It was a decision that Gov. Neil Abercrombie said may have cost him re-election, but one that he stood by as a proud legacy that will live on long after he leaves the state’s highest office.
Under Abercrombie’s tenure as governor, Hawaii legalized same-sex marriage, and Abercrombie’s decision to call a special legislative session over the issue was widely seen as the reason nearly 3,000 same-sex couples were able to wed in the Aloha state in the past year.
In one of his last appearances as governor, Abercrombie, donned with many lei, accepted an award from Equality Hawaii for his service to the island state’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, and showed his fiery side as he delivered an impassioned speech at the gala.
“I know that as a result of the signing of that SB1, lives have been changed forever, and I’m proud and pleased to be part of it,” Abercrombie shouted as the crowd cheered. “What we have to do is encourage that and support that and not take it for granted, and be on the offense no matter what takes place.”
In his speech, Abercrombie credited civil rights leaders who paved the way for the historic legislation, giving more credit to their work than his own.
“With every breath I take until my last day on Earth, I’m going to be committed to the common humanity that’s represented in this room tonight … I’m looking forward to the opportunity for more trail blazers to come,” Abercrombie said.
The moment brought tears to the eyes of many in the crowd, said Todd Simmons, executive director of Equality Hawaii.
“Had he not have called the special session, we likely would not have marriage equality today,” Simmons said. “Had we waited until the regular legislative session, it may not have ever reached the floor, and if it had, it may not have ever passed, simply because of all the competing interests.”
“He knew that pushing the special session last fall was going to be unpopular in some quarters, but he did it anyway because it was the right thing to do,” Simmons said.
The accomplishment is one of the most notable achievements of Abercrombie’s four years in office, which were marked by difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions made in economically challenging times. When Abercrombie took office in December 2010, he inherited a $72 million budget shortfall for that year and an anticipated shortfall of $410 million for the next year.
His first act as governor was to release $91 million to end school closures and to help the needy. But he soon took 5 percent pay cuts out of all public employees’ paychecks, including his own, in an attempt to balance the budget and put an end to furlough Fridays, costing him the support of unions. He also lost favor with seniors when he proposed a tax on pensions, a plan that ultimately failed.
Although unpopular, those decisions were meant to help the state in the long run and did not mean that Abercrombie was against state workers, said Dante Keala Carpenter, former chairman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii.
“He’s always been a people guy, and that’s his ‘manao,’ ” Carpenter said, using the Hawaiian word for a person’s instinct or nature. “He’s always tried to do good for everybody, literally living the true spirit of democracy, and trying to help the downtrodden move up in this world.”
Abercrombie this year signed off on a historic increase in the minimum wage, helping the state’s lowest-paid workers get closer to $10.10 an hour — a wage hike that will be rolled out over the next four years. The minimum wage in Hawaii had stood at $7.25 an hour since 2007.
“I always thought it’s not a minimum wage, it’s a survival wage,” Abercrombie said at the time. “And in today’s world, that minimum wage is not a survival wage, certainly in Hawaii.”
While earning his master’s degree in sociology and doctorate in American studies at University of Hawaii, Abercrombie worked odd jobs to support himself, including a stint as a waiter at Chuck’s Steak House in Waikiki and another as a custodian at Mother Rice Preschool.
He served in the state Legislature from 1975 to 1986, and then won a special election to serve in Congress. He was then on the Honolulu City Council for two years before returning to Congress in 1990, where he represented Hawaii’s first Congressional District for two decades until he was elected governor in 2010.
Abercrombie also will be remembered for his work in Congress to improve housing for military families stationed in Hawaii, Carpenter said.
“Everyone figured him for a haole boy with a hippie attitude and anti-military,” Carpenter said, using the Hawaiian term for white person. But as it turned out, Abercrombie wanted to make sure every military action was justified, and that family members were included in that picture, Carpenter said.
The breakthrough on gay marriage that Abercrombie championed goes beyond the couples that have since wed. It has paved the way for activists to begin working on issues like preventing bullying in schools, Simmons said.
Of the 2,907 same-sex marriages that took place in Hawaii since Dec. 2 last year, about half were for couples where at least one partner did not live in Hawaii, making the state a wedding destination for more than just heterosexual couples, Simmons said.
“He not only has touched the lives of a great many people like myself and my husband and our kids, but he took an action that is going to be good for the long-term economic health of the state,” Simmons said.