By: Karleen C. Chinen

The 2014 Rainbow Warriors football season opened last weekend with the University of Hawai‘i taking on the University of Washington. It felt good to hear our team’s name, the Rainbow Warriors . . . because two years ago, the “Rainbows” name was tossed in the trashcan in favor of just “the Warriors.” That is, until a determined Helemano Elementary School counselor by the name of Stephen Chinen (a friend, but no relation) decided to launch one final grass roots, go-for-broke-effort to change the minds of the powers that be at UH. And guess what? Steve did it! Of course, many people agreed with him and chimed in on blogs, wrote letters to editors and op-ed pieces and turned out for Steve’s rally at Bachman Hall on the UH campus. But in the final analysis, it was Steve who led the charge for change. It was a David vs. Goliath match-up the likes of which I thought I would not see again for a long, long time.

Boy, was I wrong!

Last month’s resounding upset of incumbent Gov. Neil Abercrombie by his challenger, state Sen. David Ige, in the Democratic gubernatorial primary turned out to be another David vs. Goliath battle.

“Whoa!” I said to myself as the first print-out numbers were announced. “Ho!” a friend emailed me when he saw the first numbers.

In the final days before the Aug. 9 primary election, I had a feeling that Ige might have a slight edge over the governor, but I still thought it was going to be a horse race that would go down to the finish line.

As I watched the victory celebration at the Ige campaign headquarters on television, my mind wandered back to the first time I had seen David Ige, the candidate. You would never have known that he was running to be Hawai‘i’s chief executive.

It was almost a year ago, on Sept. 29 to be exact, at the Oahu AJA Veterans Council’s annual Joint Memorial Service at Punchbowl cemetery. The service was just about to begin when I happened to turn my head right, just in time to see Sen. Ige take a seat in the back row. He was alone — no army of supporters, no family members. He was not introduced as a state senator — I don’t think the organizers even knew he was there, let alone who he was. That morning, he was just David Ige, the son of a 100th/442nd veteran, who, maybe, was beginning to show his face outside the comfort zone of his Pearl City/‘Aiea home district.

At the conclusion of the roughly hour-long service, he walked up to oshoko table to offer incense. I couldn’t resist watching him — after all, just two months earlier, this guy had announced his candidacy for governor, running against Neil Abercrombie, of all people! Never in Hawai‘i’s history had an incumbent governor been routed from the office by a challenger from his or her own party. But Ige was going to try.

State Sen. David Ige, buried in the crowd, dances kachashi.
State Sen. David Ige, buried in the crowd, dances kachashi.

That morning, David Ige did not stop every five steps to introduce himself and shake the hands of people attending the service. If you didn’t already know who he was, you wouldn’t have known that he was running for governor, let alone that he was a state senator. He looked like any other son of a World War II AJA veteran. At an after-service brunch, a friend asked me, “Was that David Ige at the service?”

OMG, he’s going to get creamed, I thought to myself.

For the next few months, I kept returning to the same question: Why, of all people, is David Ige running for governor? I knew he was smart and diligent in his legislative work. And he seemed honest. But governor?

Was he just trying to prove a point or to be a spoiler candidate, knowing he couldn’t win against Gov. Abercrombie, who already had a healthy campaign war chest.

But my gut told me that David Ige was no “Bu La‘ia for Governor” kind of candidate. He just didn’t seem to be the kind of guy who would enter a major race just for the heck of it. No, he must have entered the race for a reason, but he had yet to clearly articulate those reasons to voters.

The next time I saw David Ige was in mid-January, at the annual installation banquet of the Hawaii United Okinawa Association’s 2014 officers. Accompanied by his wife Dawn and campaign manager Keith Hiraoka, he was visiting tables and introducing himself. He seemed a bit more comfortable in his role as a gubernatorial candidate. I wasn’t expecting to see him at the event, so I hadn’t thought of taking photos of him in his campaign mode. Fortunately, the light clicked on in my head in time, so I have these few photos.

Ige, however, did not seem at all comfortable joining the new officers and other guests onstage for the lively kachashi at the end of the event. He was like a fish out water. Most politicians head immediately for the front of the stage — more exposure — regardless of whether they know how to kachashi or not. Ige, who had probably never danced the free-form Okinawan dance before, seemed to prefer getting lost in the crowd on the stage.

I am not a political analyst, but I like reading about politics and observing Hawai‘i’s political landscape, so I offer this humble observation of last month’s race.

I think the stars aligned for Sen. David Ige, leading to his primary election victory.

It’s no secret that Ige was outspent. According to the latest Campaign Spending Commission reports, Ige raised $672,288 to Gov. Abercrombie’s $5.2 million, and yet the governor lost the race, garnering only 73,507 votes to David Ige’s 157,050. How did that happen?

From Day One, everyone was asking the question: Who is David Ige? Although I knew of him, I really didn’t know much about him, except that he was involved in the state Senate’s efforts to computerize many aspects of state government. But the vast majority of people knew nothing about David Ige — and they were the people whose vote he was seeking and with almost no money to do it.

I think that reality forced David Ige to come out of his shell and begin to really connect with people, one-to-one. He didn’t have money, so he couldn’t do it through advertising. He would have to do it the old-fashioned way — handshake to handshake — wherever he could. The father of Ige’s campaign manager and longtime friend, Keith Hiraoka, had been active in Democratic Party grass roots campaigning in the Pearl City area, so perhaps Hiraoka remembered a few campaign strategies his father’s team had employed. Coffee hours, perhaps?

I think Ige’s lack of money may have been a blessing in disguise. He didn’t have the funds to run an all-out media blitz, so it forced him to take advantage of every forum that he was invited to, with or without the governor. If it was broadcast, better yet. Even if it was covered only as a news story, it was still free exposure to masses of people who watched that newscast and got the opportunity to find out where Ige was coming from on the issues. I think, over time, people began to like what they were hearing from him.

The debates and forums gave voters the opportunity to “compare and decide” — not just the responses, or lack of responses to the questions, but how the candidates responded to questions.

Gov. Abercrombie and Sen. Ige had such contrasting styles. The governor is a master orator. Sen. Ige? Not even close. In the final analysis, the voters had to ask themselves: Style aside, who did they want to entrust with Hawai‘i’s future?

While David Ige’s almost-unexcitable personality might have been viewed by some as a negative, others probably saw it as a plus.

So, while some people say that Gov. Abercrombie’s defeat was the result of an anti-Abercrombie vote, I would venture to say that it was the coming together of forces — yes, there was quite a bit of anti-Abercrombie sentiment, but in the same instance, a pro-Ige groundswell was building. I think enough people sitting around talking story about one of the most exciting gubernatorial primary races in recent memory were saying, “Hey, this Ige guy may not be too exciting, but his answers make sense. And he’s polite.”

And in my humble opinion, that’s how I think David beat Goliath.


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