Hawaii Democratic Candidates for Governor Sharpen Debate

The incumbent governor and leading state senate challenger met twice, more sparks the second time.


State Sen. David Ige enjoyed a strong recent surge in some polls in his bid to unseat incumbent Gov. Neil Abercrombie in the Democratic primary, but now Abercrombie may be gaining some ground after the two faced off in two televised forums.

The second debate/discussion on Thursday night on Hawaii News Now between the top  Democratic candidates for governor was more argumentative. Ige and Abercrombie interrupted each other and more directly contradicted each other than at the first meeting at PBS Hawaii.

Ige hammered that he was running due to a  "lack of leadership" by Abercrombie.

But Abercrombie scored points when he said that Sen. Ige doesn’t talk about the students and the inspired teachers in the public schools when he discusses school policy and is therefore leaving out the crucial element of education.

And the two sparred over preschool funding with Abercrombie painting Ige as reluctant to fund preschools, with Ige pushing back that Abercrombie didn’t have enough money budgeted to pay for what his administration proposed to the state Legislature.

Colin Moore, who teaches political science at the University of Hawaii, said that Ige is going to have to be more than the anti-Abercrombie candidate to reach the general election. Instead of pointing fingers at the current administration, Ige needs to define policies of his own that differentiate him from Abercrombie.

“I just don’t think you can win in a primary like this just by presenting yourself as ’not the incumbent’,” Moore said. “Voters won’t turn out for you.”

And that’s what matters especially with Abercrombie the far better funded Democrat. Although Abercrombie’s approval ratings have never topped 50 percent, the veteran politician has a statewide base of supporters who will vote for him in the primary. Ige is likable and calm, with a legislative track record that’s allowed him to head the Senate’s most powerful committee: Ways and Means. Yet, while he’s branding himself as a better manager, that alone probably won’t be enough to energize voters across the state without a strong platform to back it up, Moore said.

Political analyst Neal Milner said the challenger needs to show what he could do that Abercrombie won’t. As he puts it, “Ige has just been Ige, a little more policy-oriented before but pretty much following his same ’I am a very decent, highly competent, non-bombastic guy who is not Abercrombie.’”

Milner sees Abercrombie as more interesting and buoyed by a confident incumbent’s attitude. He suggests watching Abercrombie’s 15-minute “Bucket of Stars” campaign video to see how he can use that attitude to keep his job for another four years.  “(He’s) the lover (of Hawaii) not the fighter.”


John Hart, Director of the Communication Department at Hawaii Pacific University, took a more neutral position.

“The governor emerged, as many thought he would, as the better public speaker and debater. One person’s “bombast” is another person’s “assertive,” Hart pointed out.

However, he added, “The senator accomplished what a speaker needs to in this situation. He stayed on message and did not take any positions that would endanger the support he already has.”

Abercrombie and Ige have had two joint televised appearances – last week on “Insights on PBS Hawaii” – where many thought Ige appeared stronger; and Thursday July 10 on Hawaii News Now, where many thought Abercrombie came out ahead. No other televised forums or debates are planned before the Aug. 9 primary.

*Disclaimer: Treena Shapiro is a producer for “Insights on PBS Hawaii.”