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Hawaii Democrats seek unity after dramatic races

Published: Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014 11:20 p.m. CDT
Caption
(AP photo)
Hawaii State Sen. David Ige (right) waves to his supporters and thanks Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie (right) who promised his support Saturday in Honolulu. Ige defeated incumbent Abercrombie in the state's primary election to win the Democratic Party's nomination.

HONOLULU – Hawaii’s Democratic Unity Breakfast the morning after the primary election is traditionally a time for candidates to set aside their differences and coalesce against the Republican candidates they will face in November.

But Sunday’s festivities were awkward this year after the primary left the top-ticket U.S. Senate race undecided and the sitting governor was trounced by his Democratic opponent.

Incumbent U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, the Senate candidates who are separated by only a slim vote margin, largely ignored one another as they sat at neighboring tables until they were finally forced to acknowledge each other with a hug in between their speeches to about 200 party faithful.

“This really is an extraordinary moment in Democratic Party politics for so many reasons,” Schatz said. “Colleen and I, in a very particular way, are not ‘pau,’” he said, using the Hawaiian word for done.

Hanabusa asked, “Where else would you have a situation like this? I mean, look at this election. Two hurricanes, we were down to the wire.”

The other election drama was resolved Saturday night, when Gov. Neil Abercrombie was resoundingly defeated by a fellow Democrat and onetime underdog who took on the 40-year politician. Abercrombie pledged his full support to Democratic gubernatorial nominee David Ige and linked arms with him onstage on election night.

The 76-year-old governor on Sunday reiterated his intention to help Democrats and reminisced about his political career. Choking up, he vowed: “My every breath until the last I take will be for Hawaii.”

As Democrats shifted their focus to defeating Republicans in November, the focus of the U.S. Senate race shifts to a remote region on the Big Island known as Puna, where up to 8,255 registered voters will be mailed ballots in the next few days.

In an unprecedented move, elections officials postponed voting in two precincts after Tropical Storm Iselle hit the state this week, damaging roads and downing trees on the Big Island. Exactly how the election will proceed was unclear to candidates Sunday morning. The state faces a 21-day legal deadline.

“As long as civil defense deems the roads passable, they can start campaigning today,” said Stephanie Ohigashi, chairwoman of Hawaii’s Democratic Party. It will be a challenge to campaign in the rugged volcanic region, where many homesteaders are without water and power, she said.

“People are going to learn a lot about that part of the state,” said former Gov. John Waihee. “It’s made up of a lot of people who are very independent ... they like being country. They like where they live.”

The two Senate candidates were praising Big Island voters Sunday, with both candidates planning to fly there to continue their campaigns. Hanabusa’s team planned to head to the island later Sunday, said her spokesman, Peter Boylan.

Schatz also planned to go.

“I’m a grassroots guy,” he said in an interview. “I started my career walking house to house, wearing out several pairs of shoes, so I’m comfortable communicating to voters directly.”

Abercrombie, who led the state’s tropical storm response, said officials “will get this election completed in record time.”

“People deserve to have the elections handled in an expeditious manner that they can have confidence in,” he said.

After Saturday’s unprecedented ouster of the incumbent governor, fellow Democrats lavished praise on Abercrombie Sunday, prompting the governor to joke that he “hadn’t realized what incredible virtues I still possess” after the divisive race.

Abercrombie has occupied just about every political office since he was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 1975, later moving to the state Senate, serving on the Honolulu City Council and then holding nine consecutive terms as a congressman, from 1993 to 2010, when he returned to Hawaii full-time to seek the governorship.

But the governor’s confrontational approach was a sour note for many voters, and he drew the ire of fellow Democrats last year with a proposal to raise taxes on retiree pensions, hotel rooms and plastic bags, among other things. He also lost favor with the politically influential teachers union, which supported his candidacy in 2010 but turned against him in 2011 when he imposed a final contract that cut their pay.

Abercrombie is the first Hawaii governor to lose to a primary challenger and only the second not to win re-election. His defeat comes despite the endorsement of President Barack Obama in his native state. Obama also endorsed Schatz.

Now Ige, 57, a mild-mannered state lawmaker of 28 years who took on the powerful incumbent, has to step into a much higher-profile role. He acknowledged some of his campaigning skills need work.

After making an issue of the governor’s sometimes aggressive style during the campaign and promising he would be more collegial, Ige on Sunday praised the governor’s passion.

Ige, whose speech followed Abercrombie’s, said he had been advised to “have more passion and emotion, and that’s certainly something that I look to you and have always gotten from your speeches.”

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