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‘This is an administrative job’

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Former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann was named president of the Hawaii Hotel and Lodging Association. This file photo is from March 2010 before Hannemann resigned as mayor to run for governor.
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Mayor Mufi Hannemann sings along with seniors gathered for the Lanakila Meals on Wheels program for seniors at Waianae District Park.
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Mufi Hannemann, who at the time was a Democratic candidate for the 2nd Congressional District, talks with his father Gustav Hannemann at Paradise Cove.
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Mayor Mufi Hannemann points to a graphic that shows the proposed rail transit station at the Honolulu Airport at a news conference in 2008.


Mufi Hannemann knows it would have been easier for him politically not to push Honolulu’s $5.5 billion rail project.

With a shaky City Council, a lukewarm governor, a divided electorate and a small but diligent team of organized detractors, the smart play might have been to stay out of the crosshairs. But the former Honolulu mayor believes traffic congestion is the biggest impediment to the quality of life on Oahu — as anyone stuck at rush hour on H-1 can appreciate — and he thinks there is no better alternative to rail.

Hannemann has taken hits over rail’s steel-on-steel design, uneven tax collections, overstated ridership estimates and expensive taxpayer-financed public relations. But he brought a project that had been on the drawing board for three decades close to breaking ground.

It is the kind of chief executive and collaborative experience, he believes, that distinguishes him from former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie in the Democratic primary for governor.

"I have great respect for my opponent, but this is a job that demands managerial, administrative and executive experience," he says. "This is not a legislative job. This is an administrative job.

"I’ve been tested. I’ve been tested under fire."

Hannemann, 56, is the choice of many of the state’s top business and union executives. All five of the labor unions he negotiated with as mayor — white collar, blue collar, police, fire and teamsters — have endorsed him. He believes the next governor must have the chief executive and collaborative skills to steer the state toward recovery.


» Age: 56

» Family: Wife, Gail Mukaihata Hannemann

» Education: Harvard University; Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, Fulbright Scholar

» Elected experience: Honolulu City Council, 1995-2000; Honolulu mayor, 2005-10

» Other experience: C. Brewer & Co., vice president of corporate marketing and public affairs; state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, director; U.S. Department of the Interior, special assistant; White House Fellow to Vice President George H.W. Bush; U.S. representative to the South Pacific Commission; U.S. Secretary of Labor’s Advisory Committee on Apprenticeship and President’s Council on the 21st Century Workforce.

Abercrombie, 72, describes Hannemann as a collaborator only when it suits his interests. He said Hannemann mistakenly made rail personal — "Mufi’s train" — and put the project on a political timetable. He believes the former mayor wants to be governor not because he has a vision for Hawaii, but because of his political ambition, a calculated stepping stone to the U.S. Senate.

Walter Dods, a retired financier, said there is a reason Hannemann has earned the confidence of many business and union executives. He said they see in him the intrinsic ability to bring people together when possible but to lead when necessary.

"When it comes down to being a governor, this whole leadership thing — which a lot of people laugh at or belittle — is very, very important," he said. "Who can actually make things happen?

"Mufi makes things happen."



Hannemann, who grew up in Kalihi and graduated from the private ‘Iolani School and Harvard University, has had a taste of the private and public sectors.

He was an executive at C. Brewer & Co., where John W.A. "Doc" Buyers, the Big Five sugar firm’s last chief executive, was a mentor.

He led the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism under Gov. John Waihee. He held federal posts in Democratic and Republican administrations, including as a White House fellow to Vice President George H.W. Bush under President Reagan.

In his first try at politics, Hannemann took the Democratic primary for Congress against Abercrombie in 1986 after an ugly campaign with advertisements that suggested Abercrombie was soft on marijuana. Abercrombie — who beat Hannemann in a special election to fill out the remainder of Cec Heftel’s term in Congress on the same day — denied the charge. Hannemann lost the November general election to Republican Pat Saiki and later conceded the ads against Abercrombie were inappropriate.

He lost a second try at Congress to Patsy Mink in the Democratic primary four years later.

Acknowledging that voters thought he had not paid his dues, he won a seat on the Honolulu City Council representing Aiea and Pearl City in 1994 and later became council chairman.

Looking higher, he lost a bid for mayor to Jeremy Harris in 2000. But four years later, after trailing in the polls, he came from behind to narrowly beat Duke Bainum and take Honolulu Hale.

Hannemann’s selling point, his "proof in the poi," is his performance as mayor of the nation’s 12th largest city.

While Honolulu does not have jurisdiction over education, housing and social services like many big cities, it does handle the nuts-and-bolts of everyday life like roads, garbage and sewers.

Under Hannemann, the city received an upgraded bond rating, consolidated its emergency management functions, and launched curbside recycling. The city made progress in filling nagging potholes and improved the condition of several parks. The city also made it easier for residents and businesses to access city services online and expanded Wi-fi across Oahu.

Hannemann and the city reached a settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on multibillion dollar upgrades to wastewater treatment, which will lead to higher sewer fees for residents with the cost spread out over time.

He disappointed Leeward coast residents by following through with the decision under Harris to expand Waimanalo Gulch landfill — the city’s only solid waste dump — but the city offered a community benefits package to help offset the inconvenience of living near the trash. The city also expanded its H-POWER waste-to-energy plant to divert more trash from the landfill.

Hannemann swept the homeless out of parks at Ala Moana and along the Leeward coast, explaining that the city needed to take back control of parks while prodding the state to fulfill its oversight of housing and social services. Gov. Linda Lingle responded with emergency homeless shelters and sharp words accusing the mayor of dodging responsibility.

Within weeks after Hannemann resigned in July to run for governor, acting Mayor Kirk Caldwell undercut Hannemann’s contention that the homeless is largely a state problem by promising that the city will take an active role on housing if he is elected mayor.

