Who Will Emerge as the Democrats’ Candidate for Governor in 2018?
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Almost four years ago, former Hawai‘i Govs. Ben Cayetano and George Ari-
yoshi had agreed to endorse and support the elections of both Colleen Hanabusa and David Ige.
Of course, in 2014, Hanabusa was running against Sen. Brian Schatz for a seat in the U.S. Senate, and Ige was running for governor against Neil Abercrombie, Hawai‘i’s Democratic incumbent.
Hanabusa, now back in Congress, is in another hotly contested Democratic primary — this time gunning for the governorship against the incumbent Ige.
The two senior political leaders, Cayetano and Ariyoshi, are both withholding announcing whom they will endorse in next year’s contest, although Cayetano does not hide his concerns about the Ige administration.
In a detailed interview, Cayetano said he is troubled by Ige’s leadership style to the extent that it is jeopardizing the 60-year-old Pearl City Democrat’s chances of re-election.
“The two have different leadership styles,” Cayetano said.
“David is very vulnerable. The people I talk to say he is not decisive enough.
“His actions on TMT (Mauna Kea’s 30-meter telescope project) and other big projects like rail have not been decisive. That is his problem.”
In contrast, Ariyoshi, who served as Hawai‘i’s third governor, from 1974 to 1986, simply refused to discuss either of the two, although he had endorsed both in the past.
“I have supported both in the past and I’m going to make my decision about who I’m going to support. I have not yet made a decision,” Ariyoshi said in an interview.
Hanabusa, a 66-year-old Waianae Democrat, draws quick praise from Cayetano, even if he says he is not yet ready to endorse.
“Hanabusa is probably the smartest person in politics today,” Cayetano says. “And my feelings are given begrudgingly,” the former two-term governor and lieutenant governor says, noting that Hanabusa repeatedly clashed with him when she was first elected to the state Senate.
“She is a leader and she is skilled. She has many strengths, and intelligence is just one of her strengths.”
Cayetano recalled how he tangled with Hanabusa in 2014. “They ask me, ‘How come you’re supporting Colleen? She gave you such a hard time when you were governor,’” said Cayetano. “Our battles engendered in me a respect.”
He now recalls how they both agreed on a need to reform the civil service system and to consolidate the state’s public worker insurance plans in order to save money. The effort was strongly opposed by the unions and Cayetano says he now respects Hanabusa because she acted against the unions, even though she knew it would be politically dangerous.
“As a result of that, the unions never forgave her,” Cayetano said, adding that in the 2014 elections, the unions “went with Brian Schatz.”
“The unions are like a cartel, or maybe a cabal — if the unions had endorsed her, Colleen would be a senator today,” Cayetano said.
Although the public employees have not yet made any formal endorsements in the governor’s race, Cayetano says “the unions got what they wanted from Ige.”
Indeed, the more than 25,000 state workers with the Hawaii Government Employees Association will receive raises and improved medical benefits within the next two years. The deals will boost their salaries 4.25 percent over the next two years.
The Hawaii State Teachers Association won a four-year contract with Ige, giving them a raise totaling 13.6 percent, which includes a combination of pay grade step increases and across-the-board 3.5 percent raises in alternating years. The HSTA was a key component in Ige’s surprising victory over Abercrombie in the 2014 election.
The blue-collar United Public Workers union also won a four-year contract. It includes a $1,000 bonus for members this year, followed by a 3.2 percent raise, and then another $1,000 bonus next year. Two additional raises of 2 percent each are provided for later in the contract.
Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who lost the primary election in 2014, said in an interview that he would not make an endorsement in this year’s race.
“I will be neutral,” Abercrombie said.
Also, former Gov. John Waihee, who, in 2014, endorsed Abercrombie, says he is endorsing Ige this year.
“I think his performance as governor has been underrated because David has made it almost a badge of honor about not bragging about his accomplishments,” Waihee told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in a recent interview.
There has been little public polling for next year’s gubernatorial race, although there are unofficial reports that both labor and the construction industry have been surveying the political landscape.
The only public poll released thus far is a May Honolulu Civil Beat poll of 956 registered voters statewide.
It showed that 57 percent said they wanted someone else to be governor. Only 20 percent said they wanted Ige to continue in that role.
The poll showed that 38 percent had a negative opinion of Ige and 35 had a positive opinion.
Asked about the various political strategies for the governor’s race, Cayetano speculated that while Ige and Hanabusa appear competitive, the addition of a strong, independent third candidate could make the race a toss-up.
In recent weeks, Republican House Leader Rep. Andria Tupola, who represents West O‘ahu, said she plans to formally announce her plans to run for governor. But as a political newcomer in a solidly Democratic state, she will have a hard time getting name recognition and raising funds to mount a competitive challenge to either Hanabusa or Ige.
Given that, Cayetano reasons that the winner of next August’s Democratic primary will likely go on to win the general election.
“If the primary turnout is around 300,000 and Ige and Hanabusa divide the Japanese vote, which is usually the bulk of the primary election vote, it brings up the question, can someone else more independent split the difference and win the independent vote?” Cayetano said.
The other alternative is that Hanabusa and an independent, anti-Ige candidate would divide the voters upset with the incumbent and give Ige enough to win in a three-way primary.
Richard Borreca is a Honolulu journalist. He has worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, KHVH News Radio, KHON-TV, Honolulu Magazine and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, for whom he now writes a Sunday column.