At the right moments, it can be helpful to run with the pack, and that’s why state Rep. Mark Takai may have made up some ground Thursday in the Democratic primary to represent Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District.

State Senate President Donna Mercado Kim, who has long been the frontrunner among the seven Democrats vying for U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa’s seat, was alone on two important issues during the first televised debate. She doesn’t support gay marriage and she thinks Hawaii should be granted an exemption from Obamacare.

That solitude may help her in such a crowded field, but it could also come back to haunt her if enough Democrats fall in line behind a single candidate in the Aug. 9 election in opposition to Kim’s views. Takai has polled a close second to Kim, with the other five candidates far behind.

In response to a direct question about marriage equality, Kim said she has a gay sister and her son’s godmother is homosexual, but that her Catholic faith makes the issue “very personal” for her so she doesn’t go beyond supporting civil unions. That said, she clarified, she wants gay couples to have all of the same benefits as straight couples. Just not the right to wed.

Lead Crop CD1 Debate at PBS 7.10.14 Takai Kim Espero Xian Manahan Chang

The seven Democratic candidates for the 1st Congressional District seat get their debate instructions moments before going on the air in the PBS Hawaii studio.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Takai, who trailed Kim by six points in Civil Beat’s May poll, opposed civil unions several years ago but changed his position in 2013, voting in favor of the bill that legalized same-sex marriage last December in the Aloha State. Kim was the only Democratic senator to vote against the measure.

Takai even picked up an endorsement from Equality Hawaii, beating out far more liberal candidates like Honolulu City Councilman Stanley Chang, likely reflecting the group’s belief that Takai has the best chance of defeating Kim.

Chang has kept pace with the leaders in campaign fundraising, but trailed by double digits in the last poll. 

Kim didn’t go so far as to say she opposed Obamacare, but used her limited time to criticize the millions of dollars that have been spent to help 10,000 people access healthcare in Hawaii. She said the state, a model for providing healthcare, should be given a waiver and can find a more affordable way of insuring its citizens.

“We should be exempt and Obamacare should be tweaked on the federal level for the rest of the states who feel that they need it,” she said.

Takai acknowledged the federal Affordable Care Act has its problems, but said Hawaii should adhere to it.

“We are better off as a community, as a state, as a nation with Obamacare,” he said.

The hourlong forum, hosted by PBS Hawaii and moderated by Mahealani Richardson, gave the aspiring congressional representatives sound bite-sized windows of attention to respond to specific questions that were crafted for each of them.

Only a few queries — on genetically modified organisms, political partisanship and healthcare — were asked of all the candidates.

Kim, who was first elected to a state House seat in 1982, was asked why, in 2013, she called then-University of Hawaii President M.R.C. Greenwood to check on her son’s law school application.

Greenwood has said that it was an abuse of power, but Kim denied the former UH president’s version of the conversation Thursday, saying that she was just being a diligent mother when she asked why her son hadn’t received either a rejection letter or a notice of acceptance. Kim said she discovered that her son never got around to applying.

Takai, who has served in the state House for the past 20 years, was also asked a targeted question but it was a less personal one. A military veteran, Takai was asked about the controversy at the nation’s Department of Veterans Affairs, which led to Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation in May.

He said he is glad more resources will go to the troubled agency to resolve the problems, but said it’s ultimately a federal issue.

“We at the state level have done what we felt needed to be done,” he said, noting the creation of a veterans court in Hawaii and other efforts.

GMOs were also on the agenda, but the issue was brought up as a two-part question in a way that made it easy for some candidates to offer partial answers. The candidates were asked if they supported labeling at the federal level and if they support banning GMOs. Most dodged the issue of the ban.

All of the candidates — Takai, Kim, Chang, state Sen. Will Espero, Honolulu City Council members Ikaika Anderson and Joey Manahan and human rights activist Kathryn Xian — said they supported labeling GMOs at the federal level, although Xian said it would be better to do so locally.

“Relying on the federal government right now would be unwise if we seek to label GMOs because they are ineffective,” she said.

Generally speaking, Xian said she is opposed to corporate efforts to privatize the food system.

“Whether GMO development is healthy or unhealthy remains to be seen, but people have a right to know what foods are genetically modified,” she said.

Anti-GMO forces have repeatedly tried to get the Legislature to pass a bill that would require labeling at the state level. The hearings at the Capitol are often standing-room only with supporters carrying signs and opponents wearing their Monsanto, Syngenta or DowAgro shirts.

But the end result has invariably been stalled legislation, with many legislators saying it’s a federal issue. 

Kim said during the debate that requiring GMO food to be labeled at the state level would be unfair to Hawaii farmers who would have to follow a law not required in other states. She also aired concerns that labeling would increase the cost of food and said she has questions about who would enforce such a law and what would happen if labels fell off.

In another targeted question, Anderson, the only Native Hawaiian candidate, was asked about the issue of sovereignty in light of the Department of Interior’s recent meetings in the islands seeking public input. 

He said he favors federal recognition from the Obama administration via rule-making that could establish a government-to-government relationship.

With less than a month until the primary election, the candidates have their campaigns running at full speed. That means sign-waving galore, fundraisers, maneuvering for last-minute endorsements and trying to take advantage of the rare opportunities to stand out in joint forums.

 The next CD1 debate is set for 8 p.m., July 23, hosted by KITV.

Watch a video of the debate here:

Watch replays of past PBS debates here.

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