To some, the love shown by Mufi Hannemann, Neil Abercrombie and other politicians to the Hawaii Carpenters Union on Saturday may have resembled pandering. To others, however, it was homage to a 7,000-member strong organization considered as brothers and sisters.

Democrats still need union support to win elections and maintain political dominance. The top two Democrats running for governor went to great lengths Saturday to secure the carpenters’ backing by reminding the union of their labor bona fides and shared history.

In Hannemann’s case, the soon-to-be-ex-mayor of Honolulu recognized the union’s help in passing a charter amendment two years ago that endorsed a steel-wheel on steel-rail transit system.

“You were on the front line in 2008,” said Hannemann. “You jumped into a very important vote, to let them decide a rail system could be built. You stepped up, money was raised, you went door to door, you made it happen.”

Abercrombie, in full William Jennings Bryan mode, said his labor roots go back four decades to when he helped unionize University of Hawaii professors.

“People said it could not be organized. Other public unions let it go, but we did it!” Abercrombie shouted. “They said it was not worthy of collective bargaining, but I fought for that. (Former Carpenters boss) Walter Kupau nominated me to be on the executive baord of the ALF-CIO. A labor negotiator is standing in front of you right now.”

So torn is the carpenters union over its gubernatorial endorsement that it was not announced at the biennial convention at the Sheraton Waikiki, though the group moved to endorse candidates for Congress and Honolulu mayor.

The carpenters’ dilemma underscores the crucial battle for union support in the Hawaii governor’s race. The support may well make the difference in the Democratic primary for governor and other races.

Union membership has been in a free fall for decades on the mainland, though labor is still courted by the Democratic Party. Groups like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), representing more than 2 million workers in health care, local and state government, and security and food service, are powerful players in national elections.

Here at home, while union influence may not be as robust as in decades past — think of the contract concessions made earlier this year by the state’s four public-sector unions in light of state deficits — almost one-fourth of Hawaii’s work force carries a union card. Only New York state has a higher percentage.

Hawaii’s labor history is inextricably linked to the history of the Democratic Party of Hawaii. Beginning on the plantations and spreading to the docks and work places, one could not have risen to prominence without the other.

If there is any doubt that unions can make a difference in a close competition, look no farther than the May 22 special election to replace Abercrombie in the 1st Congressional District.

“The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic National Committee and the White House (endorsed opponent Ed Case),” Democrat Colleen Hanabusa told about 200 convention delegates Saturday. “But I had the unions on behalf of me and we gave them the shock of their life. I was almost 14 points behind.”

Hanabusa, a labor attorney seeking to take the 1st District back from Republican Rep. Charles Djou, noted that U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye and retired banker and powerbroker Walter Dods helped Hanabusa open her campaign headquarters.

“Walter Dods said this election is a fight for the soul of Hawaii, and that’s what it all is,” said Hanabusa. “The unions all rose at the same time.”

None of Hanabusa’s primary opponents spoke at the Sheraton. Same goes for Inouye and Rep. Mazie Hirono, who addressed the members by recorded video.

No Republican candidates spoke to the carpenters.

If I Were A Carpenter

Few unions have been as hard hit by the recession as the Hawaii Carpenters, formally the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America Local 745. Founded in 1901 and today the state’s largest construction industry union, more than half of its members are unemployed in 2010.

Ron Taketa, the union’s financial secretary and business representative, made clear that the ability to create jobs is a top consideration when making endorsements.

To that end, Inouye’s chief of staff, Jennifer Sabas, told delegates that the senator had moved out of committee $55 million just this week, what she described as “the first big increment of rail dollars.”

“So, it’s very important whoever our next governor or mayor is, they have got to be 110 percent with rail — no blinking allowed,” said Sabas.

(On Sunday, Inouye’s office sent out three press releases detailing more than $700 million for Hawaii projects supported by Inouye and approved this weekend by the Senate Committee on Appropriations, which he chairs. The money is for fiscal year 2011 beginning Oct. 1.)

It is the $5.5 billion rail project that most excites the carpenters union, and it weighed heavily in its endorsement of city prosecutor Peter Carlisle for Honolulu mayor. Taketa said Carlisle, who was the only mayoral candidate to address the delegates, will push rail through to its completion and supports a city charter amendment question this fall on creating a public transit authority.

Carlisle’s endorsement had to sting Kirk Caldwell, another candidate in the nonpartisan mayoral contest. Caldwell, the managing director who will become acting mayor Tuesday when Hannemann resigns, is as committed to rail as Carlisle. The carpenters union may be worried, however, that Caldwell could not defeat Carlisle (who says he is polling well) or anti-rail candidate, UH engineering professor Panos Prevedouros.

Playing the Race Card

An endorsement from the carpenters union would mean a great deal to Abercrombie or Hannemann, a campaign boost just as the contest enters a new phase with Hannemann’s resignation.

On Saturday Abercrombie reminded the carpenters of his two decades of funding housing projects on Oahu military bases, even during the second Bush Administration. Hannemann said the rail project would mean 4,000 construction jobs.

In essence, you either dance with the one who brought you, or the one who promises an even better time down the line.

Also surfacing Saturday was the reiteration of a Hannemann campaign strategy to depict himself as the local-born candidate against New York-born Abercrombie.

“I look like you, you look like me,” Hannemann told delegates, adding that he had white ancestry just like “our Caucasian brothers” and that his wife, Gail, is Japanese American (or “katonk,” local slang for Japanese Americans born on the mainland).

Playing the class card as well, Hannemann joked he went to the private Iolani School only because he could not get into the public Farrington High School.

“My father was a Teamster,” said the Harvard graduate.

How well the “I’m more local than you” tactic will play remains to be seen. Abercrombie, 72, has actually been a Hawaii resident for nearly as long as Hannemann, 56, has been alive.

Abercrombie, meanwhile, continues to make jokes about his height, a counter to Hannemann’s frequent “standing tall for Hawaii” rhetoric.

“Us short guys stick together, and I am only candidate who can look you eye to eye,” he said, getting laughs from vertically challenged audience members.

UHPA, Local 5 versus ILWU, SHOPO

Thus far, Abercrombie’s camp says it has about 20 union endorsements. They include big ones like the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, UNITE Here! Local 5 and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 1186, Local 1260 and Local 1357.

The Hannemann campaign says it has 10 union endorsements. They include major players, too, such as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Local 142; the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association, United Public Workers, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, and Hawaii Teamsters & Allied Workers Union, Local 996.

Both sides can count on hundreds or more campaign donors, sign waivers, envelope stuffers and ballot voters.

“As somebody who watches unions and grew up with you as a lawyer, we tend to forget what our leadership does for us,” said Hanabusa, who expects similar turnout. “When you get a call to come sign wave — and I don’t necessarily like it either — they will listen. That is the strength of our unions.”

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