Neil Abercrombie was sworn in yesterday as the seventh governor of Hawaii in an emotional and eclectic inauguration at Iolani Palace where he pledged to restore confidence in state government.
The 72-year-old Buffalo, N.Y.-born Democrat called for a new sense of civic courage and a public conscience consistent with the message of aloha.
"Never did it occur to me when I arrived in paradise some 51 years ago that I would stand here today," Abercrombie said after taking the oath of office from state Supreme Court Associate Justice James Duffy at noon at the palace’s coronation pavilion.
The former campus radical, who spent four decades as a legislator in the state House and Senate, the City Council and the U.S. House, made the transition to chief executive with what he described as joy and a full heart.
He and his family scattered the ashes of his late mother, Vera June, at the Hilton Hawaiian Village lagoon on Sunday. His wife, Nancie Caraway, was with him at the pavilion yesterday. His mother-in-law, Ellen Caraway, sat in the front row on the lawn below.
Wearing a cream-colored sports coat and a pink shirt and tie with beige slacks, Abercrombie said he drew inspiration from the Dalai Lama and from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Protestant ethicist who was executed for conspiring to assassinate Adolf Hitler during World War II in Germany. He read from the Bible’s book of Psalms. He made reference to Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in a president’s Cabinet as labor secretary under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Abercrombie said island people understand the importance of lokahi, of working together. "Yes, our first job is to accelerate the economic recovery, restoration of good jobs — create good jobs, capitalize on new opportunities. Work smarter. Work in partnership to optimize our results," he said.
"Yes, we’ll face challenges. But we’ll not let these become excuses. Instead, our driving message will be, Make it happen. And make it happen by working together. Make it happen by working together. Our actions will speak for themselves.
"When we do what we say we will do, we’ll restore confidence in our government — in our government and in ourselves."
Brian Schatz, 38, a former Democratic Party of Hawaii chairman and Makiki state lawmaker, took the oath as lieutenant governor. He challenged people to resist the partisan extremes that have defined politics on the mainland and to move beyond the divisions of the November elections.
"Hawaii must not succumb to this angry and useless road. We must resist it, reverse it and get to work together," he said. "That means that everybody who cares about Hawaii — Republicans, Democrats, independents, people who voted for us and maybe especially people who didn’t — needs to hear this: The election is over, and the time to solve problems is now.
"So let’s declare a cease-fire on the wedge issues and personality squabbles. We’ve wasted too much energy on the small stuff. And let’s pull together on what really matters for Hawaii."
Shortly after the inauguration, at his first news conference as governor at the state Capitol, Abercrombie announced that he was releasing $67 million from the state’s hurricane relief fund to cover the cost of ending teacher furloughs on classroom instruction days and $23.7 million from the state’s rainy day fund for social-service programs.
The money had been approved by the Legislature last session but had been withheld by former Gov. Linda Lingle because of budget concerns.
Abercrombie called releasing the teacher furlough money a "morale booster" that closes a difficult chapter for the state.
Lingle had said she would only consider using $57 million from the hurricane relief fund for teacher furloughs, so local bankers had agreed to provide the remaining $10 million if necessary. Teachers agreed to take several planning days as furloughs as part of the deal.
Kathryn Matayoshi, the state schools superintendent, said public schools expected to get the money for teacher furloughs eventually but worried whether they could manage until it was released.
"It’s important that people know that the teachers are still giving days up — and principals and everyone else are still giving days up — but we’re going to move forward with our transformation efforts," she said. "This is just a real good-faith sign that the governor is wanting to support education."
The money from the rainy day fund was designated by lawmakers to help social-service programs, such as Kupuna Care and Healthy Start, that had suffered during the recession.
"There will be other challenges as we go forward. As much as we are excited, we also understand the realities that we’re all about to be faced with," said Alex Santiago, executive director of PHOCUSED, a consortium of social service nonprofits. "And those realities will have to be dealt with one way or the other. This is not going to fix everything. A lot of people don’t understand that."
Abercrombie is expected to release his two-year budget proposal on Dec. 20, the first look at how the new governor will prioritize state spending during an unstable economic recovery.
Yesterday, however, was for a celebration beneath blue skies on a sunny December afternoon.
Lingle and former Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, who lost to Abercrombie in November, received pleasant applause as they arrived on the palace grounds. Politicians, judges and other VIPs were seated close to the pavilion. Willie K sang the national anthem. Richard Hoopii sang "Hawaii Pono’i." Kealoha, a slam poet, gave an inspired spoken-word take on "A New Day in Hawaii," Abercrombie’s campaign theme.
The Hawaii Army National Guard offered a 19-gun salute. The Beamer Solomon Halau o Poohala performed hula. Guests were invited to a sprawling luau under big white tents on the state Capitol grounds.
Steve Camara, a respiratory therapist who lives in Kahala, said he was both excited and hopeful. "I had to come by because for me this is the biggest event since Jack Burns was sworn in — in terms of the way things are swaying in the state," he said, referring to the state’s first Democratic governor, the popular Burns. "I wanted to be here to witness history."
Mahealani Cathcart, a McCully retiree, said she did not vote for Abercrombie, but has been encouraged so far by his Cabinet appointments. She enjoyed seeing what she described as the "little" guys represented at the inauguration.
"There were representatives from different parts of the island and the state," Cathcart said. "You’ve got the Hilo Hongwanji. Then you have little Niu Valley (Middle School) playing.
"Usually you have Kamehameha Schools. With this you have little people, from little places. That’s what I like."
Edith Hanohano, a Kaimuki retiree, said the event appeared to have more pomp and ceremony than she remembered during the John Burns years. But she said she felt much the same as she did back in those inaugurations. "It looks to be a bright future," she said. "I hope that he will stick with all of the plans he has proposed."
Outside the palace gates, a few dozen native Hawaiian sovereignty advocates protested the use of the palace grounds for the inauguration. While other governors have used the palace, Lingle’s two ceremonies were held at the state Capitol courtyard.
The protesters marched around the perimeter of the palace, carrying red and black banners and signs such as "Free Hawaii" and "Restore Hawaii Independence." At several points they attempted to disrupt the ceremony with chants, including cries of "This is sacred ground!"
Otherwise, though, the ceremony had a comfortable, unpolished feel that matched Abercrombie’s unconventional style. With a few minutes to spare before noon, Willie K was asked to fill time and knocked out his original song "One for the Troops" and — at Abercrombie’s request — a full-hearted rendition of the aria "O Solo Mio."
Abercrombie, who flashed shakas to the crowd, spoke for an uncharacteristically brief 9 1/2 minutes and appeared to improvise instead of sticking only to prepared remarks.
State House Minority Leader Gene Ward (R, Kalama Valley-Queen’s Gate-Hawaii Kai) said the ceremony was nostalgic and reminded him of the days when he knew Abercrombie at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the East-West Center.
He praised the "seamless, peaceful, bloodless transition of power."
"We want him to make clear, with all the promises that he made, that they can be kept — that there will be no new taxes and that there will be a bigger reaching out to the people of Hawaii," he said.
Democratic leaders, faced with a Republican administration for the past eight years, looked forward to a new spirit of cooperation.
"This whole idea of collaboration and making sure we all kind of come together — these are tough economic times, so the more we work together, I think, the greater good we’ll do," said state Senate President Shan Tsutsui (D, Kahului).