Voters in Hawaii now have a choice about whether they want to keep their governor or replace him. That is because Neil Abercrombie has an official challenger: David Ige.

Surprising colleagues and political analysts, state Sen. Ige announced Tuesday that he is stepping forward to face the governor in his bid for re-election next year. He spoke to Civil Beat on the day he announced his candidacy.

Abercrombie, 75, is vulnerable. He faces low approval ratings following contract battles with labor unions, and particularly with the teachers who endorsed his successful 2010 gubernatorial run.

The governor has undoubtedly lost some of his mojo since taking office, but his recent public appearances have shown that he retains the charisma and professorial charm that have helped him to win elections for decades. And he enjoys a host of advantages that come with being an incumbent.

So who is Ige to replace him? That’s a question that plenty of people are likely to ask because, despite his 28 years in the Legislature, the electrical engineer-turned-politician is a soft-spoken and methodical man who isn’t well known by much of the electorate.

That isn’t to say that he hasn’t been active or effective. Ige shepherded the state budget bill to passage this past session in record time as chair of the powerful Senate money committee. But it was received with relatively little fanfare.

“I will have to work a lot harder to get the public to know who I am and what I stand for,” Ige told Civil Beat at his home in Aiea. “I bring a different skill set to the job, having been a collaborator all my career. As an engineer, I approach challenges differently and look for win-win solutions.”

University of Hawaii political science professor Neal Milner said Ige will need to create a narrative about himself that people remember and understand.

“He’s got to get people to know who he is — in a literal sense,” he said.

Tulsi Gabbard did this successfully in her bid for Congress, as did Kirk Caldwell in his run for Honolulu mayor and of course President Barack Obama, Milner said.

Ige and Abercrombie may differ a lot on policies and priorities for two politicians in the same party, but the challenger may have to work hard to distinguish himself from the incumbent during the campaign, Milner said. After all, a challenger faces a two-part challenge: To convince voters that they need to get rid of the incumbent and show that the insurgent is a credible alternative.

That isn’t always easy when the two candidates have similar focuses, which is the case on issues like transforming the state’s information technology infrastructure. Ige won an award for his paperless initiative in the Senate, but Abercrombie heralded a 12-year plan to bring Hawaii into the 21st Century.

Ige portrayed himself, in his interview, as an innovator who knows what it takes to transform the culture of agencies to get them to be agents of change, and as someone who understands the crucial role that people play in driving new ways of doing business.

And he promised dramatic changes at the Department of Education, saying he wants to “turn the DOE upside down” through decentralization and by transferring attention from upper-level bureaucrats to the school personnel who should be the foot soldiers of education reform.

He also wants to hear from the public about which government services work well and which programs could — and should — be scrapped as part of his vision for shrinking government.

Dollars and Endorsements

Ige might have plenty of ideas, but communicating them to the public may be an issue if he can’t access enough campaign money to really compete at Abercrombie’s level. While Ige has repeatedly won re-election to the Senate for years, he did it so easily that he hasn’t needed to do too much fundraising.

To become governor, that will almost certainly need to change, and he’ll need to win over most of the state, rather than just his long-time constituents in Aiea and Pearl City.

Abercrombie’s most recent campaign finance disclosure statement shows he has $1.3 million on hand. Ige’s most recent report, filed in January, shows he has just $73,980 on hand.

The challenger said that he will run a grassroots campaign. In the next few weeks, he plans to hold coffee meet-ups and visit people in their homes and at their businesses to learn from their concerns.

Labor union support has the potential to tip the scales given that there are 13 bargaining units that represent roughly 116,000 public workers in Hawaii, making it one of the nation’s three most unionized states.

Abercrombie won the endorsement of the Hawaii State Teachers Association in 2010, but his relationship with the union has been rocky over the past two years due to a heated contract dispute that didn’t get resolved until March.

But union support isn’t always decisive. Abercrombie won without the backing of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the state’s largest labor union, or the United Public Workers, another big one. Both of those unions supported Mufi Hannemann, who lost to Abercrombie in the primary.

The $24 billion state budget for the next two years includes the restoration of 5 percent pay cuts and raises for thousands of union members. Abercrombie and Ige may fight over who deserves the most credit for such accomplishments during this past session.

HGEA declined to comment on the governor’s race. UPW Director Dayton Nakanelua and HSTA President Wil Okabe could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

But Ige is convinced that the people of Hawaii are hungry for a governor they can believe in, and trust, and he is running in order to fill that void.

And he may not be alone in trying, given that additional candidates are likely to join him in challenging Abercrombie before voters head to the polls next year.

One of the high-profile figures who is considering a run is former Republican Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona, who lost badly to Abercrombie in 2010.

The incumbent welcomed Ige into the governor’s race in a statement Tuesday.

“Voters will have an opportunity to hear and evaluate both candidates’ respective legislative and executive experiences, track records and philosophies,” Abercrombie said. “Elections are all about choices. That is the democratic process, and voters will have a chance to engage with the candidates on critical issues that face all of us.”

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