HONOLULU - A debate between Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie and state Sen. David Ige on Tuesday revealed few major differences in their visions of Hawaii's future.
Both Democratic candidates want to solve Hawaii's housing problems, support Native Hawaiian sovereignty and improve the state's troubled health exchange. They also both want to keep gambling out of Hawaii and improve its public education system.
But the primary rivals are split more on who's to blame for Hawaii's issues than they are on how to solve those problems.
"This election is about the future of Hawaii," Ige said in opening remarks. "Hawaii is not headed in the right direction."
That tendency was highlighted when the candidates were asked about possible solutions for fixing Hawaii's troubled health exchange, which was built under President Barack Obama's federal health care overhaul.
"The Health Connector has been a disaster," Ige said.
Ige said the Legislature approved only minimal funding for the entity and told it to clean up its act.
But Abercrombie said the health exchange is a "creature of the Legislature," and he told Ige and lawmakers to "hold up a mirror."
Ige countered that Abercrombie had appointed four Cabinet members to the Health Connector's board. "To pretend like the governor is not involved with the Health Connector is absolutely inaccurate," Ige said.
The candidates also differed on who could take more credit for balancing the state's budget as Hawaii recovered from a recession.
Abercrombie stressed his role, saying: "We're back, we're in the black, we're on the right track." He said he worked to provide a long-term balanced budget but "the Legislature has the luxury perhaps of taking the short-term view."
Ige countered that the Legislature cut the governor's budget requests by about $1 billion over the past four years, rejecting tax increases and making the state live within its means.
Asked whether they would consider raising the general excise tax, Ige said he would oppose any increases in excise taxes, but Abercrombie did not directly answer.
Both candidates highlighted the need to develop more affordable housing in Honolulu.
"We need to build in the urban core so we can avoid urban sprawl," Abercrombie said.
They also expressed passion about the importance of public education, and Abercrombie argued that an upcoming ballot initiative asking voters whether to allow public funds to be used for private early-education programs is more important than the governor's race.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime possibility," Abercrombie said.
Principals have complained that they no longer have the authority to make decisions on behalf of the students, so "we need to restore autonomy and empower schools," Ige said.
Asked what they would do to help Hawaiians reinstate their sovereignty, Abercrombie said he supported programs like the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission and efforts for Native Hawaiian people to form their own government. Ige said sovereignty efforts can't be rushed, and he thinks recent meetings hosted by the federal government on possible federal recognition of Native Hawaiians as a tribe were premature.
"In 1893, a great injustice was done to the Hawaiian community and the Hawaiian nation . . . and we have been struggling with how to right that injustice for every year since," Ige said.
The candidates met at a lunchtime forum of the Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce.
Two other candidates outside the party are expected to be part of the race in November. Republican James "Duke" Aiona, a previous lieutenant governor who lost handily to Abercrombie in 2010, is running again. And former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann is running as a member of the Independent Party.