The Democratic race in the 2nd Congressional District is boiling down to whether neighbor island and rural Oahu voters prefer a seasoned politico in former Mayor Mufi Hannemann or the newer face of city Councilwoman and Iraq War veteran Tulsi Gabbard.
Two other candidates have mounted impressive campaigns, but neither Esther Kia‘aina nor Bob Marx appears to have the resources or time to catch the front-runners.
It’s been 26 years since Hannemann first ran for a Hawaii congressional seat, losing to Republican Pat Saiki. Since then he has amassed a wealth of experience and allies as mayor and a city councilman, as well as in various other government and private-sector jobs. No other candidate in the race can match his lengthy résumé.
But Hannemann, 58, has also drawn detractors, including several national organizations that have lined up behind Gabbard to defeat him. Gabbard, at 31, is actually a year younger than Hannemann was when he first made a run at Congress.
A former state legislator — Hawaii’s youngest — and Army Guard captain, she is branding herself as the fresh alternative poised to build up years of seniority in Congress.
Marx, a Hilo attorney, 63, is trying to become the first neighbor islander to hold the seat in a district where more than 60 percent of voters live outside Oahu. Marx spent six years in the Oregon legislature.
Kia‘aina, 49, has spent more than two decades as a congressional aide, including time as a chief of staff to two different congressional members. Unlike Hannemann of Aiea and Gabbard of Honolulu, Kia‘aina lives within the district — in Nanakuli.
The winner of the Aug. 11 Democratic primary will be a heavy favorite to win the seat in November.
The latest Hawaii Poll shows Gabbard has gained huge support in the past six months. In February, Hannemann held a 65 percent to 20 percent lead in a head-to-head matchup, a 45 percentage-point margin. In July’s four-person poll that included Kia‘aina and Marx, Hannemann’s lead over Gabbard had dwindled to 43 percent to 33 percent, a difference of only 10 percentage points. Kia‘aina and Marx were far behind.
From the outset, the Gabbard camp has regarded name recognition as its greatest challenge. The latest Hawaii Poll results indicate she managed to overcome that, turning what was an 18 percent favorable rating in February into a 46 percent rating in July.
A large and steady stream of advertising and the funding used to pay for that advertising have played a key role in her rise in recognition.
Gabbard has raised about $1 million overall, nearly keeping pace with Hannemann, who has raised about $1.2 million. She has out-raised the former mayor during the last two reporting periods.
Hannemann’s campaign argues that Gabbard has additionally benefited from nearly $500,000 in advertising from the independent expenditures made by three mainland-based special-interest groups that do not count toward her own campaign’s totals and are not bound by how much they can contribute.
According to Federal Election Commission records, VoteVets.Org Action Fund has contributed $269,577 in support of Gabbard’s candidacy, while Women Vote! — an offshoot of the pro-choice organization Emily’s List — contributed $128,720, and Sierra Club Independent Action has chipped in $58,069.
The Hannemann campaign said the advertisements offer "falsehoods and half-truths" in attacking the record of its candidate.
The Sierra Club has set up a website, mufisrecord.org, which seeks to discredit his environmental record.
On the issue of curbside recycling, the Sierra Club said Hannemann was opposed to curbside recycling until a City Charter amendment approved by the voters forced him to do it. The Hannemann forces, on a blog on his website titled "Fact vs. Fiction — the Sierra Club edition," said their candidate should be credited with persuading the United Public Workers union to go along with islandwide curbside recycling.
In 2005, Hannemann did cancel a curbside recycling contract due to delays caused by a protest to the contract, and the pilot program did not begin until September 2007, after voters in November 2006 approved a charter amendment making curbside recycling a mandate for the Department of Environmental Services.
But there is no evidence that Hannemann flatly opposed curbside recycling. And some third-party, longtime city observers noted that not only did he negotiate an agreement with UPW that led to islandwide recycling, the Hannemann administration took other steps toward green- and white-waste recycling at schools and businesses before the pilot project got under way.
The Hannemann campaign has not specifically questioned any of the advertising by the veterans or pro-choice organizations and declined to do so when asked.
The Gabbard campaign has filed a complaint asking the Federal Election Commission to look into whether Hannemann should have reported trips he took and other public exposure opportunities he received in his capacity as chairman of the Hawai‘i Hotel and Lodging Association as campaign contributions. Hannemann’s camp has said he’s done everything by the book.
The Sierra Club and the Gabbard campaign have also accused Hannemann in both broadcast and print ads of obtaining a bulk of his funding from corporate interests and practicing a "pay to play" culture tying contracts with political contributions.
The Hannemann campaign said in response: "The State Procurement Office conducted an audit with a sampling of 84 professional service contracts that were awarded by the Hannemann Administration, and after careful review, that office issued the Hannemann Administration a clean bill of health."
Hannemann has repeatedly emphasized his years of experience as the biggest reason voters should choose him.
"We need to send someone who has proven experience in Washington, D.C., and a track record of getting results," Hannemann said, particularly with programs from Social Security to Medicare being threatened, and the loss of 36 years of veteran experience with the retirement of U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka.
Gabbard, meanwhile, is urging voters to view her as representing a new generation of leadership.
"I felt a clear frustration from voters that many in Congress are not serving those who sent them there," Gabbard said. "I feel a responsibility to bring that focus back to serving the people."
Among the remaining candidates, Kia‘aina has impressed observers during debates with her knowledge of the issues. Her experience on Capitol Hill is greater than that of anyone else seeking the seat.
Kia‘aina, too, faced the challenge of name recognition, but has benefited from a series of ads and several televised debates.
Kia‘aina is known for her work on the Akaka Bill, which provides a path for Native Hawaiians to gain federal recognition, as well as the 1993 Apology Resolution, which recognized the U.S. role in the overthrow of the Hawaiian government and called for reconciliation between the U.S. government and Native Hawaiians. Most recently she was the chief advocate for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
Marx believes his six years as an Oregon legislator and several decades as a experienced negotiator while representing clients as an attorney bring the best set of skills for the next 2nd District representative.
Marx also sees as a priority the need to help farmers and other rural community constituents with subsidies and other programs to address such core issues as fresh drinking water and irrigation systems. Urban Oahu residents like Hannemann and Gabbard take things like sewer, water and electrical systems for granted, he said.
"When you get to the rural areas, in the 2nd District, we don’t have the basic things."
Attorney Rafael Del Castillo, 64, has made the rights of medical patients his top priority. Del Castillo, a Hawaii Kai resident, said he "deals with working people in the working world" and has not spent years in the jaded confines of government. He said he’s a skilled negotiator but can be tough when it’s necessary.
The Affordable Health Care Act that is closely associated with President Barack Obama provides "a real skeleton for bringing runaway health care costs under control" but is only a first step, Del Castillo said. "There’s insufficient funding to fully implement it."
Longtime Kaneohe resident Miles Shiratori, 59, is a financial adviser who "had to spend money wisely" for approximately 50,000 clients over the years and says he will be able to quickly gain a firm grasp on financial matters in Congress.
Shiratori said his priorities include providing more funding for education and giving additional tax credits and other incentives to small businesses and middle-class families.
The Republican candidates are self-employed handyman/house painter David Kawika Crowley of Hilo and small-businessman/consultant Matthew DiGeronimo of Hawaii Kai.