Why Ol’ Neil Might Run For Guv

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - October 26, 2005
| Del.icio.us

So a couple of weeks ago I’m catching the United Airlines red-eye to Los Angeles. As I walk into the holding area, I see the familiar figure of my congressman, the Hon. Neil Abercrombie (D, 1st District, HI).

He does not look good. His back is to the gate doors, as if denying he’s about to get on yet another 5,000 mile, three-layover, 14-hour flight to Washington. His eyes are fixed in at least a thousand-mile stare.

“Don’t you ever get tired of this flying?” I ask.

“Yes, but Danny, it’s part of the job,” he replies gamely.

What a miserable part. It’s a Wednesday night in Honolulu. Abercrombie will get to Washington just in time for a 5 p.m. vote on Thursday, then he must get on another plane to return for an event in Honolulu on Saturday.

Abercrombie has been doing this for 16 years. To be sure, a congressman flies first class. But even up there, the wear and tear on back, behind and psyche must take their toll.

Neil - if he can call me Danny, I can call him Neil - is 67-years-old, and he owns 67-year-old vertebrae. His luggage for the flight includes a carry-on bag, a briefcase and a specially contoured cushion for his back.

A member of congress runs for re-election every two years. He has to attend to the requests of his district assiduously: give the commencement addresses, attend the party functions, cut the ribbon at the new base housing - and much, much more.

Fail to do so, refuse too many invitations back in the district, and a member of congress becomes a former member of congress. So Neil and colleague Ed Case dutifully climb on those planes and endure those endless flights.

A couple of Fridays ago, Richard Borrecca reported in the Star-Bulletin that some prominent Democrats were looking to Abercrombie as a possible candidate to challenge Linda Lingle for the governorship next year.

Why not?

On the public relations front, Lingle and her communications director Lenny Klompus have flummoxed both the media and the Democrats. Since her election in 2002, Lingle has won almost every public confrontation with the diffuse and multi-tongued members of the Democrats’ legislative majority.

Abercrombie is the only Democrat I can think of who can match Lingle’s media savvy. During his years in the state legislature and on the city council, Abercrombie enjoyed more media attention than all his legislative colleagues, the governor and the congressional delegation combined. Only then Mayor Frank Fasi could match him.

In another of the political arts, Abercrombie has a definite edge over Lingle: He is an old-fashioned, barn-burnin’, full-throated public speaker who can bring both Democrats and George-W. Bush-hating independents to their feet. Some might call his oratorical style old-fashioned, but it remains powerful - and at times mesmerizing. He mixes populist politics with humor, self-deprecation and dead-center criticisms of his opposition.

Plus he’s smart. Real smart. Abercrombie and state senatorial buddy Ben Cayetano emerged from the Democratic Party pack in the 1980s precisely because they were always a couple clicks faster than their colleagues. Abercrombie would not be out-smarted by Gov. Lingle.

But he would be out-spent. Abercrombie’s never been particularly good at raising money - and Lingle will have oodles of it. She would undoubtedly use much of her cash to paint Abercrombie as a Marxist-Leninist-pacifist-god-knows-whatist, while characterizing herself as moderate pragmatist who turned Hawaii’s economy around.

The state’s 2.6 percent unemployment rate, its huge tax surpluses and its crowded hotels all lend credence to such an argument.

But Abercrombie - or any other Democrat - would have a couple of their own. During last fall’s presidential campaign, Lingle warmly endorsed for reelection one of, if not the most incompetent presidents in American history. Bush’s administration is now in meltdown, and that makes fervent supporters like Lingle vulnerable as well.

I’ve also heard Abercrombie criticize Lingle for acting as if “she operates in a parliamentary system. She refuses to work with the elected legislators. Instead she blames them for blocking her programs and demands that the voters elect Republican instead.”

It’s a valid point. Mayor Mufi Hannemann and Abercrombie, for example, did the hard-nosed, difficult bargaining that saw the excise tax raised to support a mass transit system. Lingle remained aloof from it all.

That said, from a year out, Lingle looks very formidable.

But if you’ve got a bad back and have to cross half an ocean and a continent to get to work, a job that requires only a short walk across Beretania can tempt a man to take on long odds.

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