It was 6:48 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 9, the 40th anniversary of former U.S. President Richard Nixon's resignation. But in Hawai'i, most people weren't thinking about the past president's departure; they were glued to the television waiting for the 2013 Primary Election results.
On a quiet street in Wailuku Heights, a party was in progress. A group of about 40 volunteers for David Ige, a Democratic candidate for governor, were gathered waiting for the returns. The event was hosted by Leon Bolosan, 67, a retired builder and Ige supporter. Bolosan and his daughter, Leah Belmonte, a visitor industry human resources administrator, both campaigned for the O'ahu legislator. Ige, the former chair of the State Senate Ways and Means Committee, was considered a long-shot in the race with incumbent Hawai'i Gov. Neil Abercrombie. Most thought he had little chance of winning because he was not well-known to voters outside of his own Pearl City home district.
Inside, there was plenty of food, kids playing on the graceful staircase and teenagers glued to their video games while their parents watched the screens, trying not to look nervous. Earlier in the day, several polls had shown Ige, considered a dark horse by most, with a commanding lead in the Hawai'i's Democratic governor's primary race. But the politicos also warned that local forecasts have been notoriously unreliable in the past, so the crowd was tense.
David Ige was the winner of the Democratic primary race for governor. His Maui volunteers celebrated his victory on primary night, Saturday, Aug, 9, in Wailuku.
Scratch the surface of a Maui Ige supporter and it was easy to find an educator, including Robin Brooks, a teacher from Kalama Intermediate School in Makawao and Justin Hughey from King Kamehameha III Elementary School in Lahaina. There were also a number of representatives of the Hawai'i State Teachers Association (HSTA), one of the few large labor organizations to endorse Ige. Standing in the back was Lester Kunimitsu, president of the HSTA's 1,400-member Maui chapter. Also rooting for Ige was education activist Mary Cochran. And it didn't hurt that the candidate was married to one of their own--his wife, Dawn, is the vice principal of Moanalua High School on O'ahu.
In almost every instance, the teachers who had endorsed Abercrombie in his first bid for governor mentioned they were dissatisfied with his performance during his four years in office. They didn't like the contract he'd forced on him. They didn't like the evaluation procedure that seemed to consume endless time but didn't assure accurate results. And they most particularly didn't like that he'd courted their support and then had thrown them under the bus.
"He broke his word to the teachers," said Kunimitsu. "He abused his power."
The volunteers relaxed visibly when the first printout was posted showing Ige leading by a two-to-one margin--a lead he maintained until the end in a stunning upset victory.
Undoubtedly, one reason for skepticism was that it had never happened before. Never in the history of Hawai'i had an incumbent governor running for reelection been defeated in his own party's primary.
But this year, as the group of Maui Ige backers so ably demonstrated, things are a little different. Well, actually, looking at the numbers, you could say things are a lot different. (See sidebar.)
Statewide, Abercrombie outspent Ige by a reported 10-to-1 margin; that's about $5 million for Abercrombie versus about $500,000 by Ige. And as his supporters pointed out, in addition to no money, Ige had no headquarters ("We kind of lived at the Pu'unene Avenue McDonald's"), little staff, few endorsements and a short time-line. It was only 13 months between Ige's surprise announcement that he would seek the state's top job in July 2013 and the primary election in August 2014.
At 7:41 p.m., volunteer Gerald Kimura whipped out his phone to show the Associated Press calling the election for Ige, and the screens of all three televisions scattered around the house and outside tent started flashing the numbers. In an instant, the crowd loosened up and got set to enjoy a long evening. This was going to be a night to remember; a night that history would be made in local politics.
Holding down the fort in the living room with her laptop and cell phone was preschool administrator Kili Namau'u. She identified herself as a former classmate of Ige's at the University of Hawai'i, Manoa, where they'd both been active in student government.
"He's still got to win in November," Namau'u said, "but tonight's showing makes me really proud."
Other volunteers shared similar sentiments. Comments included: "He's gracious." "He really listens." "He's got no ego." "He's a really nice guy."
Some noted that while many prospective "voters first got interested in Ige because they were 'against' Abercrombie," as time went by and the senator made repeated visit to Maui, "they came to like him for himself."
They liked that Ige was calm and non-confrontational in his manner. They thought his training as an electrical engineer who also held a master's degree in business administration was a plus. They noticed that he had a solid understanding of the state's financial picture, that he was practical and experienced. And once they started to like him they got to work, or as Namau'u said, "It was a real grassroots effort. We all chipped in and volunteered."
Post-election comments by a local businessman who follows politics (but did not want to be identified) seemed to sum up the prevailing sentiment:
"A lot of the older politicos have become entitled and a protected class. The governor [Abercrombie], Donna Kim, Malama Solomon and Clayton Hee were all very capable technocrats, but they shared some common traits: high ego, limited self-control and belief they are always right. They all lost."
"They felt whatever they thought was right and everyone else should [think that way], too. They were rude to most people. Bottom line: They were perceived as rarely listening to people with different points of views and [that [kind of attitude) alienated their core supporters."
There might be many reasons for Abercrombie's loss, but up in Wailuku Heights, there was no mistaking the delight in the Ige victory. As the hour grew late, his workers broke into impromptu song:
"We are the champions, my friends. And we'll keep on fighting 'til the end. We are the champions. We are the champions..."