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Personality, not policy, set to define Hawaii governor race

By Jennifer Sinco Kelleher; Tribune Herald; September 6, 2017

HONOLULU — There used to be a time in Hawaii when an incumbent governor was a shoo-in for re-election.

But in the 2014 primary election, now-Gov. David Ige unseated a fellow Democrat. Now U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa is attempting to do the same to Ige.

Her announcement last week that she will file papers to establish a campaign committee sets the stage for party infighting.

If she runs, the race will be defined by personality differences instead of ideological ones, some political observers said Tuesday.

Ige, an engineer who served as a state senator in the Legislature for 28 years, ran against former Gov. Neil Abercrombie as a more even-keeled candidate.

Abercrombie’s defeat made him the first Hawaii governor to lose to a primary challenger and only the second not to win re-election.

“Democrats challenging incumbent Democrats in a gubernatorial primary is nothing new in Hawaii,” Abercrombie said Tuesday. “The only thing that was different is that Gov. Ige succeeded.”

Circumstances in a possible Hanabusa-Ige showdown “are not comparable at all,” Abercrombie said.

“We used to think in Hawaii that incumbents won,” said Colin Moore, director of the public policy institute at the University of Hawaii.

Ige’s more reserved style is now up against Hanabusa’s stronger personality, said political analyst Dan Boylan.

“He doesn’t give a good speech,” Boylan said. “He doesn’t grandstand. … He’s a modest man. He is not a dumb guy. He is, however, boring.”


But being boring also means he hasn’t committed any major mistakes, Boylan said, even though some criticize him for failing to take a strong stand on the divisive issue of a giant telescope planned for Mauna Kea, a mountain some Native Hawaiians consider sacred.

There’s a perception that Ige isn’t effective despite a robust state economy, Moore said.

“Hanabusa enters, who has more name recognition, has been away from state government,” he said. “She can run as the change candidate, which is a powerful thing to be able to do. I think there is a sense that (Ige) has not led the state.”

Hanabusa, a lawyer, served in the state Senate for 12 years, including four as president. She is in her fifth year in Congress.

Honolulu resident Haunani Dutro believes Hanabusa’s “feisty” persona is more effective in Washington, D.C. “I think personally I like where she’s at right now,” the retired hospice-care worker said. Dutro said she likes Ige’s record on Native Hawaiian issues and his subdued style.

“That’s what we need,” she said, “someone who is humble and patient.”

Ige’s approach hasn’t improved Hawaii’s homelessness crisis and lack of affordable housing, said Big Island resident Jerry Jucha. “He was not as strong as some of the other governors,” he said.

Moore said when former U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye was alive, no Democrat would have dared to challenge a sitting governor from the same party.

“There would have been a time where Sen. Inouye or others would have said ‘you don’t challenge Democrats and you need to wait your turn,’” Moore said. “But those days are over. There is no kingmaker anymore.”

Inouye wanted Hanabusa to take his place, but Abercrombie, who as governor had power to appoint a successor after Inouye’s death in 2012, picked Brian Schatz instead. Hanabusa then challenged Schatz in the Democratic primary in 2014 but lost by less than one percentage point.

“That appointment played a significant role in my primary with then-Sen. Ige,” Abercrombie said. “But I don’t think it has anything to do at all with this primary.”

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