Since 1975, Neil Abercrombie has been voting on Hawaii’s issues, from money for a medical school and a law school, battling developers and going all the way to opposing the Iraq War. In all that time, Abercrombie has been a player.
Now Abercrombie is running against Mufi Hannemann in the Democratic primary for governor. Both go into the contest as "formers."
Abercrombie resigned from Congress to run and Hannemann just stepped down as Honolulu mayor for the same race.
Interestingly, the record in question and under scrutiny is not Abercrombie’s but Hannemann’s. And Abercrombie appears to be helping to define the debate.
Although he denies that he is focusing the campaign against Hannemann, much of Abercrombie’s runup to Hannemann’s entrance has been an attack on the mayor and former city councilman.
When Hannemann finally stepped down as mayor, Abercrombie delivered a 30-minute screed detailing what he called "Hannemann’s broken record."
In the political jujitsu of a race for governor, candi-dates can easily be defined by what they oppose as much as what they endorse.
If Abercrombie’s decision to make the election a referendum on Hannemann’s stewardship of City Hall, he could be making two mistakes.
The first flaw with an anti-Hannemann campaign goes to Hannemann’s criticism of Abercrombie, that the veteran public servant has no executive experience either in the public or private sector. Hannemann likes to contrast that with his own time working in private business and for the state before becoming mayor.
Of course, giving voters a chance to decide the governor’s race on the basis of whether or not Hannemann did a good job as mayor has some obvious political attractions.
The term has been controversial. Building and paying for a new rail transit system has been a fight from the very first mention of raising taxes. It won a vote of approval two years ago, at the same time Hannemann won re-election.
"Why is everyone coming at me? Neil comes at me, Linda (Lingle) comes at me, (Lt. Gov. James) Duke Aiona comes at me," says Hannemann, sounding like he is about to launch into the 1959 Coasters classic "Charlie Brown."
At the same time, raising sewer fees and years of squabbling with the City Council and Gov. Lingle has put an edge on the Hannemann years.
And that is the second fault with Abercrombie’s strategy: It excludes voters from voting on his own record. It makes the race for governor a popularity contest with just Hannemann up for judgment. Abercrombie is out of the equation. Voters can either vote for Hannemann or against Hannemann, without any reason to vote for Abercrombie.
Abercrombie answers that he is defending himself against Hannemann’s own attacks, even if it comes across like someone in the audience throwing tomatoes.
Politicians love a chance to stage a Sally Field moment and exclaim: "You like me, right now, you like me!"
For Abercrombie, the argument has to be more than "I’m not him."