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Ige triumphs

Abercrombie becomes the first incumbent to lose a gubernatorial primary in Hawaii

By Derrick DePledge & B.J. Reyes

LAST UPDATED: 11:50 p.m. HST, Aug 10, 2014

In a historic upset, state Sen. David Ige, who was unknown to many voters six months ago, ousted Gov. Neil Abercrombie on Saturday in the Democratic primary.

Ige, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, drubbed Abercrombie 67 percent to 32 percent, an unprecedented repudiation of an incumbent governor in Hawaii.

Abercrombie is the first governor since William Quinn, a Republican, to lose re-election in Hawaii since 1962 and the only governor to fall in a primary.

Ige will face Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, a Republican, and former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, of the Hawaii Independent Party, in the November general election.

"When we started this 13 months ago, I probably had more people tell me that I was crazy than really believing that this night could happen," Ige told supporters at his campaign headquarters in Moiliili, describing the vote as "heartwarming for me."

Abercrombie, who outspent Ige 10-to-1 and was endorsed by Hawaii-born President Barack Obama and Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, had trailed in public opinion polls before the primary and had poor job approval ratings for the past three years. But the governor's defeat is startling given the state's economic rebound during his four-year term and recent policy victories on the minimum wage, land conservation at Turtle Bay Resort and marriage equality.

The governor, speaking of his four-decade political career, said that "every waking breath that I've taken, every thought that I had before I slept, was for Hawaii and was for you and for all the brothers and sisters over these past 40 years that have given me the 

privilege and the honor to serve Hawaii's people.

"Faith and trust has been placed in me. And I've tried to honor that faith and trust to the very best of my ability. Whatever shortcomings I have, whatever faults that I have, I can guarantee you one of them has never been a failure to give all I can every day that I can for Hawaii."

After Abercrombie conceded outside of his campaign headquarters in Kakaako, the governor joined Ige on stage in Moiliili and pledged to help his rival win in November. "You have made a decision tonight, the Democratic Party has made a decision tonight," he said. "The governor's office is the office of the people of Hawaii, and I'm going to do everything I can to see that David Ige occupies that office for all of the people of Hawaii."

Dante Carpenter, former chairman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii and a longtime political ally of the governor, said he was disappointed by the size of the loss. He said the negative perception of the governor over the past few years "appears to have come home to roost. Notwithstanding the fact that, as far as I'm concerned, the governor did what he had to do."

Betty Sakihara, a retired school administrative services assistant who lives in Aina Haina, said she likes Ige's experience. She was already looking at perhaps not voting for Abercrombie, but was influenced further by the governor's decision in July to withdraw from three of four debates with Ige scheduled with AARP Hawaii.

Sakihara, whose son is a public school teacher, was also motivated by Abercrombie's clashes with teachers early in his term. "Overall, I'm thinking to myself, give David Ige a chance," she said.

Beatrice Lemke-Newman, a retired saleswoman who lives in Kapaa on Kauai, said her vote for Ige was influenced by her niece, an elementary school teacher. Like many voters, she did not know very much about the state senator at the start of the campaign. "From watching his interviews and how he handled himself during the debates, I felt more favorably towards him," she said.

Lemke-Newman said she has known of Abercrombie since she was a student at the University of Hawaii in the early 1970s. "To tell you the truth, I've never cared for Abercrombie from the start," she said.

Other voters were willing to give Abercrombie a second chance.

"I just figured he probably got a lot of things started, so I wanted to give him an opportunity to continue what he had started," said Taryn Lau, a social worker who lives in Makiki. "Keep the momentum going."

Jerry Burris, a former political columnist and editorial page editor for The Hono-lulu Advertiser, said the primary was more an Abercrombie loss than an Ige win. He said he believes voters were mostly reacting against Abercrombie's personality, not his governance over four years.

"Think about it," he said. "He managed to rattle the cages of almost all of his natural constituency: older people, environmentalists, the teachers union. It seems like he almost went after his natural base."

