KAILUA-KONA, HAWAII — Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s unsuccessful proposal in 2011 to tax the pensions of seniors citizens was bound to come up at a candidate forum sponsored by AARP Hawaii.

Sure enough, debate moderator Gerald Kato, a journalism professor at the University of Hawaii, asked Tuesday morning whether Abercrombie or state Sen. David Ige would consider the idea of a pension tax again “if the economy went south.”

The audience at the King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel tittered. It was a lighthearted moment early in a long day that ended with the governor thoroughly exasperated during a second forum with Ige that evening.

But first, back to the AARP event.

Ige said he would not consider a pension tax, explaining that the economy was in trouble three years ago, too, but that he was a legislator who would not balance the state budget “on the backs of seniors” — a line he has used many times.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie speaking during debate with Sen. David Ige. The debate was presented by the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce at Kealakehe High School on July 29, 2014. Steve Petranik, editor of Hawaii Business Magazine was the moderator.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie speaks during the evening debate with Sen. David Ige.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Abercrombie was prepared. He used a tactic that might appeal to audiences old enough to remember (they include me) by bringing up the late radio broadcaster Paul Harvey and his “the rest of the story” routine.

In this case, the governor said he had heard “loud and clear” that his pension tax idea was a bad one, and he assured AARP that it was “off the table.” But, à la Paul Harvey, did the organization know that Ige once considered a bill that would have raised the state’s general excise tax — something that would be rough for everyone in the state, not just seniors. Abercrombie even called the measure a pension tax bill.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Sen. David Ige during debate presented by AARP at the King Kamehameha Hotel in Kailua-Kona on July 29, 2014

Issues of importance to senior citizens comprised much, but not all, of the AARP Hawaii forum.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Ige asked for time from Kato to “set the record straight.” He said his approach to legislating is to consider a variety of ideas, even unpopular ones. Besides, the GET hike died in committee.

“That is the end of the story,” he concluded, also channeling Paul Harvey.

The governor, sensing he was scoring debate points, wanted to keep talking about the vote. But Kato moved on to another topic.

What did the fifth of six planned forums between Ige and Abercrombie show voters?

That they have very different approaches to leadership style: Ige is more collaborative, while Abercrombie is not afraid to make “hard choices” and “tough decisions.” (Or maybe it’s “tough choices” and “hard decisions.” Either way, the governor has used the phrases or some form of them ad nauseam throughout his campaign).

Gov. Neil Abercrombie points to Sen. David Ige during debate presented by AARP at the King Kamehameha Hotel in Kailua-Kona on July 29, 2014

Gov. Neil Abercrombie points to Sen. David Ige during the morning debate.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

That they agree on some things — like permanently funding the Kupuna Care program for the elderly in the state budget and doing more to encourage doctors to provide more care in rural areas, the latter issue of great importance to the Big Island.

That they disagree on other things — like the constitutional amendment before Hawaii voters this fall that would allow public money to be spent on private preschool. The governor thinks it’s a great way to help young kids while Ige says the state can’t afford it.

And that they don’t seem to like each other all that much.

Sure, they are political opponents, but Abercrombie (who may be in the political fight of his career, if some polls are to be believed) seems perplexed that voters might want to toss aside his 40 years in public service in favor of a little-known legislator who Abercrombie says has only started speaking out about issues “in just in the last 40 weeks.” He says Ige speaks in generalities and lacks specifics, in contrast to the governor who points to concrete examples.

For his part, Ige (who, should he win, would pull off an historic political upset) seems weary of hearing Abercrombie boast about how he turned the ship of state around when he became governor, as if the Legislature had nothing to do with it. The governor may be a much better public speaker, but the senator believes his “quiet and effective” approach —  à la George Ariyoshi — is the far better way of governance.

Decriminalize Pakalolo?

Some new things emerged in this debate.

The governor does not want to jump on the Colorado and Washington state bandwagon in legalizing marijuana. He is particularly worried about the impact on youth. But he is open to the idea of decriminalization as a potential revenue source.

Ige is not open to the idea. But he does want to look at establishing medical marijuana dispensaries for qualified patients. Both issues have been before lawmakers in recent sessions.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie holds up a bill regarding caregivers  during debate presented by AARP at the King Kamehameha Hotel in Kailua-Kona on July 29, 2014

Gov. Abercrombie holds up a bill regarding caregivers during the debate.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

And an issue that surfaced at a forum in Waimea last week came up again Tuesday: Ige says the state is at risk of losing $800 million in federal funding for transportation projects because the administration has not responded to warnings. Ige said that is hurting projects on the Big Island like work on Queen Kaahumanu Highway and thus hurting the economy and jobs.

Abercrombie said that was “completely false,” “a complete fabrication” and “a complete falsehood.” The holdup in using the funds has to do with things like lawsuits against certain projects, he said. The federal money is not at risk.

A couple of other observations: Ige seems to be growing more comfortable in the public arena, helped by the experience going toe-to-toe with the governor and taking his campaign across the state. Abercrombie seems to have toned down his attack mode on “the senator” in favor of illustrating more examples of differences between the two candidates.

For example, the issue of training caregivers who assist patients hospital and returned home.

Sen. David Ige speaks to senior citizen after debate with Gov. Neil Abercrombie (shown on left of Ige in background) presented by AARP at the King Kamehameha Hotel in Kailua-Kona on July 29, 2014

David Ige speaks to an audience member after the morning debate.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Ige said there is a task force looking into that, in part because issues of hospital liability needed to be addressed. But the governor held up a physical copy of the concurrent resolution that asked the governor to convene the task force. Abercrombie’s point was that the Legislature wanted to study the critical issue of caregiving but that his administration was actually acting upon it and would submit new legislation next year should he be returned to office.

Public-access station Na Leo O Hawaii  and Oceanic Time Warner recorded the AARP Hawaii forum, so it should be available to peruse.

‘Glittering Generalities’

The evening event at the Kealakehe High School cafeteria in Kailua-Kona was sponsored by the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce.

This time, Abercrombie was back on the attack. He repeatedly reacted with shock, feigned or otherwise, whenever Ige spoke.

The governor’s main gripe was that Ige kept speaking in what Abercrombie called “glittering generalities.”

He said that Ige’s comments on policy lacked virtually any substance.

The governor grew particularly exasperated when the candidates were asked about whether an appointed or elected state Board of Education was preferable, and who should establish curriculum. Ige said the appointed board had resulted in taking power away from principals. He suggested that had led to schools’ decline.

Abercrombie almost blew his top. He said Ige’s statements amounted to “the most astounding statement” he had heard in the campaign, and he insisted that Ige reconsider his words. Abercrombie said Ige had called Board of Education members “dictators.”

Ige stayed calm and stood by his view on the Board of Education, saying he was happy to share with anyone evidence of how principals feel.

And that was what kind of night it was: Abercrombie defending passionately his administration and Ige stating that the last four years amounted to failed leadership.

The primary is 11 days away.

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