Ten days before the Democratic primary, Gov. David Ige revealed a side of himself Wednesday night that he has rarely displayed in public appearances.
Gone was the awkward engineer, though he was still comfortable wading into a discussion of electricity storage systems that he believes will help the state reach its 100 percent renewable energy goal by 2045.
Instead, the audience of a few dozen supporters and those watching the Civil Beat “Know Your Candidates” event live online saw Ige funny, sassy and confident while answering some tough questions Civil Beat’s Chad Blair.
The one-on-one discussion with the governor, hosted by Hawaii Pacific University at Aloha Tower, was the fourth of five events in the series featuring the leading Democrats and Republicans who are seeking the state’s top executive position.
His chief opponent in the Aug. 11 primary, Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, participated in a similar conversation last week that was also moderated by Blair.
If there was any foreshadowing of this livelier and edgier Ige, it did not come during a low-key appearance with Hanabusa on Tuesday evening at a forum on Kauai. But there was a flicker of it last week at the Hawaii Conservation Conference.
Making his closing remarks during an environmentally focused candidates forum, Ige raised his voice as he hit upon his accomplishments and he pounded the lectern for emphasis, surprising even some of his own staff.
His recent buoyancy may have something to do with his turnaround in the polls. After trailing Hanabusa badly earlier in the campaign, he was leading by 4 percentage points in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s July 6-11 poll and by 9 points in Civil Beat’s July 19-21 poll.
Hanabusa and her supporters have shifted their campaign into an attack on Ige over what he has taken credit for doing in office, focusing on the number of housing units he claims to have completed and more recently on watershed protection.
Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, whom Ige dethroned in the 2014 primary, said in an email sent to media outlets Wednesday that Ige’s claim in a TV ad to have protected 40,000 acres of watershed forest from developers is an “outright lie.”
Asked about that Wednesday, Ige said watershed protection efforts have been going on for a long time — including before Abercrombie’s term.
“Government doesn’t just start and end with each administration. It’s a continuous evolution,” Ige said. “I acknowledge that he supported the program and really pushed it forward and I’m expanding and really implementing a lot of the things that he talked about.”
“It’s funny,” Ige said. “I get criticized for not taking enough credit for the things that I’ve done and now people are criticizing me for taking too much credit.”
Ige has also been criticized for criticizing Hanabusa for running a campaign based on criticism.
A group of women led by House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti took issue with an Ige adthat said “criticism isn’t leadership,” claiming it was demeaning to women and amounted to telling Hanabusa to “sit down and shut up.”
When asked for his reaction, Ige said he has a wife and two daughters and that “First Lady Dawn would certainly not let me be demeaning to women.”
He said a 30-second ad is not the best vehicle for communication, but that its point was that “criticizing is easy” but “leadership is about engaging the public,” finding stakeholders and coming up with solutions.
“I would challenge you to ask my opponents about the things that they have been able to do,” Ige said, later asking Blair tongue-in-cheek if every question was going to be critical.
Ige was noticeably more critical of Hanabusa and her supporters in the Legislature on Wednesday, attacking their lack of understanding of issues ranging from state payroll modernization to lapsing federal transportation funds.
On the latter, Ige said Hanabusa is “misinformed” when she says his administration is letting money from the U.S. Department of Transportation go to waste because projects are taking too long to get off the ground.
He said that problem has been turned around, reducing the backlog from $800 million to $450 million. He said the federal DOT recognized the “enhanced performance” and gave the state a $41 million bonus that came from money originally appropriated to other states that weren’t performing well.
Asked why Hanabusa would make those claims, Ige said, “It’s hard when you’re changing jobs all the time.”
The audience cheered at the remark, which was targeting how Hanabusa’s career has taken her from an 11-year tenure in the state Senate to a congressional seat in 2010, followed by a failed bid for U.S. Senate, an appointment to the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation Board of Directors and then back to Congress in 2016.
Ige served 10 years in the state House beginning in 1985, followed by 20 years in the state Senate before being elected governor in 2014.
He also took a swipe at Hanabusa when asked about the scathing statements on her website about his administration’s efforts to modernize the state payroll system. She said the project is only 2 percent complete, riddled with delays and would take until 2116 to finish at this rate.
“It’s obviously someone who does not understand technology projects,” Ige said.
He said the first phase was limited to ensure the program worked and that the second phase is expected to roll out Friday for 20,000 more employees, making it about 40 percent complete. He said the final phase, which will cover education employees, is projected to be done by October.
“You might want to write that in your article,” Ige told Blair.