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ANALYSIS


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Message of unity trumps ethnic appeal

By Richard Borreca

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 05:47 a.m. HST, Sep 19, 2010


While planning his campaign for governor last year, Neil Abercrombie met with Mufi Hannemann to ask about his plans.

According to Abercrombie, Hannemann said he decided on the governor's race because "it was available."

"No it isn't," Abercrombie shot back, and the battle was joined.

Abercrombie quit his safe seat in Congress. Hannemann left his equally safe job as Honolulu mayor.

Abercrombie's decisive drubbing of Hannemann yesterday showed two things: Hawaii voters will reject blatant appeals to localism; and retail campaigning beats wholesale.

The campaign put the spotlight on a dark undercurrent of Hawaii politics: the idea that where a candidate is born and the candidate's ethnic background are more important than what he or she would bring to the office.

Hannemann went to the Hawaii Carpenters Union convention to say, "When I look in the audience, I look like you, you look like me."

It is a comparison that Democratic candidates for governor Tom Gill, Jack Lewin and Cec Heftel tried and failed to address.

The Hannemann comparison was a mistake compounded by the brochure mailed to voters statewide, asking them to "Compare and Decide" on such issues as where the two candidates were born and what college they attended.

Abercrombie is a veteran of 40 years of running and winning in districts where he was a minority, which has taught him to celebrate his differences. "Our diversity defines us, our diversity does not divide us," Abercrombie would shout out.

While Hannemann's campaign was making mistakes with its message, Abercrombie was conducting a classic retail campaign, going name by name through the hundreds of precincts and looking for supporters.

Abercrombie found the rank-and-file Democrats who had supported former Govs. George Ariyoshi, John Waihee and Ben Cayetano and brought them over.

At the same time, he recruited a cadre of young, socially conscious Democrats from such organizations as Kanu Hawaii.

The Hannemann campaign came into the contest with much of Hawaii's political, business and union elite on his side. It was a campaign rich with resources, but it never developed momentum.

Hannemann was running a corporate campaign, with a top-flight public relations and marketing firm, a spokeswoman who had gone from representing Bishop Estate to the Hawaii Medical Service Association, and recruiting a specialist in turning out voters on election day.

On the way over to the Hilo rally that Hawaii Democrats traditionally hold on the day before the primary election, Abercrombie reflected on his campaign, saying the "Compare and Decide" brochure, even Hannemann's speech to the Carpenters Union, "were only points about technique."

Abercrombie said the former mayor's undoing was stressing that he was a manager and someone you could put in charge.

"He kept telling people what he was going to do, and how he was so good. He was presenting his credentials.

"People don't want to be managed. They are sick of it," Abercrombie said.

"I listened, I learned and I could reflect back to people what they were saying," he said. "In the end, people said, 'We are comfortable with Neil handling it.'"






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