Summer campaigning is in full swing here, as Maui roadways are strewn with sign-wavers from dawn to dusk and political lingo now marks nearly every corner.
With less than two months to go before the primary election, it's time for voters to hone in on the candidates they believe will satisfy their political needs. One of the most contentious races in Hawai'i is for the U.S. Senate seat, as candidates vie to fill the shoes of the admirable U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka.
On Tuesday, June 12, AARP Hawai'i presented an hour-long debate between former U.S. Congressman Ed Case and Hawai'i Rep. Mazie Hirono, both longtime politicians seeking the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate this election season. Maui Beach Hotel's Elleair Ballroom in Kahului was bustling with more than 115 attendees (most of whom were over the age of 50) looking for answers regarding programs such as Medicare and Social Security. The federal government has warned that trust funds for Social Security will expire by 2033, and Republican lawmakers have been trying to dismantle Medicare during budget debates in recent years.
Former U.S. Congressman Ed Case (third from left) and U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono (fourth from right) faced off on Tuesday, June 12, during a debate presented by AARP Hawai‘i at the Maui Beach Hotel in Kahului. The experienced Democrats are seeking their party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate seat once held by Sen. Daniel K. Akaka.
"Republicans are no friends of Social Security and Medicare," said Case. "It will take strong and efficient leadership in Washington to save them."
AARP (formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that aims to improve the quality of life for people aged 50 and over. AARP maintains nearly 150,000 Hawai'i members, and with more than 210,000 Medicare beneficiaries and over 234,000 residents relying on Social Security throughout the state, elderly voters seek a candidate who will protect these vital programs in the present--and for the future.
After the usual "schmooze cruise" around the ballroom, Rep. Hirono and Case participated in a debate moderated by Gerald Kato, a former newspaper reporter and longtime journalism professor at University of Hawai'i at Manoa.
Case, a native of Hawai'i Island, said he agrees with Rep. Hirono when it comes to protecting Hawai'i's elderly and strengthening programs such as Social Security and Medicare. "I don't want to go back to 'old' America," he said. "We need to save these programs [and] maintain their physical solvency for the next generations."
On a broader spectrum, Case said he believes we can grow the economy by "balancing books and fixing Washington," and we shouldn't have a problem doing just that.
Rep. Hirono said she considers Social Security and Medicare to be "commitments we must honor and keep," not programs or entitlements that the government manages. In addition, she said we must "reach across the aisle" to get things done at the federal level, "and blend values we hold with policy decisions we make."
Rep. Hirono appeared to know her audience well, speaking directly to potential voters like they were longtime friends. In her opening remarks, she told stories of her family, including her 88-year-old mother, who still lives with her, and her late grandmother, who lived well into her 90s. "I don't want elders to feel they have become a burden," said Rep. Hirono. "I will fight and find solutions that will actually help you--not rob you."
Both seasoned politicians said they believe job creation is essential for an economic boost, and privatizing Medicare is the wrong route. They also agreed that it would be best to dismiss a voucher system where plans are bought from private companies. Both candidates said they approve of health insurance exchanges, support advancements for rural physicians and agree that the Hawai'i's Prepaid Healthcare Act of 1974 was a sound measure.
The candidates were in accordance when it came to several issues; however, Case admitted that although he and Rep. Hirono may agree "on substance," they "differ in priority."
While Rep. Hirono said she does not want to cut any benefits or increase the retirement age from 65 to 67, Case said he sees the advantages of doing both.
Excluding seniors who are already in, or near, retirement, the former congressman said raising the retirement age "slowly" would benefit those who are now in their 20s and 30s, and over time, it would slow down the growth of benefits.
Rep. Hirono said she is convinced that lifting the income tax cap of $106,000 will keep Social Security solvent for the next 75 years. "That doesn't take away from the benefits you have worked so hard for," she said, "I'm looking for solutions that will truly have a major impact."
Both agreed that Social Security's solvency was its biggest challenge, with Case more forthcoming about the economic realities of lifting the cap.
Someone is taxed each time the cap is lifted, he explained, whether it is the employee or employer, at 6.2 percent. If you tax citizens too much, said Case, "They're going to shut down."
A moment of jeer did arise from the audience when Case was asked how he is different from his opponent. "I don't know what our differences are really," he replied, adding that Rep. Hirono hasn't really released an agenda or a record during the campaign.
"I think the people of Hawai'i know where I stand," she responded.
The winner of the Democratic primary election on Saturday, Aug. 11, will face the state's Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, either former Gov. Linda Lingle or attorney John Carroll.
To learn more about the candidates, visit www.mazieforhawaii.com or www.edcase.com. For information about voter registration and elections in the State of Hawai'i, visit hawaii.gov/elections/voters/registration.htm.