When Oahu Sen. David Ige told friends he'd seek the governor's office and challenge Gov. Neil Abercrombie's re-election, their reaction was: "Are you crazy?"
Yet the 57-year-old Ige, a Democratic lawmaker for 29 years, insists that he can win the Aug. 9 Democratic primary race for governor.
"I'm running for governor of the state of Hawaii. I'm not running against Governor Abercrombie," he said in an interview Wednesday at The Maui News.
If Ige were able to defeat Abercrombie, a former U.S. congressman, it would be a historic upset. No sitting governor seeking re-election in state history has lost a party primary. And historic precedent is not all.
In his last report to the state Campaign Spending Commission, Abercrombie reported a surplus of $2,197,127, while Ige had $76,508.
Recent polls give Ige a glimmer of hope. A Feb. 17 Hawaii News Now/Star-Advertiser poll of registered voters reported that 47 percent would vote for Abercrombie in the Democratic primary, 38 percent for Ige and 14 percent were undecided. Also, 45 percent of those polled had an unfavorable opinion of the governor while another 45 percent had a favorable opinion. For Ige, 30 percent had a favorable opinion and 38 percent didn't know who he was.
A Feb. 24 poll by Honolulu Civil Beat showed Ige and Abercrombie tied at 37 percent each among likely Democratic voters, while 26 percent said they were unsure who would receive their vote.
Last week, during a campaign stop on Maui, Ige said he was encouraged by polls that show him either even with the governor or within 10 percentage points.
"We're within striking distance," he said. "Governor . . . everybody knows who he is, and almost half of them don't like the job that he's done. Yes, a large majority of people don't know who I am."
But "of the people who do know me, an overwhelming majority believe that I've done a good job," Ige said. "I believe that we're very well positioned. I think as I get out and meet people and tell my story that they will see that I would make a good governor and hopefully that would become supporters and advocates."
As for the wide gap in campaign financial resources, Ige said he hasn't started advertising or fundraising on the Neighbor Islands.
He admitted that he has a lot of work to do to win his party's nomination for governor.
"I do not have any delusions," he said. "The campaign will be hard. We're working very hard. . . . All of our efforts to this point has really been grass roots. It has been getting out in smaller settings, town meetings. I have gone statewide and have been having meetings with various supporters."
Ige said that he has spent much of his time listening to voters' concerns, trying to get a better sense of what the important issues are and telling people "who I am and what I stand for."
The candidate said that he has attended numerous "coffee hour" events with voters around the islands, and "they are very concerned about the direction of the state. They want to have a choice, and they want change. They're not satisfied with what's happening."
When asked how he differs from Abercrombie, Ige said: "I think it's about leadership style. I think people want a different kind of leader. I'm collaborative. . . . It really is about bringing our communities together and finding common ground and finding common solutions to move the state forward. So much of what's been happening is really about confrontation and division, rather than really finding solutions.
"Being governor is about leadership. It's about finding solutions to move the community forward,' he said.
Efforts to get comments from the Abercrombie campaign Friday were unsuccessful.
Ige is building his campaign on his record as a lawmaker, in particular as chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
"I believe the state needs to live within its means," Ige said. "We've rejected virtually all tax increases, and there've been lots tax increases that have been presented to the Legislature. There've been proposals to tax pensions. There've been proposals to take away Medicare reimbursements from retirees. There've been proposals to tax sugar that we've rejected because I really do believe it's about we need to live within the means. We need to right-size government, and we've cut the budget. If you look at the three years that I've been chair of Senate Ways and Means, we have cut more than $800 million from the governor's requests."
Ige said that he believes the Legislature, and not Abercrombie, deserves credit for the state's current $850 million surplus.
"The Legislature has been, through its fiscal policy, really a main component of why we're sitting on a surplus," he said. "We've been focusing on ensuring that we put first things first. We've been working on improving the pension system and the unfunded liability. We've made significant changes over the last three years, four years, to ensure that our pension system is sustainable."
Ige said that Hawaii is the first state in the country to take action on addressing unfunded liabilities for the public employee health fund.
"Every state across the country has followed the same policy of pay as you go, and Hawaii became the first state to really put a schedule on it, to be able to make the commitment and fulfill the liabilities that our public employees have earned and ensure that that can be funded in a systemic way, rather than being funded with leftover funds," Ige said.
The current law requires all public employers to meet their annually recurring charges over the next six years, he said.
Ige said that the potential third-party candidacy of former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann with the new Hawaii Independent Party "doesn't have any impact on our plans."
"We are focused on winning the Democratic primary," he said.
Then, as the party nominee, Ige said, he believes he'd defeat Hannemann and/or former Republican Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona in the Nov. 4 general election.
Also bolstering Ige's candidacy are his endorsement from the Hawaii State Teachers Association and his support from former Democratic Govs. George Ariyoshi and Ben Cayetano.
"I was honored that they chose to support my candidacy," he said of Ariyoshi and Cayetano. "They've been very helpful. They have looked at the options that are before them and they decided to support me. . . . Their support has opened a lot of doors in terms of our campaign."
As for his support from the public teachers union, Ige said that it reflects his commitment to education as a legislator. He served as chairman of the Senate Committee on Education and Technology from 1999 to 2000 and was chairman of the House Committee on Education from 1993 to 1994. His wife, Dawn, has been a public school teacher and is a vice principal.
Ige said that he wrote the first charter school laws in Hawaii, supported legislation to make it easier for parents to home-school their children, drafted the first comprehensive restructuring of the school system, supported pay for performance for public school employees and backed Hawaiian language immersion schools because he believes the "Native Hawaiian culture was on the verge of extinction because of the lack of native speakers."
Ige said that he's concerned about the future of Hawaii.
"We do know that the public believes it's not getting good value for tax dollars," he said.
Government needs to seek out opportunities to improve the economy, help businesses and startups and support tourism and the visitor industry as the state's economic driver, Ige said.
He called his campaign historic.
"This campaign is about the future of Hawaii," he said. "Our parents worked very hard to give us a better future. Their parents worked hard. For the first time in the history of our state, I'm not as confident that I can leave my children a better future than my parents left for me. And that's why I'm running for governor."
Ige grew up in Pearl City on Oahu and is the fifth of six sons of Tokio Ige, a steelworker and veteran of the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team, and Tsurue Ige, a dental hygienist. He was an electrical engineer and project manager for 34 years with GTE Hawaiian Tel, NetEnterprise and Pihana Pacific. He began his career as a legislator in 1985 when Ariyoshi appointed him to a state House seat. He was elected to the state Senate in 1994.
Ige said that he draws inspiration from his father and other Japanese-Americans who fought prejudice at home and the enemy overseas during World War II.
"There was definitely a call to duty," he said. "Their loyalty was questioned, and they really believed that they had to volunteer to really restore the status of Japanese-Americans in the state of Hawaii and the country.
"I'm committed to try to live up to that legacy," Ige said. "And part of running for governor is about trying to do what he and his generation did for me as a child for my children and try to leave Hawaii as a better place for them. And right now we're not doing it."
* Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.