Six Democratic candidates for Congress shared the stage Monday night in a freewheeling and, at times, testy forum that touched on education, Native Hawaiian issues and the role of the military in Hawaii’s economy.
The prospect of heading to Washington to replace U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who is running for governor, has attracted several big names in local politics to run for the 1st Congressional District seat.
The televised forum, part of Hawaii News Now’s “Super Debate” event that also included debates among the Democratic candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, was held before a live audience at Kamehameha Schools. It was co-sponsored by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
Squaring off were Donna Mercado Kim, the former state Senate President known for her tough questions during legislative hearings; Lt. Gov. Doug Chin, the former Hawaii attorney general who gained national notice fighting President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travelers from Muslim countries; and former U.S. Rep. Ed Case, who served three terms in Congress.
Also taking the stage were Honolulu City Council Chairman Ernie Martin; state Rep. Beth Fukumoto, a once-rising Republican star who left the party after being ousted as House minority leader for publicly criticizing Trump; and state Rep. Kaniela Ing, a progressive from Maui facing questions from both state and federal officials concerning alleged irregularities with his campaign spending reports.
The candidates sparred on several issues — and on who has the most relevant experience to represent the state in Washington, D.C.
Some of the sharpest differences in views regarded the military’s large role in Hawaii.
Ing said the military has too large an economic, political and social footprint in the state. “We need to build an economy based on peace,” he said.
Chin, Martin and Case said the military presence was about the right size.
Case said the issue went beyond whether the economy would suffer if the military downsized — it was a matter of Hawaii playing its part to help with the nation’s defense.
“I believe that we have an obligation in Hawaii to assist our country whenever we can,” he said.
While all of the candidates said they would educate their colleagues in Congress about Native Hawaiian issues, Fukumoto was the only candidate who said she would make federal recognition of Native Hawaiians a priority.
In response to the question of how candidates would ensure Hawaii had a strong workforce of quality teachers, most of the candidates talked broadly about education without answering the question.
Ing and Fukumoto both touted the need for free college education, and Martin talked about the need to “streamline” the U.S. Department of Education, for instance.
Kim, meanwhile, used the question as an opportunity to tell her personal story of working her way through college. Case talked about his work in Congress to help pass legislation supporting Native Hawaiian education.
Chin said the issue is, “how do we make sure we have the best teachers? And how do we make sure we have funding?” But the lieutenant governor provided scant details on how he would address the issue.
Fukumoto and Chin boasted of their record of standing up to President Donald Trump.
“There’s no question that whoever goes to Washington, D.C., will have to stand up to Trump and that’s what I’ve done from the very beginning,” Chin said.
“Nobody has stood up to Trump the way I stood up to Trump,” said Fukumoto, who lost her Republican leadership position after speaking out against the president.
Case touted his ability to work across partisan lines in D.C, saying “he’d done it before and will do it again.”
“I think there is way too much yelling and not enough talking in Washington, D.C.,” he said.
For Kim, the issue isn’t really about fighting Trump or changing the tone of the political discourse. “I’m going to Washington to fight for Hawaii,” she said.
The format also gave the candidates the opportunity to ask each other questions.
Ing used the opportunity to question Fukumoto pointedly about her state House record as a Republican voting against progressive positions on issues such as gay marriage, emergency contraception in rape cases and allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses.
Fukumoto shot back that she had been carefully vetted before being allowed to join the Democratic Party. “I am the most fully vetted Democrat on this stage,” she said.
Case asked Kim, who has more than 30 years’ experience as a public official, to quit claiming she was the most experienced candidate when he’s the only one who has previously served in Congress.
Kim, meanwhile, accused Case of missing 48 percent of votes while in Congress, an assertion Case called “absolutely incorrect.”
A fact check on the site govtrack.com showed that, “From Jan 2003 to Dec 2006, Case missed 148 of 2,435 roll call votes, which is 6.1%.”
“This is much worse than the median of 2.9% among the lifetime records of representatives serving in Dec 2006,” the site says.
It was difficult to say who gained the most ground during Monday’s event.
Colin Moore, director of the University of Hawaii’s Public Policy Center, told the Hawaii News Now audience that Case probably appeared the most experienced. And Moore gave points to Martin for coming across as an engaging candidate who connected with the audience by talking about standing in a long line to get a driver’s license.
The latest poll in the congressional race, conducted by Civil Beat in May, showed Kim in first place with 26 percent of likely Democratic voters saying they would vote for her and 19 percent saying they favor Chin. Another 11 percent were leaning toward Fukumoto.
But the survey of 321 Democratic voters was conducted before Case jumped into the race in June. He is viewed as a formidable contender.
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