There’s what Mufi Hannemann said and what he was going for, and those are two different things.
The now famous "I look like you" speech to the carpenters union has been decried as racism, anti-haole-ism, unabashed locals-only-ism.
But if Hannemann had instead said, "I’m one of you," his words would have echoed the speeches of politicians from tiny rural towns to campaigns for the White House. The "I am one of you" message is as old as American politics. Nobody ever wins an election by saying, "I’m not from here, but let me show you how we did this back where I come from, because I can teach you people a thing or two." Voters want representatives that have deep understanding of the very specific needs and trials of their locality, knowledge that comes from shared experiences.
It’s universal. Nobody wants some cocky, ignorant outsider coming in and making decisions on behalf of a community they don’t understand. It’s not so much a throwback to plantation thinking. It’s human nature.
The dreaded "plantation mentality" that is invoked in such discussions came into being because outsiders who didn’t understand the soil, the growing conditions and the intricacies of the crop cycle specific to each field would come in and make big changes without talking to the "little guys" who knew every rock and slope and ditch. When the yields failed at harvest, the workers got the blame for the way they implemented a plan they knew was doomed to fail.
That supremely frustrating scenario plays out in other Hawaii businesses as well, and people who have lived in the islands long enough to figure out stuff the hard way get peeved at the ones who swoop in, act like this place is so easy to understand and start making management decisions we know just won’t fly. In the news business, we see editors who are new to the islands go crazy over the first winter swell, like they think maybe the whole island will get washed away. Nobody can convince them that winter surf is not a natural disaster.
There are rational, practical reasons for wanting a community leader to be a part of the community. The trouble comes when bigotry is disguised as "I’m one of you."
What a candidate looks like shouldn’t matter to voters. It shouldn’t matter where they were born (though Kirk Caldwell really wants you to know he was born in Waipahu). What matters is how thoroughly a candidate knows an area they are proposing to represent. That is a legitimate voter concern that no one should be made to feel has anything to do with racism or xenophobia or "us guys versus those guys" closed-mindedness.
But "I look like you" is just wrong.
Lee Cataluna can be reached at email@example.com.