KAHULUI - It was youth versus experience - and a few agitated exchanges - as Democratic state House candidate Kaniela Ing met side by side, and sometimes face to face, with Republican Rep. George Fontaine of South Maui.
The matchup of Fontaine and Ing - in what's being watched as a potentially competitive race - was one of five legislative forum panels held Tuesday night live on Akaku: Maui Community Television.
Ing, 23, of Kihei mounted a strong campaign for a first-time candidate, beating three other candidates for the Democratic Party nomination, including former state Rep. Joe Bertram III. Fontaine, 52, of Kihei, a first-term incumbent and a retired police captain, was unopposed in the primary and is active in the South Maui community.
In one of the sharper exchanges during Tuesday night’s candidate forum on Akaku: Maui Community Television, Democratic West Maui state Rep. Angus McKelvey (left) takes exception to Republican challenger Chayne Marten’s challenge of the incumbent’s voting record on the environment. Tuesday’s forum focused on contested state races. A forum Wednesday night was an opportunity for Maui County Council candidates to debate issues.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
In 2010, Fontaine beat Bertram, who had come under fire from the Republican for a year earlier defending a friend in 2nd Circuit Court who had been convicted of trying to entice a police officer - posing as a 14-year-old girl online - for sex.
Near the end of their debate Tuesday night, Ing, in perhaps their most heated exchange, accused Fontaine of essentially taking potshots against his friend, Bertram. He asked Fontaine if he intends any mudslinging this time around, too.
Fontaine looked directly at Ing and said he's run a clean campaign and pledged to continue to do so.
Ing was asked about his knowledge of issues and whether he can overcome his lack of experience. The Maui native is fresh out of graduate school.
"I've dedicated my life to public service," Ing replied.
He said he represents a fresh perspective and the people instead of special interests. He also said he supports restoring state funding for social service safety net programs.
As for experience, Ing said he was student body president at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and legislative researcher.
Ing reiterated that he has been walking the South Maui district, knocking on all of its 12,000 doors to connect with residents.
Fontaine was asked how he can be a successful legislator when he is not only the single Republican in the Maui County delegation but also one of only eight GOP members in the 51-member House.
The incumbent said he's co-sponsored a number of successful bills and works hard to reach across the aisle.
Fontaine said his voting record speaks for itself, in particular his opposition to raising the pension tax. He also opposes raising any tax, especially in tough economic times.
The two also sparred over Fontaine's dedication to preserving state social services safety nets.
"I'm not for cutting programs to social services, but we do need to look at ways to reduce fraud and waste," Fontaine said. "I have worked desperately to keep safety net programs in place."
Fontaine said the real "elephant in the room" is the state's multibillion-dollar unfunded liability for retired public employees.
"We need to get our financial house in order, reduce our debt without cutting programs by making programs more efficient, but more importantly by investing in more audits for fraud," he said.
Ing said he would consider tax increases, but on a sliding scale that won't hurt families.
"It has to be an option," Ing said. He also said there are a lot of inefficiencies in government and the state tax code.
Ing accused Fontaine of allowing the Kihei high school project to fall behind schedule.
"I wasn't even in office (when funding lapsed)," Fontaine said. "I think this is just an example of how you don't understand what the process is."
He said the Department of Education could not proceed with the project because the state owned no land and had not completed an environmental impact statement. But the state now is ready to proceed, he said, adding that he plans to seek money for the high school in the next legislative session.
"I hope we can get this program on track and our Kihei high school built by 2016," Fontaine added.
In another panel forum, state Sen. Roz Baker squared off against Republican Bart Mulvihill, her challenger for the South and West Maui Senate seat.
Baker said she plans to keep improving paramedics' abilities in the district and move ahead with plans for a West Maui hospital, which sank under funding problems.
Mulvihill, though, expressed his disappointment that there is no plan to build a South Maui hospital, saying he knows companies have expressed interest.
Baker said one of her top priorities is to get the Kihei-to-Upcountry highway done.
"I know it's a little contentious, but we have a plan to jump-start that project (in phases)," Baker said.
She said she wants to see work started soon with the assistance of U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye and federal funds.
Baker also reasserted her support for the proposed Kihei high school.
Mulvihill said he opposed the plan in place, saying it's too costly because the current location is not near infrastructure such as water and sewer lines.
Incumbent West Maui Rep. Angus McKelvey and Republican challenger Chayne Marten's forum was heated from the start.
Marten accused McKelvey of repeatedly voting against environmental protection laws.
"How can you say that? How can you say that?" McKelvey asked.
Marten pointed out that McKelvey voted in favor of the controversial and nearly autonomous Public Land Development Corp., which can generate revenue for the Department of Land and Natural Resources by allowing developers to build on public land.
McKelvey shot back that he has reconsidered that vote and will co-sponsor legislation to eliminate or rein in the year-old PLDC. But there's nothing else potentially harmful to the environment on his record, he said.
McKelvey said his goals include sustainable agriculture and saving Lipoa Point.
Martin agreed but differed on how.
Upcountry House Republican candidate Ekolu Kalama attended the forum without Democratic incumbent Rep. Kyle Yamashita, who holds the House Upcountry seat.
Kalama focused mostly on Native Hawaiian issues.
"When I don't find any leaders that are great," then, he said, he believes that people should stand up to make a difference.
Democratic incumbent Rep. Mele Carroll, who represents East Maui, Lanai and Molokai residents, is being challenged in her bid for re-election by farmer and builder Republican Simon Russell.
"I think what District 13 needs is to help people care for themselves rather than the government doing it for them," Russell said.
His plan includes increasing opportunities in agriculture.
Carroll addressed why her attendance at the Legislature was irregular recently, saying it's because she underwent successful breast cancer treatment, while staying in touch with her staff and constituents.
Carroll said the state needs to be able to provide more money to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. She also wants to continue her fight to improve the Molokai irrigation system and more farming.
The debates were sponsored by the Kula and Kihei community associations, Akaku and The Maui News.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.