Hawaii Gov. David Ige and Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa traded barbs Monday over the false missile alert, special interest legislation and Ige’s arm’s-length relationship with his lieutenant governor during an hourlong debate at Kamehameha Schools.
They hit their campaign themes early and often, with Hanabusa touting her “proven record of leadership” and Ige “doing the right things for the right reasons.”
The “Super Debate,” hosted by Hawaii News Now, also featured the Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor and the 1st Congressional District race earlier in the evening. The event was co-sponsored by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
There were more sparks in the six-person congressional debate than between an even-keeled Ige and a feistier but still subdued Hanabusa.
It was actually the second debate of the day between the two longtime Democratic leaders, who squared off in the morning over environmental and immigration issues at a Waikiki event sponsored by tourism groups.
Colin Moore, director of the University of Hawaii Public Policy Center, said the debate was about leadership.
“Everyone already believes he’s trustworthy,” Moore said of Ige. “The question is if he’s up for the job.”
For Hanabusa, it was about the lack of specifics. “There hasn’t been a lot of content with her campaign,” Moore said.
Ige repeatedly highlighted how he promised his administration would cool 1,000 classrooms and is at 1,300 and counting. And he underscored how homelessness has decreased the last two years while 5,300 new housing units have been built, 2,000 of which are considered affordable.
Hanabusa didn’t offer much in the way of her own housing plan but criticized Ige for only creating 2,000 affordable units in four years. She also said he should not take credit for signing a bill that infuses $200 million into the rental housing trust fund, saying that unprecedented effort was driven by the Legislature.
When the candidates were given the opportunity to question each other, Ige pulled out his notes and asked Hanabusa about the state’s multibillion-dollar unfunded liabilities problem. He criticized her for not responding to a reporter’s requests for comment on the issue, presumably referring to a Civil Beat story last month.
He noted his work on the issue since he became governor, but also his efforts when he was chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Specifically, Ige noted how he authored legislation that requires the state and counties to pre-fund the health benefits promised to public-worker retirees and his support in cracking down on pension spiking.
Hanabusa said she has consulted with Ige’s former budget chief, Wes Machida, now a member of the Employees’ Retirement System Board of Trustees, on the challenges of unfunded liabilities and what needs to be done to address them.
When Hanabusa got her turn to question Ige, she asked what he was doing during the 38 minutes it took his administration to recall the false missile alert that was sent to Hawaii residents’ mobile phones Jan. 13.
Ige said he was at home getting ready to go to an event and started making calls when he received the alert.
“Clearly, we were not prepared,” he said, adding that “an individual made a human error.” Ige said new leadership has been put in place, certain employees were fired and the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s response to subsequent natural disasters has been commendable.
Hanabusa said he could have called a TV news station or taken other action to respond faster. She recommended everyone go to the Hawaii News Now website and download the internal emails that media outlets obtained through a records request. They include allegations of HEMA employees being asleep and lacking training.
“How come we didn’t matter?” she said.
Ige took a familiar shot at Hanabusa for the bill she pushed through the Legislature in 2003 as a state senator that provided a $75 million tax credit for a single developer.
Hanabusa said she would do the same thing over again if she could. While only about $3 million of the tax credit ended up being used, she said it led to the development of Ko Olina and Disney’s Aulani resort, which provide jobs for West Oahu residents.
“That is what leadership is all about,” she said.
Ige responded, saying “that is special interest legislation in all capital letters.” He said Hanabusa’s future husband and then-fiance, John Souza, made a $400,000 profit “on a sweetheart land deal.”
With five lieutenant governor candidates having being asked earlier in the evening how they’d work with the next governor, Hanabusa asked Ige about his relationship with former Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui, who stepped down in January to go to work for a political consulting firm.
Hanabusa said Tsutsui quit in frustration after Ige failed to give him work to do. Tsutsui has endorsed Hanabusa and was at the outdoor debate at Kamehameha Schools’ Kapalama Campus.
Ige said he met with Tsutsui two or three times after they were elected in 2014 and approved every request he made to work on his own initiatives. He said he invited Tsutsui to his Cabinet meetings but that Tsutsui never came to one.
Hanabusa said Tsutsui should not have been treated like a Cabinet member, but rather the elected official he was.
The candidates also went back and forth on infrastructure, education, tourism and natural resource management. But there was little substance in the exchanges, in part due to the limitations of 90-second answers and 45-second rebuttals.
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