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About the only thing Neil Abercrombie and David Ige seemed to have in common during a debate in Honolulu Thursday night were colorful aloha shirts.
The incumbent governor and the state senator who is challenging him in the Democratic primary disagreed on many of the issues discussed live on PBS Hawaii’s “Insights.” The arguments were especially heated over who deserves credit for the state’s economic recovery and whether the administration or the Legislature was more fiscally responsible.
By now, five and a half weeks before the primary election, Abercrombie has honed his core pitch for a second four-year term as governor: The state was in bad shape when he arrived in 2010, but it was his job to turn things around — and he did. To do that, he said over and over again, he had to make “tough decisions” and “hard choices.”
“The quarterback calls the plays,” Abercrombie said, using a football metaphor to convey his in-the-scrum leadership in the face of those decisions and choices.
But Ige disagreed, co-opting the governor’s own words by saying, “The Legislature is the one that makes the tough choices.”
Or at least it has, Ige suggested, during Abercrombie’s term.
Ige said Abercrombie submitted budgets over the past four years that required lawmakers to prune $1 billion in order to balance the books. Public sector unions also helped by acquiescing to temporary cuts to wages and benefits. Robust growth in tourism, the state’s largest industry, was another big factor in economic recovery.
This was the second meeting between the two gubernatorial candidates. Their first was in a June 25 candidate forum at the Japanese Cultural Center in Honolulu, where the gregarious Abercrombie used his showmanship to win over the live audience with a stronger performance than the soft-spoken Ige.
“The quarterback calls the plays.” — Gov. Neil Abercrombie
But with just the two of them in a television studio on Thursday night, and with moderator Mahealani Richardson firing questions and follow-ups at a brisk pace, the governor and the senator were on a more even footing.
In this very different forum, Ige was the more aggressive candidate, repeatedly challenging the incumbent’s assertions — in particular on budget issues — and reminding viewers of many things that so upset people early in Abercrombie’s term, like when the governor called for taxing pensions and taking away some Medicare reimbursements.
“I killed the tax on pensions and the proposal to take away the Medicare Part B reimbursement,” said Ige, arguing that the governor’s plan would have balanced the budget “on the backs of retirees.”
Abercrombie reminded viewers several times that Ige had his own plan to tax pensions. The governor defended the proposals as necessary, given the large deficit and unfunded liabilities he encountered when he arrived in office. He also noted that not every idea gets adopted.
But Ige succeeded Thursday night in deflating the governor’s prime campaign argument. The state senator also showed a statewide TV audience that he has the stature to hold his own with the incumbent.
Ige also demonstrated a willingness to do something prominent elected officials tend to work hard to avoid: he took responsibility for something that went wrong, even when he didn’t have to.
Some background: The governor was asked about the assertion that “Ige Can’t Add,” which his campaign promoted heavily, in part by pushing #IgeCan’tAdd on Twitter to embarrass the state senator. That effort came after the governor’s $46 million line-item veto, which was necessary to bring this year’s state budget bill in line with the bond authorization bill after the discovery of a large accounting error.
Abercrombie suggested that the Legislature had not done its job, but that Ige was responsible for the mistake. Hence, the “Ige Can’t Add” jab.
“I killed the tax on pensions and the proposal to take away the Medicare Part B reimbursement.” — Sen. David Ige
“Obviously I can add,” Ige said, but he took responsibility for not catching the accounting error.
The chairman of the Senate Ways and Means committee could have also disparaged the governor’s use of the “Ige Can’t Add” playground taunt. Instead of being defensive and lashing out, Ige simply said the legislative and executive branches worked together to come up with a “painless solution” on the disparity between the bond and budget bill.
Ige also chose not to bring up the cobbled-together $40 million deal to pay for part of a conservation easement at Turtle Bay, something the governor tossed in the Legislature’s lap in the chaotic final days of the 2014 session without proposing how to pay for it.
Ige’s counterpart in the House, Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke, said the accounting error was not surprising because Abercrombie dumped the Turtle Bay issue on the Legislature as it was finishing up its end-of-session business.
Ige also pinned down the governor on gambling.
The word in some political circles has been that Abercrombie intends to allow casino gambling if re-elected. In last week’s debate, Abercrombie hedged on the issue, saying he didn’t believe a bill would ever reach his desk. Pressed by Ige, the governor said he would veto a gambling bill if one made it to him.
Overall, for two men of the same party who have often had to work together, Abercrombie and Ige demonstrated a lot of other differences in the PBS debate.
Abercrombie thinks there is room for an elementary school in Kakaako but Ige is skeptical. The governor thinks the public school system is improving, while Ige said the Department of Education and the Board of Education have too much power, which is to the detriment of principals, teachers and ultimately students.
Ige thinks Abercrombie should have sought a waiver for Hawaii to opt out of Obamacare because, under state law, most people already had health insurance. A waiver would likely have spared the state from the Hawaii Health Connector debacle. Abercrombie said that the law didn’t allow him to do that, but the state is now seeking an Affordable Care Act exemption.
Abercrombie said his administration is responding to the state’s homelessness problem. Ige said the homeless population has grown dramatically in the past four years.
There were points of agreement. Both men agreed on the need for the federal government to better assist Micronesians living in Hawaii and suggested they are open to labeling foods that contain GMOS, although not at the expense of local retailers and farmers. They both want to create more affordable housing for the middle class.
Beyond policy, the two men offer a clear contrast in leadership styles: Abercrombie is the quarterback whose tough calls don’t make everyone happy but they are ultimately for the common good. Ige says that the quarterback is not listening to the coach — i.e., the people who chose him — so it is time to replace him, to restore trust in government.
The full debate on PBS Hawaii’s “Insights” will be viewable at this link as of Friday after 1:00 am.
Abercrombie and Ige are scheduled to meet again July 10 in a forum sponsored by Hawaii News Now and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
And on Thursday it was announced that Abercrombie and Ige would appear at four forums across the state hosted by AARP Hawaii: July 18 in Kahului, Maui; July 28 in Hilo, Hawaii; July 29 in Kona, Hawaii; and Aug. 2 in Honolulu.
The candidates are also set to appear at a forum sponsored by the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce, also scheduled for July 29; the AARP event is scheduled for the morning while the chamber event is slated for the evening.
There is talk of the two candidates also potentially meeting in Waimea on the Big Island on July 23.
Abercrombie’s acceptance of additional debates raises questions about why an incumbent feels the need to give voters so many more opportunities to compare and contrast the two candidates. And Thursday’s encounter showed that the side-by-side comparisons don’t necessarily play in the governor’s favor.
This may be especially true for the AARP forums, where Abercrombie may have some convincing to do. In his first term, the governor said he would “roll over” the senior citizens lobby in order to tax pensions and change the Medicare reimbursement.
But one thing is for sure: More voters are going to get a chance to directly size up the Democratic candidates for governor.