) when her commitment to preserving Social Security is unquestioned.

But Schatz had a comeback, saying that the Simpson-Bowles vote was in 2013 and that the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare has since endorsed him over Hanabusa in this Senate race.

Expand Pohakuloa Training Area?

A second such moment came when the candidates were asked about the Pohakuloa Training Area — widely referred to as PTA — located off Saddle Road in a high-plateau area between Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea and Hualalai.

While Schatz said continued military training at PTA is critical to America’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific region, he questioned why Hanabusa worked with House Republicans to expand use of the facility to a “magnitude” not compatible with local hunters, environmentalists and Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners. The expansion, he said could include a runway to land C-17 aircraft.

Then Schatz made this point: Hanabusa, he said, should have consulted with locals first rather than Republicans, the Pentagon and foreign defense ministers.

Hanabusa did not lose her cool:

The PTA expansion legislation called for a study, not actual development, she said, adding that she knows very well what it means to be concerned about local interests. Hanabusa has represented a district that included Makua Valley on the Waianae Coast, and she has long worked to preserve the culturally important region while also allowing for military training. And she also said there are 19 cultural practitioners currently involved directly with PTA and the Big Isle community.

Schatz’s decision to raise the Simpson-Bowles vote and the PTA study, however, held the potential to undercut two of Hanabusa’s greatest strengths: Her support for the military and the elderly.

The Specter of PRP

There are areas where Schatz may be vulnerable, too.

He was asked by the debate moderator to respond to recent news reports on the impact of the super PAC Pacific Resource Partnership in the 2012 Honolulu mayoral campaign.

PRP pointedly — some would say maliciously — targeted candidate Ben Cayetano for defeat in that race because of the former governor’s opposition to Honolulu rail. A pro-rail candidate, Kirk Caldwell, won the election.

In this second appearance between the two candidates in just 24 hours, the campaign became more confrontational.

As Civil Beat recently reported, Andy Winer was a consultant to PRP who was intimately involved, as recently released emails show, in building a strategy to take down Cayetano. He has since become Schatz’s chief of staff and is playing a role in his boss’s Senate race.

Schatz was prepared for the question. He said what happened in 2012 was “deeply objectionable,” but that he hired Winer because he was qualified for the position. Schatz said Winer has done “a very good job.”

Could the kind of negative campaign conducted by PRP two years ago surface this year? Schatz said he would not let that happen, saying he is a “happy warrior” seeking to talk about the issues and not descend into personal attacks.

Hanabusa did not say anything about PRP and Winer. But one wonders whether the issue might surface in the campaign as the primary election nears and debates take place on television before far larger audiences.

Three More Debates to Come

The debate was livestreamed on www.hawaii247.com and is slated to be rebroadcast Thursday evening on Hawaii Public Radio.

In this second appearance between the two candidates in just 24 hours, the campaign became more confrontational.

That said, much of the Hilo debate centered on issues important to the Big Island. And, as is common in appearances before new audiences, Schatz and Hanabusa spent a lot of time saying many of the same things they said on Kauai.

Senate fourm livestream July 2, 2014.

Screen shot of a livestream of the U.S. Senate debate on www.hawaii247.com.

www.hawaii247.com

Tuesday’s forum was sponsored by the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce, the Japanese Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Hawaii, Hawaii Island Realtors, the Hawaii Island Contractors’ Association, Kanoelehua Industrial Area Association and the Hawaii Island Portuguese Chamber of Commerce.

Schatz and Hanabusa will meet again Monday at 9 p.m. in a debate sponsored by Civil Beat and media partner KITV. AARP Hawaii and KHON have a forum set for July 15.

Hawaii News Now, the media partner of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, will welcome the candidates July 17 for a fifth and final forum. The primary is Aug. 9.

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