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For much of 90 minutes Tuesday, Neil Abercrombie reminded a lot of folks why they may have voted for him all these years.
The occasion was a Democratic gubernatorial candidate forum at the Japanese Cultural Center in Moiliili. The high point came when the topic was the Hawaii Health Connector.
David Ige, Abercrombie’s primary challenger, called the state’s health insurance exchange a “complete disaster.” Like the federal Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), the Connector struggled with technical problems at its launch and posted low enrollment numbers.
The state senator also praised Hawaii’s 1974 Prepaid Health Care Act, the 1975 law that Ige said was a model for the nation. It served as a reminder of the important work of the Hawaii Legislature, something Ige — who has spent the past 29 years there — emphasized throughout the forum
That’s when the governor pounced.
“You’ve heard claims today about what the Legislature did — ‘the Legislature did this, the Legislature did that,'” Abercrombie said. “Well, what is the Health Connector? It’s completely a creature of the Legislature! The Health Connector didn’t suddenly appear. It wasn’t spontaneous combustion. It’s a nonprofit corporation completely created by the Legislature!”
The audience clapped and laughed. Abercrombie, relishing the moment, laughed too — a lot.
But he did not stop berating Ige. As someone who was elected to the state House of Representatives in the same year the Prepaid Health Care Act was passed, Abercrombie said he didn’t need to hear “lectures” about the landmark legislation.
“Pundits have said I would not know a sound bite if it bit me in the okole.” — State Sen. David Ige
Then the governor delivered this zinger.
“If the Legislature is upset with how the Connector is working, I suggest that they get a mirror,” he said.
Ige tried to “set the record straight” by pointing out that four members of the governor’s Cabinet sit on the Connector’s board of directors and are thus responsible for the nonprofit’s actions.
“To pretend like the governor is not involved is absolutely inaccurate,” he said.
Abercrombie countered that it was the Legislature that decided the board’s composition.
It was vintage Abercrombie: in command of his material, swaying his audience, putting his opponent on the ropes and thoroughly enjoying himself in the process.
It’s the kind of Abercrombie that a lot of folks in Hawaii have not seen much of since he was elected governor in 2010 — hence the reason a Civil Beat poll this month showed the relatively unknown Ige with an 11 percentage point lead.
Unfortunately for the governor, most voters may never see Tuesday’s forum, which was sponsored by the Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce. It was not broadcast.
Most folks in the state will just have two chances to size up the Democratic hopefuls between now and the Aug. 9 primary: July 3 on PBS Hawaii’s “Insights” and a Hawaii News Now forum with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on July 10 that will be broadcast on KGMB, KHNL and KFVE.
There may be a few joint community appearances and it’s possible one or two may be broadcast on community television. But that’s it.
Ige has welcomed as many debates and forums as possible. Abercrombie, the incumbent and presumed favorite going in, has been less willing, his campaign noting the governor’s busy official schedule. Abercrombie’s handlers no doubt want to limit the opportunity for their guy to make a gaffe that might be immortalized on the Internet.
If Abercrombie performs in future forums as he did in this one, however, he may well get back some of the voters who have strayed from him.
And, as his opponent admitted Tuesday, Ige is neither a great orator nor a polished debater. His vocal range is limited, his face does not display a wide range of emotions and he is physically contained.
That said, for a guy who doesn’t traffic in sound bites, he had the best sound bite of the day when he said, “Pundits have said I would not know a sound bite if it bit me in the okole.” (The polite Hawaiian translation is “rear end.”)
“If the Legislature is upset with how the Connector is working, I suggest that they get a mirror.” — Gov. Neil Abercrombie
By contrast, Abercrombie, who is 15 years older than Ige, looked relaxed and rested, smiled broadly and punctuated his points with fist jabs. A politician for the better part of 40 years, he knows how to use his rich voice to pour emotion into rhetoric and end his sentences in such a declaratory fashion that audiences often applaud.
The governor managed to keep his familiar tropes — like paddling the canoe to the shore — to a minimum. Then again, he introduced a new catch phrase and used it several times: “We’re back, we’re on track, we’re in the black.”
When Abercrombie spoke about how he and his wife, Nancie Caraway, saved for 29 years before they could afford their Manoa home, it did not sound like pandering to an electorate that is discouraged by home prices that average more than $600,000.
Neil Abercrombie is quite capable of pandering. He can come across as insincere. He can get his facts mixed up and forget names and programs. He can lose his cool. But that Neil Abercrombie was not in the Japanese Cultural Center Manoa Grand Ballroom on Tuesday.
There are those who have grown tired of Abercrombie’s well-honed schtick. A great appeal of Ige is he is the anti-Abercrombie, a non-politician who speaks honestly if wonkily. He’s real. But is it enough to unseat an incumbent?
In many ways, Tuesday’s forum was a battle between the legislative and executive branches. The challenge for Ige, however, is that the Legislature has 76 members whereas Abercrombie, for better or worse, runs an administration that has a record.
Ige was at his best when he reminded voters that the Legislature had cut $1 billion from Abercrombie budgets over the past few years, suggesting that the governor’s many claims to fiscal responsibility are exaggerated. He also dinged the governor for not naming a new chair of the Public Utilities Commission to help the state on its path toward more renewable energy.
(The governor is keeping current PUC Chairwoman Mina Morita on a temporary basis.)
Ige’s main argument for switching governors is this: “Hawaii is not headed in the right direction. Too many decisions are made on behalf of special interests rather than the public interest.”
UPDATE: The candidates agreed on several things: Gambling isn’t coming to Hawaii under their watch (Ige opposes it while Abercrombie said he did not think a gambling bill would reach the governor’s desk; an earlier version of this article said, inaccurately, that both candidates oppose gambling), neither candidate would increase the general excise tax, they want to help Native Hawaiians with self-determination and they think either Brian Schatz or Colleen Hanabusa would make a fine U.S. senator.
(Abercrombie explained once more why he chose Schatz over Hanabusa to replace the late Dan Inouye, once again showing his obvious preference for Schatz, his former lieutenant governor, without actually saying so.)
Abercrombie believes the best thing for public schools is to approve a constitutional amendment question this fall to allow the state to use public funds for private preschools. Ige thinks the best thing to do is to restore school autonomy, empower principals and get more resources into classrooms.
Abercrombie mentioned how the same issues that he was focused on in his first successful race in 1974 — energy, education and the environment — are still the top issues today. That could be interpreted as a good thing or a bad thing.