Our Islands, Our Future

The conversation was polite, if occasionally pointed, as Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona and former U.S. Congressman Neil Abercrombie made clear they agreed on defining issues even as they differed on how state government can respond.

The Republican and Democratic nominees for governor appeared Wednesday, October 6 in “Focus 2010: A Gubernatorial Conversation,” a forum broadcast statewide by Hawaii Public Radio and the state’s community television stations. The forum was sponsored by Maui Economic Development Board and Hawaii Public Radio with support from the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, Akaku: Maui Commuity Television and UH Maui College.

“Focus 2010 was a tremendous success in providing an opportunity for the community on Maui to question the candidates for governor on concerns relevant to the Neighbor Islands,” said MEDB President Jeanne Unemori Skog. “Through the Focus Maui Nui initiative, MEDB is fostering community participation in decisions of land use, water use, education and economic growth. We appreciate the cooperation of these candidates in informing the community of their views.”

For all the contentiousness in campaign advertising in the gubernatorial race, the two partisan candidates demonstrated they could agree on key points. Both said they support the counties’ allocation of the state’s hotel room tax, with Abercrombie adding the historical note that he was in the Legislature when the tax was created to have visitors pay a share of the costs of services that they use. Both spoke on the need to deal with the high costs of interisland transportation but neither offered concrete solutions to make traveling between island less costly. Both cited the cost of fuel as a factor in the costs.

Both spoke positively of the benefits of astronomy in Hawaii in spurring creation of science and technology jobs, citing plans for a 30-meter telescope on Mauna Kea. The Hawaii site was selected by TMT Observatory Corp. for what would be the Earth’s largest optical telescope. Both also recognized the observatories on Mauna Kea and Haleakala raise cultural and environmental concerns. Abercrombie took a positive approach, saying the early Polynesians who first populated Hawaii were students of astronomy, and observatories on Mauna Kea are an extension of that traditional knowledge.

“They arrived here because of their knowledge of the skies and because of their faith in their capacity to understand their world. They could be seen as the first Polynesian astronomers,” he said. While saying he supports space research, Aiona was more cautious, noting that economic developments have impacts on Native Hawaiian culture that need to be aired before a project is initiated.

“When it comes to every project, everyone needs to be at the table,” he said. Both support development of alternative energy resources to reduce Hawaii’s dependence on oil. Aiona cited progress by the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative to support renewable energy research and development, set up by Gov. Linda Lingle. “We have set a goal of reducing our use of oil by 50 percent by 2018. With the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, I think we can do it,” he said.

Abercrombie cited the potential for tapping wind, solar, wave and geothermal energy resources in Hawaii, and cited the success of Pacific Biodiesel in converting waste cooking oil into a transportation fuel. But when Abercrombie referred to his plan for an Energy Authority that would support alternative energy development, Aiona rebutted that it would only create another bureaucracy standing in the way of energy development.

There was convergence and contention in their positions on education as well. Aiona spoke of the Lingle-Aiona administration’s support for STEM education programs in Hawaii’s schools, noting that the state’s efforts to promote Robotics competitions has blossomed. Abercrombie in turn spoke in favor of decentralizing school decision-making to allow individual schools to manage their allocations.

But when Aiona cited the Department of Education’s success in winning a federal Race to the Top award, a $75 million competitive grant to school districts to support plans for increasing student achievement, Abercrombie pointed out it was a federal grant, the kind of government spending that Aiona has been criticizing.

When Aiona said he would order an audit of the Department of Education “so we will know how the money is being spent,” Abercrombie said, “The last thing we need is an audit, the last thing we need is another study.”

The 90-minute forum is being rebroadcast by Akaku on cable Channels 53 and 54 through Oct. 11. A schedule of the broadcasts can be found at

Hawaii Public Radio will broadcast another gubernatorial forum on Oct. 18, with HPR Hawaii correspondent Sherry Bracken as moderator. HPR News Director Kayla Rosenfeld was moderator for Focus 2010.

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