LIHUE, KAUAI — U.S. Senate candidates Brian Schatz and Colleen Hanabusa went toe-to-toe here Tuesday night in the first of five scheduled joint appearances.
It’s a competitive race that has made national headlines. Just this week The New York Times suggested Gov. Neil Abercrombie might have risked his own re-election when he appointed Schatz rather than Hanabusa to the Senate to fill a vacancy.
Not just any vacancy, it was that of the revered late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye.
For all the talk of the intensity of the race, the Kauai forum was rather relaxed and less an exchange of differences than it was a contrast in styles and philosophies.
Hanabusa presented herself as the more experienced elected official, a person whose values and perspectives were shaped by humble beginnings in Waianae. She tended to dive into the details of policy debates, comfortable with the sometimes arcane nature of government.
Schatz is the fighter for the middle class who lives in a multi-generational household with his wife’s parents. He is more conversational than his opponent, presenting issues in personal ways that many voters can understand.
Schatz, the U.S. senator, and Hanabusa, the U.S. representative, agreed on many things.
This includes the view that Native Hawaiians should determine their own self-governance, that renewable energy is essential to Hawaii’s future and that relationships in the U.S Congress are key to coming through for folks back home.
Both candidates also say that more doctors are needed to help the military veterans waiting for care, that the Pacific Missile Range Facility on the west side of Kauai is good for local jobs and national defense, and that Social Security and other entitlements must be protected.
“Nothing is more personal for a lot of people than this — what we put on the table, what we put in kids’ bodies.” — Brian Schatz.
In fact, surprisingly few sharp policy distinctions emerged between Schatz and Hanabusa Tuesday, though Schatz in particular sought to point several out.
To name just one, he pointed to Hanabusa’s support for expanding naval hospital services on Guam whereas Schatz said he would rather see a focus on veterans facilities in Hawaii. Hanabusa countered that Schatz may not fully understand that there are growing numbers of veterans on Guam, and in the Philippines and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Schatz called it a “moral failure” that the United States has not taken care of the men and women who have served, and continue to serve. Hanabusa said the Kauai-born Eric Shinseki, the former secretary of Veterans Affairs, should have been given more time to fix the problem. The representative said that President Barack Obama offered that courtesy to Kathleen Sebelius, the former director of Health and Human Services, so that the Obamacare rollout could be improved.
Schatz was at his best on climate change and the related issues of renewable energy and sustainability. Not only are those issues at the core of his campaign, it is clear that he genuinely believes the planet — and Hawaii — are in trouble and that humans must take real responsibility and try to slow climate change.
Hanabusa was at her best when she argued that the U.S. should stay out of Iraq. With the number of military personnel now exceeding 700, and with Apache helicopters and drones in use, Hanabusa is very worried that the United States is making the same mistake it did when it invaded Iraq in 2003. She insisted that the American people have a right to know why the U.S. is back in the region, what the plan is and whether there is an exit strategy.
Hanabusa was less eloquent when she was asked about the federal government’s role regarding genetically engineered food. Her answer basically boiled down to this: the feds must continue to be involved in the rule-making process, there are questions about what’s allowable in terms of percentages of GMOs, and that government needs to continue studying the matter.
Hanabusa insists that the American people have a right to know why the U.S. is back in Iraq.
Schatz, well aware of the GMO protests on Kauai that resulted in changes to county law regarding GMOs and pesticides, spoke articulately from the heart.
“Nothing is more personal for a lot of people than this — what we put on the table, what we put in kids’ bodies,” he said. “I understand the passions across the state of Hawaii.”
Schatz said he would insist that the federal government honor home rule in such matters.
Schatz also played better to the Kauai crowd when a question about the Hawaii Superferry came up.
“Not on Kauai!” he said, getting knowing laughs and groans from the crowd. The Superferry, after all, only traveled twice to Kauai, but protesters at Nawiliwili Harbor didn’t let it dock the second time.
Hanabusa offered a less crowd-pleasing, but interesting answer. She said there might be a military use for one of the two defunct ferries. She’d like to see a vessel used to transport military equipment from Oahu to the Pohakuloa training area on the Big Island and to have the ferry on hand in times of natural disasters.
There was a lot of name-dropping at the forum, especially from Schatz. In stressing how he has built relationships with Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle, he mentioned nearly all 99 of them, several repeatedly.
For her part, Hanabusa mentioned Sen. Inouye several times. Inouye’s widow, Irene Hirano Inouye, was in the audience, and Hanabusa pointed her out.
The 90-minute forum, held at the Kauai War Memorial Convention Hall, was sponsored by the Kauai Chamber of Commerce.
Schatz and Hanabusa will meet again Wednesday evening at Sangha Hall in Hilo at a forum sponsored by the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce, the Japanese Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Hawaii and several other groups.
The forum will be broadcast live on radio station LAVA 105.3 FM and streamed online at www.hawaii247.com. Hawaii Public Radio is scheduled to rebroadcast the forum Thursday evening.
And, Civil Beat and KITV will hold a Schatz-Hanabusa debate Monday at 9 p.m. In the meantime, AARP Hawaii has a forum set for July 15 while Hawaii News Now will welcome the candidates July 17.
There is one other Democrat, entertainer Brian Evans, running for the Senate seat. Former lawmaker Cam Cavasso is among four Republican candidates. There is also a Libertarian and a nonpartisan candidate in the race.
The primary is Aug. 9.