In Hawaii, a Democratic Party divided


Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) is feeling the heat from his own party as he seeks reelection in 2014 (AP Photo/Oskar Garcia)

Hawaii’s political climate is a strange and opaque culture, with traditions to uphold and rocky shoals to navigate. My colleague Philip Rucker gets into the fascinating fight for a U.S. Senate seat playing out across the islands right now:

[A] year after [Daniel] Inouye’s death, the former senator’s ghost lingers large over a bitter feud that is dividing Democrats along ethnic and generational lines here in President Obama’s birthplace. With the outspoken support of Inouye’s widow, [Rep. Colleen] Hanabusa is giving up her House seat to challenge [appointed Sen. Brian] Schatz in the 2014 primary.

Unlike in Republican primaries across the mainland, this is not a clash over ideology. Although Schatz is more progressive than Hanabusa on some issues, both candidates are considered solid lawmakers and viewed as safe bets in this overwhelmingly blue state to keep the Senate seat in Democratic hands.

Rather, the divide is personal, and it’s unique, like the state where it’s playing out. In Hanabusa’s candidacy, what remains of Inouye’s mostly Japanese American political machine is fighting for supremacy against a younger and whiter progressive wing that is trying to become Hawaii’s new ruling class.

A new path is what [Gov. Neil] Abercrombie had in mind when he picked Schatz a year ago. In an interview in his top-floor office at the State Capitol, Abercrombie said, “It had very little to do with Brian and Colleen themselves as people. It had everything to do with the future and the past.”

Abercrombie said he disagreed with Inouye’s wishes, adding that he didn’t want to “get into a discussion about letters and deathbed notices.” The governor said he thought Hanabusa, now 62, was too old to build enough seniority in the Senate to continue Inouye’s legacy of steering an outsize allowance of federal money to Hawaii.

Noting that Inouye entered the Senate in 1963 at age 38, Abercrombie said: “Brian Schatz is 41. Colleen isn’t. She’s in her 60s.”

The feud is spilling over into the governor’s race as well. Abercrombie’s decision to pick Schatz over Hanabusa has further alienated him from many of the state’s political elite — and one of those elites, state Sen. David Ige (D), has mounted a challenge to Abercrombie in this year’s Democratic primary.

Abercrombie has an early money edge; he had more than $2.1 million in the bank as of the end of June, the last time he had to report his campaign balance. But polling, both public and private, shows Abercrombie is unpopular, particularly among Hawaiians of Asian and native descent. Those voters make up a large part — perhaps a majority — of the state Democratic primary electorate.

He has had a rocky first term, too, taking heat for comments in 2011, when Abercrombie said it was “so stupid” for the state to pay $4 million a year to host the NFL’s Pro Bowl, which happens annually in Honolulu (The game generates about $3 million in state taxes and almost $30 million in economic activity a year, according to Hawaii’s tourism authority.). And he has fought with the state’s powerful teacher’s union over a new contract; the union ratified a new contract in April, narrowly averting a threatened strike.

The state’s unemployment rate, 4.4 percent, is far below the national average. But unemployment is much lower on Oahu than it is on other islands. Hawaii’s political culture is fueled in part by a rivalry between Honolulu, which Abercrombie represented in Congress, and the outlying islands, which often feel left behind.

Ige has won support from former Gov. Ben Cayetano (D), a longtime supporter of Abercrombie’s who now says the governor has lost his common touch. Cayetano told a local media outlet that Abercrombie’s fights with public worker unions and his close ties to developers moved him to back Ige.

“He used to be a strong voice for the little guy. He’s not now,” Cayetano said of Abercrombie in an interview in November.

So far, no viable Republican candidate for governor has emerged. But with Abercrombie’s weak numbers, and the ongoing fight over control of a Democratic Party dividing on racial and generational lines, his biggest challenge may come from his own party.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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