On rail, Hannemann helped convince voters to endorse the steel-on-steel design and urged the City Council to adopt a route that will link to Honolulu International Airport. But he did not move as swiftly on a transit authority to oversee rail — that will go before voters in November — and had to revise his targets for breaking ground when the environmental impact statement took longer than he predicted.

Lingle has said she wants an independent financial analysis of the project before she signs off on the environmental review and has suggested the decision may be left to the next governor. Abercrombie contends that Hannemann put rail on his political timetable and turned over an environmental review that may not withstand legal challenge.

"Execution of a good idea requires persecution during the process," said Hannemann, who had to work with county, state and federal officials and get buy-in from the community to advance the project. "That’s what leads to success. I have undergone personal and professional persecution to get this done."

Hannemann’s commitment to rail has helped him win endorsements from the business community and the state’s leading private-sector construction unions. Engineering and construction firms, developers and others that hope to benefit from the project have also been major contributors to Hannemann’s campaign, which has helped him build a fundraising advantage over Abercrombie.



Hannemann is a naturally gifted politician. He has charisma and intelligence and is as comfortable at a street fair as he is in a boardroom. But he also provokes more visceral anger than any of his contemporaries, a down side that cannot be easily explained away by someone who is campaigning as a collaborator.

He has been tarred by his critics for years as a bully. At 6’7", with his Samoan and German ancestry, the label is partly rooted in ethnic stereotypes. He has had to pay a toll for every big Samoan kid who ruled the playground or worse.

But it is also partly rooted in truth. He himself has said that collaboration only gets you so far.

"When you don’t feel the love," he says, "you have to put on the gloves."

Interviews with several of Hannemann’s allies and rivals produced remarkably consistent descriptions of his leadership style.

Shrewd and strong-willed, he works collaboratively when he can but will push things through on his terms to try to get a result. One rival said his approach is not based on whether you are a friend or enemy, but whether you are with him or against him on an issue.

A Mormon, he prays over many of his decisions.

A former athlete — he played basketball at Harvard — he understands the importance of morale and motivation. He is driven by competition.

He also has a temper, tends to take criticism personally, and overreacts to minor setbacks. He has the self-confidence to belt out "I Fell in Love With Honolulu" in front of hotel guests in Waikiki, but is so sensitive he will bomb staff with early morning text messages fuming over a debatable newspaper article.

"I’m a competitor. I like to compete," he said. "I suppose I bring out competitive instincts in everyone."

Hannemann’s alliance with the other county mayors during collective bargaining between the state and public-sector labor unions last year showed he can be a leader among leaders. But that alliance came at the expense of Lingle, who ultimately had to cut the deals with labor, and set a new standard that will be difficult for future governors to follow. The mayors insisted that all four would have to sign off on the state’s new contracts with unions, rather than just the one mayor required under state labor law.

The four mayors stuck together again this year when Lingle and state House and Senate leaders considered scooping hotel-room tax revenue that goes to the counties to help close the state’s budget deficit. Their policy appeals — warning that it could lead to higher property taxes — and public pressure — they sat in the front row during late-night conference committee negotiations at the state Capitol — helped convince lawmakers to back away.

Hannemann stresses that, unlike the liberal Abercrombie, he is capable of working with business and labor, Democrats and Republicans. Yet Hannemann did not collaborate with Lingle, a Republican, during most of his six years as mayor and instead played his part in an antagonistic relationship that has influenced issues such as rail.

Abercrombie wonders why Hannemann, who needed Lingle to sign off on the environmental review of rail, publicly goaded the governor to sign it even before the final draft was completed.

"I wish the relationship was better," Hannemann said. "Because if it was better, we’d be able to do wonderful things — rail would have been going right now — but it’s not. So I just have to try to be creative about it or just exercise a lot of patience."

Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi said the difference between a chief executive and a legislator is the degree of accountability. He said a mayor — and governor — must be able to make the call on tough decisions and not shift blame under pressure. The responsibility can be difficult to fully appreciate unless you sit behind that desk.

"You cannot pass the buck as a chief executive," Kenoi said. "As a chief executive, you’ve got to stand tall and stand firm. You listen. You get all the available information, but the decision is in your hands to make."



Hannemann’s 10-point economic action plan, the main public-policy outline of his campaign, is less detailed than what Abercrombie has offered as his policy agenda.

He would build on infrastructure improvements started under the Lingle administration to modernize airports, harbors and highways. He would continue the drive toward alternative energy to reduce the state’s dependence on fossil fuel. He would follow through on rail.

He would try to maximize the benefits of Honolulu hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit next year and seek a long-term commitment from the National Football League on the Pro Bowl. If possible, he would try to bring back Hawaii Superferry or champion a new ferry venture to link the Islands.

Abercrombie has called the former mayor’s approach a wish list of projects that, while worthwhile, is short of a vision for the state.

But Hannemann counters that vision means little without a proven ability to implement your ideas.

"You’re constantly tested under pressure, under fire," he says. "There’s the low hanging fruit, there’s the high hanging fruit, and there’s the fruit that comes out of nowhere and bops you on the head.

"You have to be prepared. You have to lead in a cool and collected manner. You have to be able to make rational decisions, not emotional decisions."

Like he did with city government at Honolulu Hale, Hannemann would start with an audit of state government to identify waste and inefficiency. He believes the best time for a review is when a new chief executive takes over and has a fresh look. The audit would be performed by unpaid volunteers from the business, labor and nonprofit sectors.

Abercrombie said he would bring change immediately, not wait for the results of an audit, but Hannemann asks how you can change anything unless you identify strengths and weaknesses.

"It’s one thing to talk about doing it. It’s one thing to cite the problems," he said. "But there is a distinct advantage of having done it."


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