9 Reasons Neil Abercrombie Lost the Hawaii Governor’s Race

Neil Abercrombie is the first elected Democratic governor in the state of Hawaii to lose his bid for re-election.
Photo: Diane Lee 


Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s re-election attempt ran into trouble well before a state senator, who was little-known outside of the state Capitol, decided to challenge him in the Hawaii Democratic Primary.

Abercrombie started to founder shortly after taking office. Within months, a swath of staff members who helped him get elected began to resign to “spend more time with family,” often interpreted to mean, “we can’t work with this guy.”

Simultaneously, the governor quickly butted heads with the labor unions, who were his core supporters.  Abercrombie inherited former Gov. Linda Lingle’s budget woes.  But the politician, once known as a strong progressive friend of labor, became the enemy as he unilaterally imposed contracts, pushed for cuts in benefits and asked unions to accept pay cuts.

When Hawaii’s most powerful politician was dying, U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye asked Abercrombie to appoint U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa to serve the remainder of his term. The governor, instead, selected his own lieutenant governor, Brian Schatz, in a move that many characterized as ignoring the dying wish of a political icon.

Let’s take a look at some of the key events that made Hawaii voters turn against the governor who had once promised them “A New Day.”  And see how voters instead chose state Sen. David Ige as the Democratic party candidate who will face former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona, a Republican, and former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, a newly declared Hawaii Independent, in the Nov. 4 general election.

9. Proposed taxing pensions

Abercrombie proposed collecting state taxes on the pensions of retired workers. While other states do levy such taxes, the move was seen as lacking empathy for retirees, who are on fixed incomes with little flexibility in paying their escalating living expenses.

Though the move failed to win support of state lawmakers, it soured many on the governor.


8. “I am not your pal”

In February 2011, Abercrombie alienated large numbers of public workers when he proposed to cut Medicare reimbursements for public workers. And he chose to make his stand with a particularly inflammatory statement: “I’m not your pal. I’m not your counselor. I am the governor. And I am determined to be truthful with everybody about what we have to do together to survive.”


7. Angered Hawaii teachers

Labor union support, by all accounts, swept the longtime Hawaii politician into office in 2010 under promises of  “A New Day.” Unions, including the Hawaii State Teachers Association, had grown tired of then-Gov. Linda Lingle (think “furlough Fridays”) and had hoped for a more union-friendly executive in Abercrombie.

But shortly after his election, Abercrombie imposed a contract on teachers that amounted to a cut in pay and benefits, angering the HSTA’s nearly 13,000 members. The teachers sued, and they worked under the imposed contract for more than a year, fighting against teacher evaluations and ending tenure.

The teachers would eventually agree to contract in 2013 that included pay increases and a more palatable version of teacher evaluations. But by then, the union and the governor’s frosty relationship did not bode well for his impending re-election efforts. The union announced its support for his challenger state Sen. David Ige, spending more than $140,000 in advertising against Abercrombie.


6. Nurses contract

Also early in Abercrombie’s term, the governor clashed with public-sector nurses, represented by the Hawaii Government Employees Association, over a labor contract that included a pay cut. Adding to the ire, Abercrombie was caught on tape that went viral over social media, clashing with nurses on Maui.

The video showed an angry governor standing on a stage, responding to a question posed by a nurse. “If you want to take that attitude toward me, you can,” he told her. He said he was working to get more money to public employees, including nurses. He also expressed his frustration with HGEA’s executives. “Where’s your leadership?” he asked.

The video added to a growing narrative about the governor’s tendency toward a hot temper, sharp tongue and a short memory for those who supported him.


5. Same-sex marriage special session

Democratic voters in Hawaii are largely pro-marriage equality. But a number of local Democrats opposed Abercrombie’s choice last year to hold a special session of the state Legislature on same-sex marriage, including his primary election opponent state Sen. David Ige.

Abercrombie argued that same-sex marriage had waited too long and enough Democrats in the state Legislature agreed with him, passing a bill that made Hawaii the 15th state to legalize same-sex marriages. Conservative Democrats and Republicans saw the move as one more reason to dislike Abercrombie.


4. Dying wish 

In the hours before U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye’s death, his staff delivered a letter from the senator to Abercrombie requesting that U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa serve out the remainder of his term. It soon became known as the senator’s “dying wish,” which Abercrombie decided he would not grant.

The governor received a list of three names from the state’s Democratic party, including Hanabusa and his lieutenant governor, Brian Schatz. By choosing Schatz, Abercrombie set off a firestorm of criticism from Inouye loyalists.

A few months ago, Abercrombie added fuel to the fire by questioning the authenticity of the letter in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. Abercrombie was then forced to apologize to Inouye’s widow, Irene Hirano Inouye.


3. Pro Bowl 

The governor learned just how much some people love the National Football League’s Pro Bowl, especially as a moneymaker for the state’s largest private industry. In his first year in office, he called the exhibition football game “so stupid” and a waste of money for a state wrestling with budget woes.

The governor made the comment during a press conference on his early-childhood education plan, saying he didn’t think it was a good idea to throw millions of dollars at a football game, while saying the state doesn’t have money for preschool.


2. Canceled debates 

In recent weeks, the governor further angered advocates of senior citizens by canceling three of four scheduled debates with Ige that were sponsored by the AARP.


1. Big wind 

Others blasted Abercrombie’s recent appearances on television during the days of storm preparation as the state faced a double-threat of two potential hurricanes: Iselle and Julio.

Abercrombie instead drew complaints that he spent too much time talking in vague platitudes and appeared short on informed leadership needed at a time of potential disaster.

Voters ended Abercrombie’s quest for re-election, making him the first elected Democratic governor in the state of Hawaii to lose a bid for re-election.


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