POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Sep 7, 2010
LAST UPDATED: 2:12 a.m. HST, Sep 9, 2010
FIRST IN A SERIES
Sometimes, when Neil Abercrombie is on a roll, he gets so explosive it appears he might just levitate.
You get a sense that underneath his plain coat and tie is that superhero costume with the peace sign on the chest that appeared on a poster for his quixotic campaign for U.S. Senate 40 years ago.
The long-haired, bushy-bearded war protester may have evolved into a more manicured state lawmaker, city councilman and congressman. But in his heart there is still a roaring, uncompromising fight with the status quo.
After four decades as a politician — the past two decades in Congress — he has chosen to frame his campaign against former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann in the Democratic primary for governor around change. He said it is the last public office he will seek.
PROFILE: NEIL ABERCROMBIE» Age: 72
» Family: Wife, Nancie Caraway
» Education: Union College, N.Y., bachelor's degree in sociology; University of Hawaii-Manoa, master's degree in sociology; University of Hawaii-Manoa, doctorate in American studies
» Elected experience: State House of Representatives, 1974-78; state Senate, 1978-86; U.S. House of Representatives, 1986; Honolulu City Council, 1988-1990; U.S. House of Representatives, 1991-2010
» Other experience: Community boards include the Nuuanu YMCA, Hawaii Special Olympics, Epilepsy Foundation of America, Friends of Father Damien, Variety Club (Tent 50), Life Foundation/AIDS Foundation of Hawaii, Amnesty International
40 years of fighting the status quo
"So if you think that the city and county is in great shape, if you're happy with the way things are right now, and you want to see that same kind of experience and leadership move to the state level, then you have your choice."
Abercrombie, 72, believes the primary is a referendum on leadership. His ideas to empower school principals to improve public education, move toward food and energy security to lessen the state's reliance on imports, and invest in technology and innovation are thoughtful but not especially groundbreaking. The difference, he said, is a governor with the ability to lead.
Hannemann, 56, questions how Abercrombie can be an authentic agent of change after four decades in politics. The former congressman, he said, has never been a chief executive responsible for balancing a budget or negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with labor unions. His role as a congressman — one "yea" or "nay" vote among 435 — has made him more of a follower.
Hannemann has driven voters toward Abercrombie's soft spot: whether, after all these years of fighting power, he can command power.
Charles Toguchi, a former state lawmaker, state schools superintendent and lobbyist, has known Abercrombie for 35 years. He describes him as a man of integrity and passion, but also of compassion.
"I think we're facing some very difficult times," Toguchi said. "He's someone I believe in, someone I trust. He's always been out there fighting for the underdog and the working class. He's advocated for human and civil rights."
Abercrombie, who was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and came to Hawaii in 1959 for graduate school at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, has spent his political life on the left.
His rage against the Vietnam War led to an unsuccessful Democratic primary campaign as an antiwar candidate for U.S. Senate in 1970. He was an outsider and a dissident during his decade in the state House and Senate, a vote against development and for social-service programs that help the poor and needy.
Abercrombie won a special election for Congress in 1986 to fill the unexpired term of Cec Heftel, who resigned to run in the Democratic primary for governor. But he lost the primary to replace Heftel on the same day to Hannemann after a bitter contest in which Hannemann suggested Abercrombie enjoyed marijuana and would back decriminalization, which Abercrombie denied. Hannemann lost in the general election to Republican Pat Saiki, in large part because voters were turned off by the negative campaign with Abercrombie.
After a few years on the Honolulu City Council, Abercrombie was elected to Congress again in 1990 when Saiki gave up the urban Honolulu seat for an unsuccessful campaign for U.S. Senate.
In his two decades in Congress, Abercrombie stayed true to his antiwar roots but adopted a pragmatic approach to the military spending that helps sustain Hawaii's economy.
One of his first votes was against the Persian Gulf War with Iraq in 1991. He also voted against authorization for the second Iraq war in 2002. He was among a cadre of liberals who formed "Iraq Watch" to challenge President Bush on his handling of the invasion and occupation. He sought a deadline for troop withdrawal from Iraq and attempted to contain war profiteering by U.S. contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet Abercrombie lists as among his proudest accomplishments not his antiwar votes, but his support for the Military Housing Privatization Initiative of 1996, a public-private partnership to improve military housing for soldiers and their families. According to a Government Accountability Office report last year, the military has made significant progress in removing most substandard housing from its inventory by transferring the property to private developers. Two-thirds of the inadequate homes that have been transferred have been rebuilt or renovated.
In Hawaii, the multibillion-dollar partnership between Actus Lend Lease and the Army to renovate and construct several thousand military homes over a decade is a product of the initiative.
But Abercrombie has also been criticized for the extent to which he saw military construction as a tool for job creation. Last year, for example, Abercrombie wanted to ensure that military construction projects on Guam used mostly American workers and that the workers were paid equal to Hawaii wages. Abercrombie's provisions would have doubled the $10 billion construction cost for the projects, which are being planned as the military relocates Marines from Japan to Guam.
U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, Abercrombie's senior partner, opposed the changes as well-intentioned but too costly. The final version was amended to require that contractors advertise and recruit American workers first and for Guam to reassess prevailing wages, which was softer than what Abercrombie had proposed.
