Neil Abercrombie, who evolved from a fiery Vietnam War protester to a respected Democrat in Congress, was elected governor of Hawaii last night on a message of change after eight years of Republican rule at Washington Place.
Abercrombie easily defeated Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, the Republican, to become the seventh governor since statehood. He is expected to be sworn in to replace Gov. Linda Lingle on Dec. 6.
The combustible liberal overcame doubts about his lack of chief executive experience to sweep to dominating victories over former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann in the primary and Aiona in the general election. Abercrombie led in all public polls taken since January.
With most of the vote counted last night, Abercrombie was leading Aiona 58 percent to 41 percent.
An Abercrombie victory gives Democrats control of Washington Place and the state Legislature. Lingle was the first Republican governor in 40 years when she was elected in 2002, and she held the office for two four-year terms.
Abercrombie and former Democratic Party of Hawaii Chairman and state lawmaker Brian Schatz, his lieutenant governor running mate, raised their hands in victory before several hundred cheering supporters at the Abercrombie campaign’s election night party at the old CompUSA building on Ala Moana Boulevard.
At Dole Cannery, where Republicans were gathering for their party, a hush swept through the crowd as the results were posted on large screens showing Aiona trailing. But some tried to put a positive spin on the initial numbers.
"We’re looking forward to the very last printout," said Jonah Kaauwai, state GOP chairman.
U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said voters sensed that Abercrombie would do a better job than Aiona. "We had a strong governor (in Lingle) who somehow overshadowed the lieutenant governor. In a way I feel sorry for him because he was not the focal point."
James Burns, a retired judge whose father was the iconic Democratic Gov. John Burns, was relieved that Hawaii did not follow the Republican wave yesterday in many states on the mainland. "The Hawaii voter is a little more akamai of what’s going on in government," he said. "The stuff I hear on the mainland: ‘I want to cut. I want to cut. I want to cut.’ And you say, ‘Where?’ And they don’t have an answer. In Hawaii I think they understand a little more.
Kaauwai said Aiona felt the brunt of a coordinated campaign by Democrats and their union allies. "It says that the unions did everything they possibly could to smear Aiona," he said. "Obviously, those things have an effect."
Many voters interviewed yesterday said they were ready for change.
Marshall Ochi, a radiologic technologist who lives in Mililani, said he was looking for change after eight years under the Lingle administration. He said he was disappointed in some of the administration’s budget cuts to education and with Furlough Fridays for public school teachers. He said he thinks Abercrombie may be more supportive of autonomy for the University of Hawaii and likes that he wants to decentralize decision-making at the state Department of Education down to local schools.
"I disagree with some of the values of the previous administration," he said.
Ochi said he was also influenced by the connections Abercrombie built in Washington, D.C., during two decades in Congress.
"I think that it could," he said of the ability of the federal government to help Hawaii, "that’s also the reason why I’m supporting Daniel Inouye as well."
Michael Jackman, an engineer for a construction company who lives in Kahului on Maui, was also motivated by change and by Abercrombie’s experience. "I didn’t really enjoy the way the Lingle administration handled the last term," he said. "So, I guess, the biggest thing is change.
"And I think the second thing would be that he’s been in Congress," he said. "To me, that’s a guy that’s a little smarter, a guy that’s a little more educated if you would, and would probably do a little better for the long term of Hawaii versus somebody that was local" in experience.
Tracy Miyashiro, a homemaker who lives in Moanalua Valley, said she believes Aiona would have been more fiscally accountable and less likely to raise taxes or expand the size of state government. But she was particularly drawn to Aiona, a father of four, on family values.
"Family values and the fact that they seem to listen to what the constituents want," she said of Aiona and state House Minority Leader Lynn Finnegan, his lieutenant governor running mate.
Abercrombie, who flirted with a run for governor against Lingle four years ago, launched his campaign in March 2009 to give himself enough time to raise money and to reconnect with the islands after being in Washington for two decades.
Political analysts and some of Abercrombie’s own advisers say privately that they believe many in the party’s establishment underestimated the former congressman.
Inouye acknowledged that he urged Hannemann to run in the Democratic primary, and Hannemann secured important business and union endorsements even before he officially entered the race in May.
While business executives were always more likely to be comfortable with Hannemann, who had business and chief executive experience, the union endorsements he received were more of a surprise given Abercrombie’s unabashed loyalty to labor. Several union leaders privately described it as a calculated bet that Hannemann would likely win the primary.
While many Democrats nationally avoided ties to President Obama, Abercrombie, branded his campaign from the start as an extension of the "hope and change" message Obama used to win the presidency two years ago.
Abercrombie, who knew Obama’s parents as students at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, calls his relationship with the president the "Abercrombie advantage" that could benefit Hawaii in Washington.
Abercrombie also used the theme of change against Aiona, portraying him as an ineffective second fiddle to Lingle who shared responsibility for teacher furloughs and the collapse of the Hawaii Superferry project.
But several Democrats privately thought the Abercrombie campaign was slow to engage Aiona after the primary and gave the Republican an opening.
Aiona characterized Abercrombie as a liberal who would expand the size and scope of state government. He challenged the former congressman to explain exactly how he would finance new state programs in early childhood education and energy — other than the hope for federal money and promises of setting new priorities — but did not aggressively sharpen these attacks until a television advertisement in the past week.
Several insiders from both political parties have questioned why neither Hannemann nor Aiona made much effective use of Abercrombie’s background as a war protester or some of his voluble rants in Congress.
The Republican Governors Association waited until last weekend to touch the subject with a television ad that describes Abercrombie’s "extreme makeover" and showed excerpts from some of his fiery speeches.
Voters appeared to reject a turn toward the negative in the primary — and know enough about Abercrombie to distinguish between fact and caricature — but some believe Abercrombie was fortunate not to have more of his excesses thrown back at him during the election.
The Aiona campaign may also have relied too much on the evangelical community. Religious conservatives vowed to play a more active role this year after the civil unions debate at the state Legislature, so Aiona, a Catholic, was in a position to benefit.
The Aiona campaign’s outreach to the evangelical community was mostly done behind the scenes, but when religion did surface publicly — such as after state GOP chairman Kaauwai told pastors in August that Aiona was the only "righteous" candidate — it may have alienated independent and moderate Democrats.
Aiona, who started raising money for his campaign three years ago, also may have made a tactical mistake by spending so much of it early. Without the $1 million invested in Hawaii by the RGA, Aiona would have struggled to compete for air time during the past three months against the combination of Abercrombie, the Democratic Party of Hawaii, the Democratic Governors Association and labor unions.
Abercrombie raised more than $4.3 million for his campaign, while Aiona collected more than $3.4 million. Abercrombie did particularly well in fundraising during the summer when he was building momentum against Hannemann, and he significantly out-raised Aiona since the primary.
"It’s essentially a Democratic state. He identified himself with the president. He had a close identity with a president who is still at a 60 percent approval rating," said Dan Boylan, a political analyst and retired University of Hawaii-West Oahu history professor. "He ran a very smart campaign in which he kept his enthusiasm in check and ran as a statesman."