One question asked of lieutenant governor candidates at a televised debate Monday night offered voters a clear distinction between the five candidates running for Hawaii’s second-highest elected office.

Would you send in the National Guard to protect construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea?

Yes, said state Sen. Jill Tokuda and Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho.

No, said former Board of Education member Kim Coco Iwamoto, state Sen. Josh Green and former lawmaker Will Espero.

“I would never treat people with that much disrespect in the Hawaiian community,” Green told Hawaii News Now anchor Mahealani Richardson, who moderated what was billed as a “Super Debate.”

The debate, at Kamehameha Schools and co-sponsored by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, lasted three hours with the five lieutenant governor candidates taking up the first hour. Besides fielding questions from Hawaii News Now journalists, the candidates were put on the spot by Kamehameha students about the high cost of living and educational opportunities, among other things.

Five Democratic candidates running for lieutenant governor include, from left, former state Sen. Will Espero, Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho, state Sens. Jill Tokuda and Josh Green, and Kim Coco Iawamoto, a former state school board member. Screenshot: Hawaii News Now

While the candidates were definitive on where they stood on TMT construction, an issue that has split the Native Hawaiian community, they all dodged a question about whether they preferred David Ige or Colleen Hanabusa as governor.

They all said they could serve with either one.

“If I am honored and privileged to win, and if David Ige wins, I could run for governor in four years. If Colleen Hanabusa wins, I could run for governor in eight years. Either way it would give me an opportunity,” said Espero, who served in the Legislature for 19 years before retiring earlier this year.

The lieutenant governor is not a powerful position in state government and is largely seen as a stepping stone to higher office. Aside from taking over if the governor is out of state or incapacitated, the LG has the authority to grant name changes and process documents to convey public lands.

All five candidates vowed Monday night to change that perception as well as the reality. They used the question to define themselves to voters, each proposing to revamp the office along the lines of their own interests and strengths.

Tokuda suggested making the lieutenant governor the chair of the Board of Education. She described herself as a fighter who has had to make tough decisions both as the former Senate Ways and Means Committee chair and as a working mother in a multigenerational household.

Tokuda, who also chaired the Senate Education Committee for many years, called education the great equalizer and said the state can help Native Hawaiians by providing more access to affordable preschool.

Green, an emergency room doctor, said that as lieutenant governor he would “take ownership of the homeless crisis and opioid epidemic.”

He put universal access to health care on the top of his priorities and pointed to his initiatives outside of the Legislature, including starting a health clinic in Chinatown, as examples of  his commitment to helping curb the state’s homeless crisis.

Iwamoto cited her own community outreach efforts, including coordinating free legal clinics in homeless shelters.

Iwamoto said Bernie Sanders inspired her campaign. She stressed the importance of collecting more taxes from corporations and short-term vacation rentals, and said the state should ensure that public employees make a living wage.

When asked about how he would address poverty and homelessness, Carvalho said he would replicate statewide an adolescent substance abuse treatment center launched on Kauai.

He jumped at each opportunity to respond to questions and repeatedly said he has “boots on the ground” experience, especially when it comes to disaster response.

Espero stressed the importance of community preparedness in response to natural disasters or emergencies.  

“At the community level, within your block, within your neighborhood, we need to do much more to make certain that if there is a problem or an emergency, the community can take care of itself until the professionals and the resources do come in,” he said.

To help Hawaii’s tourism-dependent economy, Espero said the state should support and promote local artists, who can offer visitors an attraction that doesn’t have the damaging effects large resorts have on the environment.

The former chair of the Housing Committee, Espero said the state needs to build more affordable housing and streamline the permitting process to allow developers to more easily build.

Candidates for Hawaii lieutenant governor lined up at Kamehameha Schools’ Kapalama campus for Hawaii News Now’s “Super Debate.” Screenshot: Hawaii News Now

Tokuda has raised more money than any of her Democratic competitors – $330,000 – in the last filing period, which covers the last six months of 2017. A substantial amount of her money – more than $30,000 – came from her colleagues in the Legislature, including powerful money committee chairs Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz and Rep. Sylvia Luke.

Green’s campaign brought in $206,591 during the same filing period; more recent campaign fundraising data won’t be available until July 12. Iwamoto, Espero and Carvalho lagged behind in fundraising.

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