Abercrombie's seniority on the House Armed Services Committee — he became chairman of the subcommittee on air and land forces in 2007 — helped give Hawaii immense leverage in military matters. Inouye is chairman of both the Senate Appropriations Committee and its defense subcommittee. U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, is chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
Inouye had urged Abercrombie to stay in Congress and build on his seniority when he thought about challenging Gov. Linda Lingle four years ago. This year, when Abercrombie resigned to campaign full-time in the primary, Inouye said the loss of Abercrombie's rank in the House would make his job unquestionably harder.
Abercrombie was not only a partner with Inouye in obtaining military spending, he was committed to the team concept that guides the state's small, four-member congressional delegation on Hawaii issues.
He was able to get a native Hawaiian federal recognition bill through the House three times in the past decade. The bill, which would recognize Hawaiians as an indigenous people similar to American Indians and Alaska Natives, would allow Hawaiians to form their own government. The bill remains stalled in the Senate.
Abercrombie was a member of the progressive caucus, the House's most liberal wing, and he was an advocate for issues such as equal pay for women and civil rights for gays.
But he was not always in lock step with liberals. He called for limited offshore oil and natural gas drilling to help generate revenue to develop alternative energy. He backed the end of the estate tax because of its potential financial impact on family-owned businesses.
The National Journal, which covers national politics, gave Abercrombie a 73.8 liberal rating last year, meaning he was more liberal than 73.8 percent of his colleagues. He had an 82 liberal rating in 2008.
His major campaign donors over the past two decades, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C., group that tracks money in politics, were transportation, building trade, public sector and industrial unions, and lawyers. After he became chairman of the air and land forces subcommittee, defense and aerospace firms and real-estate interests also made significant campaign donations.
Abercrombie, a distinct character on buttoned-down Capitol Hill, was well-liked by his colleagues. Short and stocky, with a master's degree in sociology and a doctorate in American studies from UH, he was known to punch above his weight in a political or policy scrap. He wrote a 1996 novel with crime writer Richard Hoyt called "Blood of Patriots," which opens with a terrorist attack on the House and spirals into a campaign-finance conspiracy. He bench-pressed 275 pounds in the House gym on his 65th birthday.
The National Journal's Almanac of American Politics once described him as "one of the distinctive and often delightful figures in the House."
Hannemann has said Abercrombie's experience in Congress would not translate well to the governor's office, where he alone will be responsible for making decisions. Subtly, the Hannemann campaign has implied that Abercrombie's career lacks accomplishment and noted in a comparison brochure that he once bragged about winning the Lahaina Whaling Days beard contest.
Abercrombie said he learned in Congress how to be a collaborator, an essential quality for a governor. "You very quickly understand that the others who are there have not been elected with your help. They have their own agendas," he said. "And so it's very important that you develop the kinds of skills that allow people to vote with you and to be with you on issues that they might not otherwise have the slightest concern about or interest in.
"And that was particularly true where Hawaii was concerned because we're 5,000 miles away, a little tiny place, far, far away from Washington, D.C.," he said.
Hannemann has described his own collaborative skills, mostly his work with other mayors, as one of his strongest traits. But Abercrombie suggests the former mayor is collaborative only as long as he gets his way, citing clashes with Lingle and the Honolulu City Council on issues such as the homeless and the rail transit project.
"I understood truly what the word 'collaborative' means," Abercrombie said of his time in Washington. "In some respects, the way it's been presented in this campaign, collaborative means 'everybody does what I want them to.'
"That's not what I'm talking about. Quite the opposite."
Abercrombie may be able to dismiss Hannemann, but several of the business and labor leaders who have endorsed the former mayor specifically mentioned his chief executive experience and the fact that Abercrombie has been in Washington, away from state issues, for so long.
Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat who served in Congress for 12 years before being elected governor four years ago, said he was subjected to the same kind of criticism. He believes his congressional experience helped prepare him to work with legislators to fashion a budget, which he considers a governor's most important function.
"It didn't take long once I won and assumed the position for people to stop talking about my lack of executive experience or management experience. It just became a non-issue," he said in a telephone interview.
Strickland said a governor does not act alone. "You really can't get much done unless you're willing to bring the Legislature along with you," he said.
Abercrombie has explained his public-policy vision in a 43-page booklet called "A New Day in Hawaii." The booklet is far more extensive than Hannemann's 10-point economic action plan and Abercrombie considers it "a real game plan, not chalk talk." But it is more a statement of his values than a concrete action plan.
His main policy proposals on education, energy and technology appear to expand the size and scope of state government. He prefers to think of it more as an integration that will not require a substantial new investment of state money.
He wants to decentralize public-school administration and make school principals more like chief executives, the identical goals of an education-reform package approved by the state Legislature in 2004 that has produced mixed results. He would also create a new state Department of Early Childhood to channel a decade's worth of scattered ideas to improve access to preschool and child care.
"The difference," he said, "is that I will take personal responsibility to restore public confidence in our schools."
He would establish an independent Hawaii Energy Authority that would have policy and regulatory power over alternative energy, taking responsibilities away from the Public Utilities Commission, which would be a rate-setting agency.
He would name a governor's technology council to oversee technology and innovation and appoint a chief information officer who would use new technology to make state operations more efficient.
Abercrombie said he has been an agent of change all of his life. He hopes voters who flocked to Barack Obama's presidential campaign two years ago sense the same thing and will join him. Abercrombie, one of Obama's earliest true believers, knew the president's parents as students at UH.
"I think people relate to that because they want to go in another direction," he said of his message. "So they see themselves as insurgents against the power structure in this state, against the financial and the union and the business forces that they think are actually not going in the direction they want us to go."