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Abercrombie leaves Ige with union contracts to pay

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As Gov.-elect Neil Abercrombie was preparing to climb the steps of the 127-year-old coronation pavilion for his inauguration four years ago, observers were still chewing on the question: Why do this?

Abercrombie at 72 was in the prime of his congressional life; he was 76th in seniority out of 435 and operated with an easy flair with both Democratic and Republican colleagues.

The transformation from expert congressional leader to amateur governor meant leading a state stalled in debt facing more questions than answers.

The estimated rate of economic growth four years ago was 2 percent. Back then Honolulu’s rail system was still in doubt.

The state budget would need an extra $220 million to balance.

Although Abercrombie’s claim this year that he was facing "the most challenging economic period since the Great Depression," was more hyperbole than fiscal fact, the Great Recession of 2007 had damaged the state.

So the question of why leave the congressional good life for the uncertainty of leading a state limping toward recovery remains. As it turned out, Abercrombie could not realize his potential as a state leader.

Four years ago, Abercrombie spent $4 million and won the governorship.

This year outgoing Gov. Abercrombie spent $5 million and lost in the primary.

Today’s governor-elect is Democrat David Ige.

He and Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui are forgoing the pavilion built for the coronation of King David Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani and will be sworn in at the state Capitol’s atrium.

Ige is coming to lead a state government he knows well, but is still mostly unknown by the public and state government denizens.

The October Hawaii Poll showed that 12 percent of the voters said that they had heard of Ige but did not know enough about him to form an opinion.

Interestingly, it is the 15-minute television interview with comedian Andy Bumatai while riding through his old Pearl City neighborhood, that is repeatedly cited as the way many voters got to know Ige.

Name recognition was not Abercrombie’s problem, but dealing with the public workers unions was.

As governor, Abercrombie repeatedly showered the public employees with perks, including an $18 million bonus in insurance payments for state workers in 2011.

Last year Abercrombie negotiated pay raises with public employees that critics said were overly generous and that the state could not afford. Two Hawaii governors, George Ariyoshi and Ben Cayetano, cited the new debt incurred by the Abercrombie agreements as reasons to oppose him for reelection.

Still, the money never bought Abercrombie a good relationship with any public employee union except the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly.

Public worker unions stayed out of the governor’s race in the primary and were quick to support Ige in the general election. The public teachers union went against Abercrombie in the primary and were a big factor in Ige’s final victory.

Now one of Ige’s first challenges will be paying off those contracts.

At the same time, Ige faces new questions about the fate of the neighbor island state hospital system, which is looking for emergency relief and a resolution to its ongoing financial crisis.

The challenge is helping the hospitals without being blocked by the public worker unions, who fear that selling off the hospitals will cost them union members.

None of the problems come with the pitfalls that faced Abercrombie, but Ige will have to learn how to lead both the state government and then the economy to fiscal security.

Richard Borreca writes on politics on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Reach him at

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