Hawaii's Aloha spirit is being tested in Democratic primary for governor

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2010

HONOLULU -- In an empty, capacious room in the Neil Abercrombie for Governor headquarters, the candidate stood behind a lectern to tape a Web video warning against the "forces of intolerance" that had gathered upon the isles of aloha.

"Hawaii," said Abercrombie, wearing a clipped white beard, pressed blue blazer and red power tie, "was and is a place defined by its diversity."

It is that hopeful notion of Hawaii that helped shape President Obama's early impressions of race and identity -- what he has called "What's best in me, and what's best in my message." That inclusive aloha spirit is also now at the center of an unusually ugly Democratic primary that has captured the full attention of Hawaiians and churned up the very questions that Obama has grappled with, politically and personally, throughout his career.

Abercrombie, the iconic longhair of Congress and college buddy of Obama's father, has positioned himself as the improbable post-racial candidate. His opponent in the Sept. 18 primary -- a rematch 24 years in the making -- is Mufi Hannemann, a supremely ambitious establishment candidate and former mayor of Honolulu of Samoan descent, who has appealed to the state's non-white majority by playing up his island roots.

Abercrombie abandoned his comfortable House seat in midterm to pursue the office as a coda to his career. The congressman talks about the president of the United States with the pride of a surrogate father, but Obama has stayed noticeably out of the race. Abercrombie's opponent has used abundant funds and political allies to wage a negative ad war depicting him as unqualified, unserious and un-Hawaiian. The only avenue left to the 72-year-old liberal has been the high road.

"We are now engaged in a conversation in Hawaii with one another, as to whether or not we are truly going to live in a pono fashion, in the right fashion," said Abercrombie in an interview. He argued that Hannemann had cynically stoked divisions among the islands' many ethnicities, religions and races, all for electoral gain. Abercrombie feared that his opponent's success would say, in his words, "the spirit of aloha which the overwhelming number of people in Hawaii subscribe to, is -- at least when it came to voting in the polls -- no longer our guiding light. I don't believe that is going to happen."

Polls showing Abercrombie's late lead suggest that he might be right, as does Hannemann's sudden change in tune. Last week, the former mayor told a debate audience on the island of Maui that "It's all about hope and optimism," and also, "There's been too much negativity."

The two rivals' agreement on most issues has pushed the debate onto the more poisonous questions of character. There have been insinuations made about the heritage of their wives and the sincerity of their religious faith. The two candidates have also engaged in a form of Obama-obsessed brinksmanship in which each claims greater propinquity to the popular Hawaiian-born president.

But it was clear from the beginning which candidate had the backing of the state's resident political king, senior Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, and his political machine.

"I have my personal preferences," said Inouye, who added in an interview that Hannemann was a familiar presence in his office over the years and was "in a way" family. "I just don't ignore friends," the 86-year-old eminence said. As for all the years he worked with Abercrombie in Washington, Inouye said that the two were essentially strangers. "If you're in the House and somebody else is in the Senate, that's a foreign country. People don't realize that."

Former congressman Ed Case, who seemed likely to replace Abercrombie in the House until Inouye threw the machine's support behind another candidate, believed Hannemann was simply positioning himself to take Inouye's place. A former antagonist turned backer of Abercrombie, Case has referred to Hannemann as the "most dangerous politician in Hawaii" because, he said, "his election would continue the machine for another generation."

The Obama connection

Last week, Abercrombie offered a tour of the abandoned restaurant overlooking a turquoise wharf that served as his campaign headquarters. He pointed to the blown-up photos on the wall of himself and Obama wearing flower leis or posing in formal wear on the night of the inauguration. In the bar area, still furnished with beer taps, Abercrombie, who came to national attention cruising the streets of Honolulu in a checkered cab and penning a congressional crime thriller, explained the memorabilia on the walls. "That's me as Mr. Looking-Off-in-the-Middle-Distance," he said of a drawing of him in his youth, his beard still late-Beach-Boys long. In a nearby photo, he posed with "Magnum"-era Tom Selleck.

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