Lee Cataluna: Ige’s not hiding, but he’s totally dodging

Republican gubernatorial candidate Andria Tupola sent out an email blast last week with the provocative subject line: “Can You Believe He’s Hiding?”

The “he” to which the email refers is her opponent in the general election, incumbent Gov. David Ige, a Democrat.

The “what” from which Ige is accused of hiding is Tupola’s challenge to debate. Tupola wants to take on Ige in a televised debate and also wants to go face-to-face in separate public forums on six islands. “Each community deserves a chance to ask the candidates how they will address Hawaii’s most deeply rooted issues,” Tupola said in a news release.

The answer to the question posed in the subject line is pretty much, “Yup,” though the word “hiding” is certainly loaded. It can be argued that Ige is not hiding, more like avoiding or ignoring or simply playing it safe. Playing it safe is usually a smart political strategy, especially if you’re the incumbent. U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard blithely ignored calls to debate her challenger in the primary. The main reason entrenched incumbents don’t want to debate is it gives their long-shot opponents free publicity and the image of equal footing. Complaining that the incumbent doesn’t want to debate is the usual political strategy of the ignored underdog.

Ige would have much to lose in a series of debates with Tupola. Not the election — it’s hard to imagine a Republican wresting control of the state’s top office in this deeply blue state and in an era where the local party’s ranks in office has dwindled to almost nothing.

What Ige might lose is his precarious standing as a good-enough governor. He survived a heap of criticism for his indecisive fumbling and uninspired first years in office, and redeemed his image just enough through various storm-related press conferences. He survived a primary challenge by hard-edged U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and won the race, though some would argue that it wasn’t so much that Team Ige won as that Team Hana­busa ran a losing campaign.

But then there’s Tupola, who has a rapid-fire, high-voltage speaking style and a kind of personal warmth that David Ige couldn’t fake if his life depended on it. She might not be the perfect candidate, but she could run right over Ige in a debate. It may not cost him re-election but it would be another painful reminder to everyone in the state how bad he is at communicating and how he doesn’t have much to communicate to begin with.

So not agreeing to a debate is just good campaign strategy for Ige. And sending out an email essentially calling Ige a chicken is good publicity for Tupola. Maybe (though this will never happen) it would serve the public interest to have a mandatory debate between political candidates for all offices. Make them all do it. Basic requirement. Do away with the coy invitation-and-refusal options. Any candidate who isn’t willing to stand and defend their ideas doesn’t have what it takes to be in office.

Reach Lee Cataluna at 529-4315 or lcataluna@staradvertiser.com.


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