Former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie rolled to victory last night in the Democratic primary for governor as voters eagerly embraced his call for change.
Abercrombie portrayed former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann as the candidate of the status quo and the establishment. He ran as an insurgent against a man who secured many of the most coveted endorsements from business and from public- and private-sector labor unions.
At the old CompUSA site off Ala Moana Boulevard, where his supporters had gathered to watch the returns, the jubilant Abercrombie was introduced by Maya Soetoro-Ng, President Barack Obama’s sister, and by his wife, Nancie Caraway.
Abercrombie wove his primary victory into the legacies of the iconic Gov. John Burns and the Hawaii-born Obama.
"And now, in 2010, a new wave of hope and change is coming to Hawaii and it starts tonight," said Abercrombie, who was joined on stage by Brian Schatz, the former Democratic Party of Hawaii chairman and state lawmaker who claimed the party’s nomination for lieutenant governor.
Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona easily captured the Republican primary for governor and will face Abercrombie in the November general election. State House Minority Leader Lynn Finnegan took the GOP primary for lieutenant governor.
Abercrombie said Hannemann was gracious in defeat. "This election is not about me, it’s not about him, it’s not about Lt. Gov. Aiona or any other politician or political figure," he said. "This is about the people of Hawaii and a new vision for Hawaii’s future."
The primary election was an emphatic rejection of Hannemann. With most of the votes counted, Abercrombie led on Oahu, the Big Island and Maui, and trailed slightly on Kauai. His largest advantage was on Oahu, where voters were the most familiar with the candidates and their records.
At Hannemann’s campaign headquarters on Beretania Street, deflated friends and family tried to figure out why the former mayor lost so badly.
"I’ve always believed that you compete, you try to win, and when you don’t win, you’ve got to be the first to congratulate that person or that team that beat you," said a disappointed Hannemann, who conceded shortly after 10 p.m.
Aiona said he plans to concentrate on economic recovery and job creation in his campaign.
"I’m looking forward to the next six weeks when we will, I hope, discuss all of the issues that are a priority for us and the people of Hawaii in a more substantive-style debate than we’ve had in the past four or five months," he said. "I want to make sure we talk about the issues in depth."
Aiona also said he wants to hear how Abercrombie would balance the two-year state budget, the major task for the next governor and state Legislature next year. "How are we going to craft that budget? I want to know my opponent’s specific plans for how they are going to make our budget balanced for this next biennium."
Andrew Aoki, Abercrombie’s deputy campaign manager, said Abercrombie’s decision to launch his campaign in March 2009 gave the campaign time to build a grass-roots network to compete against a foe they expected would be a well-financed and organized opponent.
"We had that strategy because we thought that’s what politics is supposed to be about. You’re supposed to get people engaged in that way and we felt very good about that," he said.
"Our message was really a reflection of what we heard from people."
U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who had urged Hannemann to run, appealed to Democrats to unite for November.
"The voters have spoken. I wish to extend my congratulations to Neil Abercrombie and Brian Schatz on their victories. This was a long and hard-fought contest, but the battle has not yet been won," the senator said in a statement from Washington, D.C.
Many voters interviewed yesterday said they were motivated by the economy, education, rail transit and the leadership styles of the candidates.
"I thought Hannemann was just a little too ambitious," said Gary Bacon, a union construction worker who lives in South Kona on the Big Island. "My union also endorsed Abercrombie, so that had an influence. There was just too much negative with Hannemann."
At Mililani High School, in the heart of one of Oahu’s potential swing districts, several voters said Abercrombie’s focus on education impressed them. The former congressman has said he wants to be held personally accountable for improving public schools and would decentralize power to give school principals more control. He has said teacher furloughs would not have happened if he were governor.
"He has represented us. There was just a comfort level," said Robert Griffin, a retired federal worker.
Several voters cited Honolulu’s $5.5 billion rail transit project as a reason they voted for — or against — Hannemann, the project’s champion. Voters who said character and values were important to them appeared more inclined to back the former mayor.
"I just looked at the person and I felt that he had more character," said Anita Santos, a health care technician.
Many voters who said they preferred Abercrombie, when asked to explain their vote, said it stemmed from their dislike of Hannemann.
"He lost me even before rail," said Maria Phillips, a nurse. "But when he said, ‘You’re going to get rail whether you like it or not,’ Well … he’s always been the bully type."
The two Democrats both gave up elected positions for a shot at Washington Place: Abercrombie resigned early from his urban Honolulu seat in Congress; Hannemann stepped away from his final two years as mayor.
With little to separate them on public-policy issues — their most substantive difference was over civil unions — they made the primary about leadership ability. Abercrombie said he would be an agent of change against the status quo; Hannemann said he would be a consensus builder who could get things done.
Abercrombie and Hannemann had a strained personal history after a nasty 1986 primary and special election for Congress during which Hannemann knocked Abercrombie as soft on drugs. Hannemann won the primary and Abercrombie took the special election, but disappointed voters turned to Republican Pat Saiki in the general election.
While the primary between the two Democrats this year never turned as negative, voters showed no tolerance when Hannemann and his surrogates, even subtly, tried to contrast his personal background, education, ethnicity and religion with Abercrombie.
Hannemann’s wounds were self-inflicted. In July, speaking to the Hawaii Carpenters Union, the former mayor, who is of Samoan and German descent, said the carpenters deserved a candidate they could personally relate to and told them, "I look like you, you look like me."
In August, the Hannemann campaign mailed a "Compare and Decide" brochure statewide that asked voters to compare where the candidates were born, their wives and their education. The brochure also mocked Abercrombie’s accomplishments and noted he once won first place in the Lahaina Whaling Days beard contest.
Critics said the brochure, combined with Hannemann’s carpenters union speech, was a ham-handed attempt to insert localism and identity politics into the campaign. Hannemann was born in Honolulu, has a Japanese-American wife, and graduated from Harvard University. Abercrombie was born in Buffalo, N.Y., has a haole wife and graduated from Union College in New York and the University of Hawaii-Manoa.
Hannemann defended the brochure as factual but apologized at the start of the first televised debate if the mailer offended anyone.
In late August and early September, Island Values, a Christian group with ties to the Hannemann campaign, released a radio advertisement and flier that described Abercrombie as "unacceptable" to Christians because of his voting record in Congress and the fact he had declined to state a religion in congressional biographies. Abercrombie, questioned by the news media, said he is a confirmed Episcopalian.
Hannemann, a Mormon, disavowed the ad and the flier and urged his supporters not to distribute the information.
In the past two months, Abercrombie, who had been trailing Hannemann in fundraising because he was unable under state law to transfer contributions from his congressional campaigns, surged ahead in campaign donations. Hannemann, however, was able to preserve a cash-on-hand advantage that began when he was able to transfer money from his mayoral campaigns.
Abercrombie raised $3 million to Hannemann’s $3.4 million. But Hannemann’s fundraising — and his key endorsements from business and labor — could not vault him over the former congressman in public and private polls. Abercrombie led wire-to-wire in the polls.
"I think Hannemann’s campaign was overconfident. I think they thought they could walk in and win this," said John Hart, a Hawaii Pacific University communication professor. "I think they thought that because Neil had been gone for 20 years that it would resonate.
"I also think they thought they had to use the (1986) playbook, and if they brought it out and they did the same thing they did last time, it would work again. And none of those guesses — all of which were reasonable guesses — turned out to be true."