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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 28, 2010

Lieutenant governor candidates air ideas

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer

Mary Guinger has had better dates. But the massage therapist and retired teacher from Kailua willingly gave up her morning yesterday to help audition the six Democrats running for lieutenant governor.

The "political speed dating" forum sponsored by the Progressive Democrats of Hawai'i and Americans for Democratic Action of Hawai'i gave voters like Guinger the chance to get to know the six candidates up close.

The candidates rotated among several small groups, spending about 15 minutes with each, introducing themselves and taking questions.

"This is democracy. It's a chance for the candidates to really listen to the people without any kind of filter," said Guinger, who brought scones to share.

Progressives debuted the "political speed dating" format here during the 2006 Democratic primary in the 2nd Congressional District. Like real dating, the candidates know they get only one chance to make a first impression, and with the lieutenant governor's race sure to be overshadowed by campaigns for governor and Congress, each opportunity is precious.

"It's a nice, intimate environment where you can talk story with them," said Rachel Orange, one of the organizers of the event, held at Ward Warehouse.

Candidates also got to road-test some of their themes with progressives, who are an active wing of the Democratic Party of Hawai'i and can influence the September primary.

Brian Schatz, a former state party chairman and House lawmaker, asked progressives to consider which candidate has the best potential to bring organizational change to the executive branch.

Schatz dismissed what he described as a "pass the grenade" attitude on issues such as teacher furloughs and the state's budget deficit. "It's the chief executive's job to get everybody in the room and create a plan," he said.

State Senate Majority Leader Gary Hooser said that while the candidates may have similar views on environmental protection, health care reform, education, and equality, he has shown that he will stand with progressives even when issues turn politically unpopular, such as civil unions or raising the general excise tax to fund education.

"When they tell you that there is no money, what they are really saying is it's not a priority," said Hooser, the only Neighbor Island candidate.

State Rep. Lyla Berg, the only female candidate and the only one to oppose Honolulu's rail project, said she would use the lieutenant governor's office to push for more government transparency by empowering the state Office of Information Practices.

Berg, a single mother, also had a take on what went wrong during collective bargaining negotiations on teacher furloughs: "If there was a mother in the room, it would have been different."

State Sen. Norman Sakamoto, an engineer and contractor, likened his approach to leadership to a problem-solver on a construction project who has to balance competing demands from plumbers, electricians and carpenters.

"Some of the problems that we have are just frustrating," said Sakamoto, who has proposed a general excise tax hike for public education and tapping the state's hurricane relief fund to end teacher furloughs. "These are solvable."

State Rep. Jon Riki Karamatsu said he would work to protect local agriculture and promote alternative energy so the state is not as dependent on imported food and oil. He also said he would try to increase state spending on specialty courts, such as drug courts, as alternatives that provide rehabilitation instead of incarceration.

"One of my goals is to keep that money our money here," he said of the value of food and energy security programs.

State Sen. Robert Bunda, a former Senate president who represents Wahiawā and the North Shore, talked about preserving agriculture and open space from greater development. He also said he supports the Honolulu rail project to ease traffic congestion, create jobs and guide growth to urban areas.

"It's going to create a lot of jobs," he said.

Bunda, a social and fiscal conservative, also got a taste of how the intimate format can put candidates on the spot in a way a traditional forum often does not. Michael Golojuch Jr., a gay activist who once called Bunda a bigot at the state Capitol, pressed the senator on whether he believes in the separation of church and state given his Christianity and his opposition to civil unions.

Bunda kept his composure. "Yes, I do," he said.