In a stunning reversal of political fortunes, Gov. David Ige brushed off opposition from much of Hawaii’s Democratic establishment Saturday on his way to defeating his top rival, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.
In the Republican primary for governor, House Minority Leader Rep. Andria Tupola handily defeated former state Sen. John Carroll, 88. Republican newcomer Ray L’Heureux was trailing far behind the two better-known GOP candidates.
Ige staged a dramatic turnaround in a re-election effort that was in deep trouble just six months ago, but ended with Hanabusa conceding the race in a speech shortly before 10:30 p.m.
Hanabusa said she is “not sure that I’ll run for any kind of political office again.”
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Hanabusa soared in public opinion polls early this year, and by late March enjoyed a 20-percentage-point lead over Ige in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser Hawaii Poll.
But those early poll results were apparently distorted by the short-lived public fury over the Ige administration’s botched initial response to the infamous Jan. 13 ballistic missile false alert.
A more recent Hawaii Poll in mid-July showed Ige pulling ahead of Hanabusa in the race, with 44 percent favoring Ige, and 40 percent picking Hanabusa.
By early August, Democratic insiders were reporting the race had “flipped” in one community after another, with support shifting from Hanabusa to Ige. In Hilo, Kaneohe, Kaimuki and on Kauai, candidates who walked the districts reported the public appeared to be rallying around Ige.
Hubert Minn, a campaign worker who concentrated on improving Ige’s personal community ties, said the campaign was “very, very challenging,” but Ige stayed in the fight by “shaking people’s hands, looking them in the eye and really talking to them.”
Minn, who has a background in boxing, said Ige got “hit really hard” after the missile crisis, but “we got him back up and kept him in the game. We did two to three events a week where people could meet and talk to him and we saw the polls move.”
In her speech, Hanabusa thanked her supporters, her husband John F. Souza III, and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard for their support, and praised campaign volunteers for their work on her behalf.
She told a crowd of her supporters that “we gave people choices, and the people have spoken. So, I don’t want anyone to feel like you didn’t do enough, or you could have done more, because believe me, the one thing that I know, I know just by being out there, is that you volunteers did the best job anyone could possibly, possibly ask for.”
Some longtime political observers believed Hanabusa was in trouble late in the primary because her campaign failed to convey her plans or priorities to the voters, and also suffered from bad timing.
One experienced Democratic campaigner said the Hanabusa camp failed to define Ige as an ineffective leader early in the campaign and shortly after the missile alert, when the public was ripe for that message. “They had David in a box, and they let him go,” said the longtime Democrat.
Another problem was that an advertising blitz in support of Hanabusa by the political action committee Be Change Now came too late to help her, said John Hart, chairman of the communications department of Hawaii Pacific University.
Be Change Now is a super PAC financed by the Hawaii Council of Carpenters, and it spent more than $400,000 on advertising attacking Ige in the final weeks of the campaign, and another $460,000 on ads supporting Hanabusa, according to state campaign spending records.
Hart said the carpenters made a crucial error by committing most of their resources early in this year’s campaign to supporting state Sen. Josh Green in his bid to become lieutenant governor.
“If Ige really was down by 20 points, they could have stepped in and buried him,” Hart said. “I think they thought it was a safe race, that Hanabusa was going to beat Ige, and so they decided to invest in the future and Josh Green. I think by the time they were aware of the numbers shift — which took many people by surprise, frankly — I think it was too late.”
Ige also faced formidable political resistance this year from the state’s Democratic establishment, including former Govs. Ben Cayetano and George Ariyoshi, who both supported Hanabusa.
Gabbard, who is one of the most popular figures in Hawaii politics, held a press conference early this year to endorse Hanabusa, citing Ige’s “failure of leadership” during the Jan. 13 ballistic missile false alert.
In March, the most powerful people in the state Legislature including House Speaker Scott Saiki, Senate President Ron Kouchi, House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke and Senate Ways and Means Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz all signed a fundraising letter for Hanabusa criticizing Ige for “inattention, indecision and inaction.”
Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie also attacked Ige’s claims of accomplishment on environmental issues. Abercrombie was ousted by Ige in the Democratic primary in 2014.
Perhaps Ige’s most important political supporter was Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, who told a crowd of Ige volunteers gathered at the Pagoda Hotel Saturday night that “you stuck with a man when it was difficult.”
TEST OF LEADERSHIP
Hanabusa and her allies attempted to make the race about leadership, largely by focusing on lapses such as the Jan. 13 missile alert that caused a public panic, and the 38-minute delay by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency in notifying the public that it was a false alarm.
Almost from the start of his administration, Ige’s critics tried to portray him as indecisive and ineffective, alleging that his administration responded too slowly to problems such the dengue fever outbreak and the Thirty Meter Telescope protests in 2015.
When HI-EMA took 38 minutes to officially cancel the false alarm, that played into the political narrative of Ige’s opponents.
Ige admitted the state was unprepared for the accidental alert, but said steps were taken to make sure it would never happen again. The worker who triggered the alarm was terminated while two others resigned, and Ige said his administration was “open and transparent” about the inquiry into the false alarm.
Later in the election season, Ige clearly benefited from the state’s handling of flooding on Kauai and the Kilauea volcanic eruption in Puna. Harry Kim, the politically popular mayor of Hawaii island, endorsed Ige’s efforts in a dramatic television advertisement, saying that Ige “came through” for the island.
Ige, 61, has cited statistics showing Hawaii has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation, and data showing the number of homeless people has begun to drop while record numbers of visitors are coming to Hawaii. He also claimed that 5,300 new homes were built during his first term, although that statistic turned out to be misleading.
Ige went on the offensive in the campaign by challenging Hanabusa on her two-year push for a $75 million state tax credit for development of an aquarium at Ko Olina, alleging the deal demonstrated that she makes decisions “on behalf of self-interest and special interests.”
Hanabusa led the drive to get lawmakers to approve the Ko Olina tax credit in 2002 and 2003, but the bill was written so that only developer Jeff Stone could benefit from it.
The Honolulu Advertiser later reported that less than a month after the $75 million tax credit was approved, Stone sold a luxury Ko Olina townhouse to Hanabusa’s then-fiance Souza. One of Stone’s companies financed the sale by lending Souza $405,773 for the purchase, according to state records.
Souza, who is now Hanabusa’s husband and campaign chairman, bought the Kai Lani townhouse for $569,023 in mid-2003 and sold it for $990,000 in January 2004, according to city tax records.
Hanabusa has noted that Stone claimed only $3.45 million of the $75 million tax credit, and said there “has never been any wrongdoing found” in connection with the tax credit.
Hart said Hanabusa dominated in the forums where Ige and she appeared together in semi-debate formats, “but as we all know in politics, it’s not just about are you viewed as most competent. It’s about are you viewed as trustworthy, and are you charismatic, do people like you.”