Former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie and former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann clashed last night in the last televised debate before the Democratic primary for governor, a substantive and mostly positive encounter that forced both candidates to defend their records.
The candidates used the opportunity of a statewide audience to perfect their campaign themes: Abercrombie as an agent of change who will stand up for people who have no one to stand up for them, Hannemann as a chief executive and a collaborator who can get things done.
The most spirited and revealing exchanges, as in previous debates and forums, came when the candidates were able to question each other.
Abercrombie challenged the former mayor to explain how Honolulu allowed a property reclassification from residential to commercial-industrial that has led to substantially higher property tax bills for about 250 residents.
Hannemann explained that it was the city’s real property assessment division that reclassified the properties for uniformity and said it was irresponsible for Abercrombie to suggest that the mayor or City Council had an influence. Acting Mayor Kirk Caldwell and some Council members have proposed measures to help the residents involved.
Hannemann, referring to Abercrombie’s lack of executive experience, said the former congressman did not understand how a budget is constructed.
"Once again, it’s somebody else’s fault," Abercrombie shot back. "And now somebody else has to fix it."
Hannemann questioned how Abercrombie, given the state’s budget difficulties, would pay for some of the expanded government programs included in his "A New Day in Hawaii" plan, including a state Department of Early Childhood and a Hawaii Energy Authority.
"It’s going to take somebody who understands how you actually do budgeting," Abercrombie said, adding that it is a matter of setting priorities, not about new spending.
Abercrombie asked why Hannemann, after apologizing if he offended anyone with a campaign mailer that asked voters to compare the candidates’ birthplaces, wives and education, did not stop the mailers from subsequently being distributed on the neighbor islands.
Hannemann said the mailers had already been placed in bulk mail and could not be recalled. He said he wanted the campaign to move forward and questioned why Abercrombie continued to rehash the issue after he apologized.
"We hope to have a healthy debate on what is before us as opposed to what’s behind us," he said.
The 90-minute debate at the Blaisdell Center, sponsored by Hawaii News Now and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, was before a live
audience evenly stocked with Hannemann and Abercrombie loyalists.
The candidates took questions from a news media panel, the audience and viewers on the Internet. Tannya Joaquin of Hawaii News Now moderated the debate.
Abercrombie said he would revitalize the arts as governor, making them part of the curriculum at public schools.
Hannemann said he would name a work-force czar who would identify areas to diversify the economy and provide more job opportunities so more young people would not leave Hawaii after high school or college.
Both candidates said they would not have allowed teacher furloughs as
governor, and both promised to work with the state Legislature on a settlement to the dispute with native Hawaiians over former crown lands.
Abercrombie said he would consider Hawaii joining a multistate or international lottery if the revenue could be used for public education or the arts.
Hannemann said he opposes a lottery or other forms of gambling and said the state should look first at ways at expanding innovation, high technology and tourism.
Asked why Hannemann appears to be the preferred candidate of the business community, Abercrombie responded, "Perhaps they see a friend who has supported the status quo, business as usual."
Asked what role religion would play in a his administration, Hannemann, a Mormon, said: "This will not be an administration that will take orders from any ecclesiastical order, but at the same time, my religion has been good for me, just like religions throughout the state.
"And I respect the right of everyone to adhere to a higher being."
Abercrombie said he would follow the model of Gov. John Burns, a Catholic who famously let a bill
legalizing abortion to become law without his signature because he did not want to impose his religion on the state.
"I think that any governor holds that same fidelity to the Constitution, particularly to the First Amendment," he said.