The gubernatorial debate was brought to the Big Island on Wednesday as Gov. Neil Abercrombie squared off against challenger state Sen. David Ige in Waimea.
With few major policy differences, both sought to make the case for their leadership abilities and knowledge of neighbor island needs.
A gap, though, appeared to surround their approaches to education, including the issue of universal preschool, which Abercombie has pushed and raised at the debate.
“Children are losing years they don’t get back because they don’t have preschools,” he said. “Preschool is the most important thing we can bring forward to help our children compete in the 21st century.”
Ige said he supports early childhood education but expressed concern regarding state money going to private preschools.
“The challenge before us is really providing those opportunities in our community and, most importantly, how we pay for them,” he said.
Ige said the state should give local school administrators more autonomy to meet the needs of students.
“I trust that every decision on how resources should be spent at the local level is a dollar well spent,” he said.
In the home of the paniolo, it was Abercrombie who mostly took the reins. He missed few, if any, opportunities to make jabs at his opponent, whom he said relies on “glittering generalities.”
“I’m not someone who is running for office and showing up for the first time,” he told the audience at Waimea Middle School.
Ige had his own criticism of the administration, noting the federal Highway Administration has placed the state “on alert” regarding $800 million in transportation funding. He said that amount may be reduced because of project backlogs.
“It’s about organization and management and leadership,” he said.
Abercrombie said projects get backlogged due to legal challenges.
“We are spending nearly every single dime at the maximum rate possible,” he said.
But there were also lighter moments, as the candidates shook hands following agreement on issues such as modernizing the state’s computer systems.
Both pledged support for expanding higher education in West Hawaii.
Regarding energy prices, Ige said renewable energy should continue to be pursued to lower rates.
Abercrombie said the Big Island is taking a lead on moving its energy system forward, and noted plans by Parker Ranch to create a microgrid for Waimea.
Both noted geothermal energy as a solution to the high price of electricity, and that the distribution of energy needs to be improved.
“I think the real key is really challenging the pricing model the utility uses,” Ige said, adding that involves “requiring them to change from a generation and distribution of energy to primarily the distribution of energy.”
Abercrombie said if the electrical utilities don’t reform themselves, “we will do it for them.”
Debate moderator Sherry Bracken pressed both to describe their approach to invasive species, particularly, how much focus they will give the neighbor islands on this issue.
Ige said the state needs a “comprehensive biocontrol program” to intercept invasive species.
Abercrombie, referring to little fire ants as “terrorists not open to group discussion,” noted cuts to the state Department of Agriculture by the previous administration.
Bracken, noting it appears the state responds more aggressively to the issue on Oahu, asked Abercrombie if he will give the neighbor islands as much support.
“I’ve been doing it for 40 years, and I will do it for the next 40 months if I get a chance,” he said.
In his closing statement, Ige said he has heard from people across Hawaii who have lost faith in state government, and pledged to listen to the communities across the islands.
But, he noted, the government can’t be “all things to all people.”
“We need to decide what are the core services you want government to provide … to define and build the future we want,” he said.
Abercrombie noted his experience.
“You know if there was an issue to be faced … you know Neil Abercrombie was there,” he said.
The debate, hosted by the Waimea Community Association, will be aired from 6:30-8 p.m. Thursday on Hawaii Public Radio.
Another debate between the two Democratic candidates will be held from 9:30-11:30 a.m. Tuesday at King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.