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US Senate candidates Schatz, Hanabusa square off at forum in Hilo

Updated: 
July 3, 2014 - 6:16am

U.S. Senate candidates Brian Schatz and Colleen Hanabusa faced off Wednesday in their only Big Island showdown.

Held before a capacity crowd at Sanga Hall in Hilo, the 90-minute debate exposed few major policy differences between the top Democratic candidates.

But there was still conflict when it came to their records on two issues, Social Security and Pohakuloa Training Area, both of which Schatz sought to highlight.

The senator, appointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie to replace the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, has used the theme of protecting or enhancing the social safety program throughout his campaign, and used some of his time at the debate to address the issue as well as try to put Hanabusa on the defensive.

“It’s personal for me,” said Schatz, who noted his wife’s parents live with them. “It’s family insurance, it’s family security.”

He also noted that Hanabusa, who serves in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Inouye’s pick for his replacement, voted for a budget amendment that he claimed undermined the program.

“Unfortunately Colleen, you voted for this amendment,” Schatz said. “The fact is, this is a bad vote.”

Hanabusa responded by saying Schatz mischaracterized the bill. She also suggested he was overstating threats to the program.

“So I think it’s unfair and really uncalled for,” she said, “to be able to take an issue I feel is out there to scare our kupunas when our kupuna know that Social Security is something dear to every Democrats heart and we all fight for Social Security.”

Both said they support Pohakuloa Training Area, located on Hawaii Island’s Saddle Road.

But Schatz said Hanabusa was pursuing expansion of its capabilities without consulting with the isleʻs communities.

“Here’s the issue: In her legislation, it calls for C17s to be landing at PTA,” he said, in addition to multi-national exercises.

“I think she should have started here,” Schatz said, with community consultation.

“Don’t introduce legislation on this magnitude without a series of public hearings, without talking story and without listening first.”

Hanabusa said the upgrades to PTA are being studied but noted opportunities for public involvement.

“The pivot to Asia Pacific … requires Hawaii to play a critical role,” she said. “And we will being playing a critical role.”

In other areas, there was less room for disagreement.

Both said voiced strong support for clean energy and believe the Jones Act, which requires shipping vessels traveling between the mainland and Hawaii to be U.S. made and manned, should be left the way it is. They also believe the federal government erred by dedicating land to endangered species that didn’t exist in those areas, and pledged support for completion of Saddle Road improvements.

But what they did offer is their experiences and style and approach to the issues.

Hanabusa said she has strong record of bi-partisanship, gained by serving as the state Senate president and by being a part of a minority party in the U.S. House.

“I know what it’s like to be in a situation where you basically can call the shots,” she said. “The real test is, however, when you’re not in control, when you are not in the majority party.”

Schatz also noted his bi-partisan efforts but presented himself as a candidate that won’t compromise on his principles.

“If there’s an opportunity to work across the aisle … I demonstrate the ability to do just that,” he said.

Schatz also came out in strong support of local governments making their own decisions regarding genetically modified organisms.

“My view is very simple: home rule,” he said. “I think the communities have, to me, their own choices …”

Hanabusa noted the federal government is dealing with issues such as labeling of GMO food, but stopped short of giving a strong answer.

“The role federal government is playing, will continue to play in this discussion,” she said.

During her closing statement, Hanabusa referenced Inouye a few times, noting the election will decide who will carry out the rest of his term.

“The bulk of the successes of this island depend on the farmers, on the people, on the community,” she said. “Inouye, he was willing to invest in all of you….

“I will continue to follow that dream and continue in believing in all of you,” Hanabusa said.

Schatz noted his committee leadership positions as well as an endorsement from President Barack Obama.

But, he said, what matters is “putting those chairmanships to work and working with President Obama to make college more affordable and equal pay for women a reality.”

The full debate will be broadcast again at 6 p.m. on Hawaii Public Radio.

The event was the second of four scheduled debates.

Brian Evans, a Keaau resident, is the other Democrat in the race.

There are seven other candidates, including four Republicans and one Libertarian.

The primary is Aug. 9.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.