Why Abercrombie Is Coming Home

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - December 23, 2009
| Del.icio.us

Neil Abercrombie

U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie had to come home. As he put it to a news conference two Sundays ago, “If I ask you to go all in, the least I can do is go all in.”

He explained to press and supporters that his work in Washington will be completed, that he would leave “as soon as the critical issues for Hawaii have been handled in the House of Representatives.” Abercrombie mentioned specifically healthcare legislation and the Akaka Bill.

Supporters nodded their heads. Reporters scribbled. The lights of television cameras shone.

“I didn’t realize how big this campaign was going to get,” the congressman explained, so he’s resigning his 1st District seat and coming home sometime after the first of the year to campaign full time.

A passel of folks immediately expressed their irritation with him - as well they might.


Abercrombie’s departure will be inconvenient for the majority Democrats in the House of Representatives, for his young friend Barack Obama in the White House, for the Hawaii congressional delegation, for his 1st District constituents who will go without a representative for at least a couple of months and for a cash-strapped state that will have to run an expensive special election to fill his vacant seat.

All of that irritation will be added to that which has left many already scratching their heads over why he would abandon 20 years of congressional seniority and sub-committee chairman-ships in order to pursue a 50-50 shot at the governor-ship.

But if Abercrombie were to have any chance of being elected to the state’s highest office, he had to come home. He had to come home.

Why? Let’s start with cash. Compared to his chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Mufi Hannemann, Abercrombie looks like a political pauper.

The mayor is building a $5 billion train. That means contract after contract after contract to be awarded by the city - which means, of course, generous campaign contribution after generous campaign contribution after generous campaign contribution from architects, engineers and unions.

Abercrombie can’t match that. The Campaign Spending Commission has already nixed his request that his federal campaign funds be transferred to a state campaign; and the unions, engineers and architects who build things for the feds won’t love Abercrombie anywhere near as much as a candidate for governor as they did when he was running for a seat in Congress.

Abercrombie must make up with shoe leather, coffee klatches and pressed flesh what he won’t be able to buy.

Then there’s the press - or, rather, the lack of any. In the best of media times, a member of the Hawaii congressional delegation was out of sight and out of mind. But 2009 is not the best of local media times. In this era of consolidating television stations, Hawaii’s fewer reporters cover less. They will cover the occasional press release from the Washington crowd - the Dannys, Mazie and Neil - but only occasionally.

From his first bid for public office in 1970 until his departure for Congress in 1991, Abercrombie owned the local press. As a state legislator and city councilman, his wit, his intelligence and his ability to speak in memorable sound bytes made Abercrombie the darling of the brother/sisterhood of the notebook.

But the 4,800 miles and five/six-hour time difference between Honolulu and Washington have dulled the relationship between Abercrombie and the press.

Finally, there’s definition. Those who knew Abercrombie in the 1970s and ‘80s valued his liberalism, his big heart, his willingness to speak to power, his soaring - often inspiring - rhetoric, his willingness to take a risk.

But he’s now been gone for almost two decades. Eighteen-year-olds voting for the first time in 2010 may well shake their heads at the mention of his name: “Neil who?” New arrivals from afar will know little of his ability to inspire, only, perhaps, of his support for building better housing for military families.

No, in order to become governor, Abercrombie needs at least 10 months on the ground to reacquaint himself with the voters - and to inspire them anew.

Neil Abercrombie had to come home.

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