More than an hour before gubernatorial hopefuls Mufi Hannemann and Neil Abercrombie met for their final pre-primary debate, Wailuku was buzzing. A line snaked along the sidewalk outside the Iao Theater and down the street a collection of red-shirted Mufi sign-wavers elicited honks and waves from passing motorists (and got a cheek-kissing, hand-clasping visit from the candidate himself).
The debate—hosted by The Maui News, the Chamber of Commerce and the Maui Realtors Association and aired live on Akaku—was actually billed as a “town hall” meeting. There was a moderator, and the two men stood behind lecterns facing the crowd, but questions were solicited from the audience. So many questions, in fact, that a number were left unanswered at the end of the hour-long affair.
Neither candidate covered much new ground, and at times both recited answers almost verbatim from past debates and forums. But it was still significant to have the old rivals in the same room, on Maui no less, just days before one of them will earn the right to face Republican Duke Aiona in the general.
Most polls give a slight edge to Abercrombie, but Hannemann wasn’t in full attack mode. He took a few swipes at the former Congressman for his “revisionism” and at one point accused him of downplaying the importance of the visitor industry. Citing quotes where Abercrombie suggested Hawaii needs to “reconfigure its approach to tourism” and use money from the Hawaii Tourism Authority budget for infrastructure projects Hannmann chided, “this is not a very realistic approach.”
“You need a leader who’s been there, done that, and isn’t just going to use flashy rhetoric to make it sound good,” he said.
Asked how he would stimulate private sector growth, Abercrombie said, “There’s a certain sense of irony in the question about creating private sector jobs, because the first thing we need to do is leverage federal dollars into the private sector.”
On the question of energy, both men predictably emphasized the need to turn toward renewables and away from imported fossil fuel. Hannemann touted his still up-in-the-air Oahu rail project as an example of a “clean, green” solution and said he wants to work with Neighbor Island mayors to “create renewable-energy zones.”
Abercrombie’s answer was more dramatic. “Unless we can [achieve energy independence] we can’t survive,” he said. Hawaii has to fundamentally alter its approach, he said, and move from a profit model to a “distributive model,” allowing more alternative energy producers to contribute power to the grid.
When the subject of civil unions was broached, Hannemann reiterated his belief “in the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman” and said he would have vetoed HB444. “I have to be true to myself and my religious training and upbringing,” he said. However, he added, “there’s not a discriminatory bone in my body.” He said that he’d support a bill that “focuses on benefits and rights” to help “those who feel they’re being shortchanged because of their sexual orientation.”
Abercrombie countered that HB444 wasn’t about redefining marriage but rather upholding fundamental civil rights. “When you’re a Governor [you] defend everybody’s civil rights,” he said. “Not just the people [you] approve of, or the people that [you] are comfortable with.”
Asked about the Superferry, Hannemann again cited his experience with rail and said the key is to complete an Environmental Impact Statement. Abercrombie was more pessemistic, and said funding issues would make it difficult to get the boat back in the water in the near-term.
During closing remarks, Hannemann beat the familiar drum of his executive and private sector experience and suggested Hawaii needs a leader who will be “cool, calm and collected” rather than “ranting and raving.” (Whether this was a jab at Abercrombie or merely a general observation was unclear.)
“Nothing would have been easier than for me to stay in my job [as Honolulu Mayor] and ride it out,” he added. “[But] I want to make sure you have the finest and best leadership, leadership you can count on.”
Abercrombie recalled launching his campaign in Wailuku, and said it was fitting that the “conversation started on Maui and ended on Maui.”
“I think this forum tonight gives us an opportunity to have a little contrast,” he said. “This is not about me, it’s not about Mayor Hannemann, it’s not about Lieutenant Governor Aiona. This is about a new day for Hawaii, this is about a vision for the future. This is about the hope and faith and trust that is put into your vote.”