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Gay marriage dominates Democrats' House debate

The four candidates tout varied levels of experience in trying to win over voters

By Gordon Y.K. Pang

LAST UPDATED: 2:14 a.m. HST, Jul 13, 2012

The four major candidates in the Demo­cratic primary for the 2nd Congressional District exchanged barbs during a feisty 90-minute debate Thursday night that touched on issues from their views on same-sex marriage to their ranges of political experience.

At the end of the debate, all of them said they thought they were able to convince rural Oahu and neighbor island voters that they should be chosen on primary election day, Aug. 11.

City Councilwoman Tulsi Gabbard said her experiences as a war veteran and legislator put her in the best position to serve the district.

Esther Kia‘aina, a veteran congressional aide and Office of Hawaiian Affairs political advocate, said her years in the halls of Capitol Hill makes her most able to hit the ground running in Washington.

Hannemann, Gabbard trade jabs in debate

Mufi Hannemann said he was able to separate himself from the pack by reinforcing for voters his record as a former Hono­lulu mayor, Council member and an official at state and federal levels.

Hilo attorney Bob Marx said he won points by showing that he has more knowledge of financial issues than the other candidates as a former member of the Oregon legislature and a negotiator in legal matters.

The incumbent, Mazie Hirono, is giving up her House post to run for the U.S. Senate seat Daniel Akaka is relinquishing.

One recurring theme during the debate was same-sex marriage.

Gabbard's father, state Sen. Mike Gabbard, successfully led the fight against same-sex marriage in the 1990s. She said she will "fight for equality of all Americans regardless of race, gender, age or sexual orientation" and that she supports President Barack Obama's recent position in favor of marriage equality.

Gabbard said she will work to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act by co-sponsoring the Respect for Marriage Act, which would require the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages.

Gabbard, who once spoke at the Legislature against gay rights, said she formulated her latest position after serving in the Army in Af­ghani­stan.

"I've been through some very unique experiences in my life that have really caused me to stand here today with great conviction that I support marriage equality," Gabbard said. "Serving in the Middle East on two tours caused me to see the harshest impacts, the most negative impacts, of what can happen when you have a government that tries to serve as a so-called moral arbiter for its people."

Hannemann, a devout Mormon, said he is struggling with the same-sex marriage issue "because I have my personal views." He said while he continues to support traditional marriage between a man and a woman, he would be willing to listen to those who want to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act.

Both Kia‘aina and Marx said they would co-sponsor the Respect for Marriage Act. Both criticized Gabbard for changing her position on civil unions and same-sex marriage.

The repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act "is necessary to ensure uniformity across the country," Kia‘aina said.

Marx said he previously supported only civil unions but that he now thinks "separate but equal is not working" and that he supports marriage equality.

GABBARD WENT on the offensive against Hannemann, her biggest opponent in the primary, accusing him of practicing a "play-for-pay" system of distributing contracts while he was mayor from 2004 to 2010. She pointed to articles showing those who contributed to Hannemann's campaigns were apt to win city contracts.

Hannemann flatly denied any impropriety.

"Every contract was handed out through the state procurement system," he said. "We followed the rules. We followed the regulations."

The debate was sponsored by Hawaii News Now and the Hono­lulu Star-Advertiser.

Under the format, the candidates were able to ask each other questions.

Kia‘aina was asked why she wasn't able to help push through the Akaka Bill, creating a pathway toward federal recognition of Native Hawaiians, despite being an aide to Sen. Akaka and former U.S. Rep. Ed Case.

She responded that a majority of senators supported the Akaka Bill but that in recent years it has been mired in antiquated parliamentary procedures. She said she helped push through legislation fighting brown tree snakes and also the Apology Resolution, recognizing the U.S. role in the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.

Marx was asked about his lack of experience in Hawaii or national politics. He countered that while in the Oregon legislature he was vice chairman of the tax and school finance committee and led a committee on improving the budget process.

"It's been my experience in the legislative process that mostly it's about who gets what, when, where and how," he said.

He said he has spent 32 years as a lawmaker and negotiator, and successfully operated both a law firm and a bookstore.

"I know how to make budgets, and I know about public finance," he said. "I think I can hit the ground running compared to almost any other candidate."

Other candidates in next month's Demo­cratic primary are attorney Rafael Del Castillo of Hawaii Kai and Miles Shi­ra­tori of Kaneohe. The two people vying for the 2nd District's Republican nomination are Kawika Crowley of Hilo and Matthew DeGeronimo of Hawaii Kai.

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