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

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2010; C01

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.

He marched into his own office and reached up for some Hawaiian shirts hanging from a pipe in the ceiling.

"When you are in Hawaii, you have to have five changes of shirts," Abercrombie said, explaining that he needed the appropriate shirt for the Okinawan Festival he'd attend later that afternoon. He exposed a pale paunch as he disrobed from the jacket, shirt and tie that he called "my disguise."

He took a seat in front of the Hawaiian flag and a dreamy photo of a humpback whale. He stuck mostly to talking points, casting himself as the unlikely insurgent against the establishment candidate who had everyone's backing. That includes unions, business leaders, political powerbrokers -- oh, and the editorial board of the Star Advertiser, Hawaii's largest paper. "The sniveling -- " he started saying about the paper, as his press aide, Jim McCoy, gestured for him to tone it down. "Well. You know."

He spoke happily about his friendship with Obama's father upon coming to Hawaii in 1959 from Buffalo to attend graduate school at the University of Hawaii, and said that Obama's imposing intellect drew only those like himself who were up for brainy combat. But, he added, "everybody's virtue is their vice. He was also overbearing. The sheer power of his person and personality turned people away."

The president has not gotten involved in the race, but his sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, is a good friend of Abercrombie's wife and a vocal supporter of the campaign. It's a connection that the candidate feels deeply. As he relayed a story about how Obama greeted early supporters after winning the Democratic nomination, Abercrombie started crying. His voice breaking and his eyes welling, he recalled how the president stopped in the midst of all the election-night jubilation to point at Abercrombie and announce, " 'He knew my father.' "

But his opponents, and especially Hannemann, have accused Abercrombie of depriving the president of votes on key legislation such as health care, by leaving office early to focus on his home-coming candidacy. The resulting special election cost the state more than $600,000 and, worse still, two Democrats split the vote and a popular Republican won.

Abercrombie draws parallels between this year's contest and a 1986 House race that he lost to Hannemann, who ran a negative campaign depicting Abercrombie as a weed-toking hippy from the mainland. That bitterness made an opening for a Republican to take the seat. "Now he is doing the same thing and it's going to have the same kind of result," Abercrombie said, adding, "He hasn't changed and people recognize that."

'Local boy'

Every street corner seems papered with red placards for Mufi Hannemann or with Abercrombie's cresting wave logo, which is remarkably similar to the one Obama used in 2008. The signs hang in front of the luxury homes on a winding road a few miles east of Waikiki Beach, on the other side of the Diamond Head volcanic crater, where the towering Hannemann walked into the Kahala hotel wearing jeans and a Hawaiian shirt. Surrounded by dolphins, stingrays and Hawaiian green sea turtles swimming in lagoons around the pool, he said he had hosted a fundraiser at the hotel for Obama that brought in about $1 million during the presidential election.

Not surprisingly, he thinks a lot has changed since he last faced Abercrombie.

"I'm older, wiser," said the former mayor, 56, as he lifted a wilted garland from around his neck. He talked about how his time as mayor of the country's 12th largest city had given him executive experience, the linchpin of his campaign, and how, unlike Abercrombie, he had business chops and had lived on another island outside of Oahu. He said that Abercrombie was "looking to retire, to come home." He refused to say whe<ther he had designs on the Senate seats of either Inouye or Dan Akaka, also 86, as many political observers here think.

"My whole focus now is this job," Hannemann offered.

For a state that depends so heavily on tourism, he said his comfort abroad, especially in the East, would come in handy.

"When I go to China, people look at me and they say 'Yao Ming'? And I go no, 'Yao Mufi.' I go to Japan, and I'm very comfortable singing karaoke," said Hannemann, adding that his last name is German.

In appealing to Hawaii's different ethnicities, Hannemann has found his base, but also political trouble. The former mayor sent out a much-discussed mailer that pointed out Abercrombie's lackluster voting record in Congress and lack of business and executive experience. But it also seemed to suggest Abercrombie was deficient for attending the University of Hawaii, whereas Hannemann graduated from Harvard, and listed Abercrombie's lone accomplishment as winning first place in the Lahaina Whaling Days Beard Contest.

Most explosive, though, was the information under the heading "personal." Hannemann made clear he was born in Hawaii and married a woman with a distinctly Japanese last name -- a major plus with the powerful Japanese voters. By contrast, Abercrombie was identified as a mainlander whose wife has a haole (or white) surname.

The flier backfired, turning into an effective talking point against Hannemann's character. "When you apply for a job, what do they ask? Name? Are you married? That's what it was! It was a job résumé," insisted Hannemann. When asked whether it was usual practice to ask whom a job applicant was married to, the candidate flashed his temper. "You list if you are married or not. Sometimes you put down the names. My wife's name is what it is. It was not meant to compare and contrast in a way that would make it look like anything was non-factual. It was factual. He has a wife and she is a good woman. My wife's a good woman. Let's just leave it at that and move on. What's your next question?"

Asked if it weren't relevant to the race, he said sharply: "Why are you asking me these questions? Ask me about Neil. The flier was just a small part of it, there are other things here. So let's move on!"

Since the "Compare and Decide" flier, a subsequent flier by a group called Island Values expressing suspicion of Abercrombie's religious credentials urged Christians to vote for Hannemann. Hannemann distanced himself from the material after it was widely distributed. It later emerged that an official of Island Values also belonged to Hannemann's exploratory campaign committee, though his name disappeared from the Hannemann campaign Web site after local reporters broke the story.

Much like Abercrombie, Hannemann lights up when talking about Obama, and argued that "Neil doesn't have a monopoly on the relationship with President Obama."

During the Obamas' vacation to Hawaii early this year, Hannemann made national news by exchanging tense words with the president's staff when he and another city official were prevented from greeting Obama as he snorkeled at Hanauma Bay. Hannemann had already succeeded in getting into several pictures with Obama by showing up at the Honolulu Zoo and acting as their unsolicited tour guide.

"I knew him when his name was Barry," said Hannemann, explaining that he coached the basketball team at Iolani School, the rival of Obama's Punahou School. "When he was on the J.V., we did draw up defenses for him. Oh, yeah! He was a shooter -- a good shooter."

Hannemann, who is 6-foot-7, rose from his seat to charm a bunch of women celebrating a baby shower in the hotel cafe, and then marched onto the beach.

"Go get him, brother!" Kimo Chung, the hotel's 53-year-old waterman in a green hat and sunglasses, called out to Hannemann. The voter attested that he supported Hannemann for being, like him, a "local boy."

"You got it," answered Hannemann.

Negative campaign

On Sept. 7, Abercrombie and his wife, Nancie Caraway, arrived at Honolulu City Hall to cast early votes in the primary.

"I've got my Obama shoes on," she said, pointing at her red pumps. "I wore them on election night."

Sen. Inouye walked in, and Abercrombie's aide whispered in his boss's ear that it was the senator's birthday. As Inouye cast his vote, television reporters clamored around Abercrombie, who wore an orange Hawaiian shirt, and asked why the governor's race had become so venomous. The candidate used his answer to lament negative campaigning and depict himself as the high-minded candidate worthy of high office.

Abercrombie finished delivering his aloha talking points, reporters turned away, and Inouye sauntered into the scene.

"Happy birthday," Abercrombie told him.

"Thanks," said Inouye. "Best of luck."

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