Ige, 57, an electrical engineer who grew up in Pearl City, displays a brand of quiet competence in the tradition of former Gov. George Ariyoshi, who had appointed him to fill a state House vacancy in 1985. Both Ariyoshi and former Gov. Ben Cayetano campaigned for the state senator. Many of the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Ino-uye's political allies also supported Ige, in part because of their disappointment that Abercrombie, 76, chose Brian Schatz, his former lieutenant governor, to replace Ino-uye in the Senate instead of U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, Inouye's preferred choice.

But Burris cautions that it would be a mistake to credit Ige's victory solely to the flexing of the old guard of Hawaii politics. Abercrombie was unpopular for most of his term and alienated progressive as well as establishment Democrats.

While historic, Burris also does not think the primary offers a tactical lesson in how to take down an incumbent governor. "It's a one-off," he said.

Ige's pivot to November will have to include a more sophisticated fundraising operation and an upgrade to a campaign staff still unaccustomed to the pressures of a statewide race. Both the Democratic Governors Association and the Republican Governors Association will likely look closely at investing in Hawaii, concerned about -- and, in the GOP's case, tempted by -- the political optics of Democrats losing the governorship in Obama's heavily blue birth state.

Aiona led Ige in a hypothetical general election matchup, according to the Hawaii Poll, and the Republican could conceivably take a three-way race with the same 40 percent of the vote he had when he lost to Abercrombie in 2010.

"I think the voters should really get to know who David Ige is," Aiona said. "David Ige is really, at least from my assessment of his tenure as a legislator, not too much more different than the current governor in regards to his fiscal policies as well as his social policies.

"I think the biggest difference between Ige and the current governor is maybe just a matter of style. And when I stay style, I mean, basically, personality."

Hannemann, who lost to Abercrombie in the Democratic primary in 2010, believes he can attract both Democrats and Republicans while appealing to independents who are not comfortable with party labels.

"It's a clear message that people are not happy with the direction of the state," he said of the primary. "And they certainly want a leader who is going to be more of a collaborator and someone who is going to listen and respect their concerns and wishes."

Abercrombie's loss also shows that campaign money cannot cork a voter revolt.

The governor raised more than $5 million and spent most of the money on advertising, polling, consultants and outreach before Election Day. His consultants tried every approach, from "Bucket of Stars," a rich, biographical video produced by filmmaker Edgy Lee, to a radio spot featuring President Obama describing Abercrombie -- who knew the president's parents at the University of Hawaii -- as "ohana to me," to a jaunty television ad that had the governor back behind the wheel of a yellow Checker cab he made famous as a symbol during his early, shoestring campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s.

Ige raised about $549,750 and only had enough money to run low-budget TV ads during the final weeks before the vote. In February the Hawaii Poll showed that 61 percent of voters had not heard of or did not know enough about the state senator to form an opinion. A grass-roots campaign helped improve Ige's name recognition, but the Hawaii Poll found in late July that 

28 percent of voters still were unfamiliar with him.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association, which endorsed Ige after souring on Abercrombie over a contract fight early in the governor's term, spent about $148,580 through late July on TV ads critical of the governor.

The University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, which endorsed Abercrombie, spent about $112,090 on radio, TV and mailers on behalf of the governor.

Ariyoshi said voters "asked the question -- they were against the governor -- but they asked the question, What about David Ige? Who is he? And I think during the campaign he really came out and very clearly let the people know the kind of person that he is and what his background is and what he believes the future ought to be," he said.

"I think that Gov. Abercrombie was talking about all the things that he did -- about the economy and the way he ran the government," Ariyoshi said. "But people are very concerned about Hawaii's future. You take Kakaako for example. The concern was, What's going to happen to Hawaii if our people here can't get accommodated in all the building that's taking place? I heard a lot of people talking about agriculture -- telling me if we are not careful, we may end up having to bring all our food in from the mainland. ... They do not feel the governor was providing any leadership or direction there."

Cayetano said he thought Ige's experience as Senate Ways and Means Committee chairman was important to voters.

"So fiscally he's pretty conservative, socially he's kind of a liberal," Cayetano said. "I think his approach to fiscal issues resonated with people, for example, on the early childhood education thing. The governor didn't have a plan for where he was going to get the $125 million. David thinks about those kind of things."


Staff writer Gary Kubota contributed to this report.

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