To the uncritical viewer, the campaign brochure that began popping up in Hawaii mailboxes over the last few days might well push an undecided voter to choose Mufi Hannemann over Neil Abercrombie for governor.

After all, the “Compare and Decide” mailer presents the former mayor as a younger, more educated, more experienced and more locally rooted candidate than the former congressman.

Hannemann also smiles in the brochure photos, while a photo of Abercrombie gives the appearance that he is in mid-shout.

But the brochure is also slippery and selective with the facts — even mean.

Abercrombie, for example, is said to have won first place in what is called
the “Lahaina Whaling Days Beard Contest” — as if having a beard is a fundamental character flaw. (The contest, apparently, was some 40 years ago.)

More seriously, the brochure charges that “one of (Abercrombie’s) key staffers served a Federal prison term for embezzlement.” But the brochure does not explain that Abercrombie was not implicated in the crime, or that the staffer worked for other members of Congress, too.

Why is the Hannemann campaign resorting to such tactics with barely a month to go before the Sept. 18 gubernatorial primary?

Civil Beat looks at Hannemann’s latest salvo against Abercrombie, at Abercrombie’s response, and what it means for the campaign’s last 30 days.

The front side of the “Compare and Decide” mailer is benign enough, showing photos of the two candidates and a title that reads “Your Choice for Hawaii’s Future.”

Flip it over, however, and it’s a different story. The left half features Hannemann’s robust profile trimmed with a bright red background; Abercrombie’s “slim” achievements are on the right side, in a section bordered in a brown the color of — well, mud.

The brochure notes that Hannemann was born in Honolulu in 1954, Abercrombie in Buffalo, NY, in 1938. (Translation: Neil is a senior citizen who wasn’t born here.) The maiden name of Hannemann’s wife, Gail, is Mukaihata. (Translation: Mufi married a Japanese-American, a member of an ethnic group that votes in higher percentages than any other in Hawaii.)

The brochure observes that Hannemann’s education includes Iolani School, Harvard University (both “cum laude”) and a Fulbright scholarship in New Zealand — though there is no mention of Hannemann’s years in Hawaii public schools. Abercrombie, by contrast, attended school in New York and went to college at the University of Hawaii at Manoa — though there is no mention in the brochure that he obtained a master’s degree and Ph.D. there.

The brochure claims as well that Abercrombie “hasn’t held a private sector job in 40 years” but does not explain that Abercrombie held elective office during most of that time, including the last 20 years as a full-time member of Congress.

Hannemann, meanwhile, points to his stints with C. Brewer and running a sweetbread bake shop but oddly equates his term as director of the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism — an appointed government job — as constituting “business experience.”

Guilt by Association

The harshest charge Hannemann makes against Abercrombie in the mailer refers to former employee Laura I. Flores, who worked for Abercrombie in D.C. in 2006 and 2007, according to the government transparency website

The Washington Post reported in a May 2008 article that Flores was sentenced to six months in prison after pleading guilty to wire fraud for embezzling $200,000 from congressional accounts, including Abercrombie’s and California Rep. Jane Harman’s.

Abercrombie was not implicated in the crime and when the story surfaced locally it had no legs.

In a statement released Monday, Abercrombie did not mention Flores. But he showed his obvious disdain for Hannemann’s campaign tactic and suggested voters brace for more dirt.

“He’s asking you to compare the fact that he was born in Hawaii and I was born on the mainland,” said Abercrombie. “That he went to Harvard, and I went to the University of Hawaii. He dismisses my 35 years of service to the people of Hawaii. He even asks you to compare our wives and decide. Compare and Decide? What’s the message here?”

“This is not what a Governor does,” the statement continued. “This brochure is not information. It’s the latest example of Mufi Hannemann’s negative campaign style and there’s more coming.”

The Hannemann campaign did not respond to Civil Beat’s questions about the brochure — how many were mailed, how much it cost, and why Abercrombie’s beard is a relevant issue.

Taking the Low Road

Abercrombie’s efforts to stick to the high road parallels his response to Hannemann’s attacks on him when the two faced off in the 1986 race for the 1st Congressional District.

At that time, Abercrombie had a decade’s worth of experience in office while Hannemann had never served. Hannemann said Abercrombie was soft on drugs, Abercrombie responded that Hannemann ran a sleazy campaign, and both of them ended up giving the seat to Republican Pat Saiki.

Some 24 years later, both men have a lot more material to work with, and, as in ’86, Hannemann has found a way to pick fights. This time around, he has repeatedly dismissed Abercrombie’s congressional service (though he has coveted the same office), emphasized his physical height and relative youth, and stressed his local-born origins.

Hannemann now also has the help of the Internet., paid for and authorized by the Hannemann Committee 2010, is critical of Abercrombie’s record on offshore oil drilling and the cost of a special election to fill his vacated congressional seat.

Another Hannemann site, JustTheFacts, lists sources for its content, including for the recent brochure mailing.

A third site, TheNeilFile, is a blog run by Keith Rollman, who worked for Hannemann when he was mayor and who is active in Hannemann’s gubernatorial campaign.

The blog, which Rollman says is “strictly the work of its author on his own time,” is the offshoot of Rollman’s now-defunct Atomic Monkey website, which had some rather nasty things to say about Abercrombie, albiet in satirical fashion.

TheNeilFile not only keeps alive Atomic Monkey-like content — e.g., depicting Abercrombie as the Travelocity gnome and making fun of the fact that Abercrombie’s cat is apparently named after Che Guevara — but has more recent content linking Abercrombie to U.S. Reps. Charles Rangel and Maxine Waters, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Socialists of America.

Checking the Facts

Abercrombie has not been passive about the anti-Abercrombie websites.

His own campaign page, for example, has a Fact Check section that rebuts most charges, including the ones leveled in the recent Hannemann mailing.

About that Democratic Socialists of America connection, for example, Abercrombie’s site says, “Neil has never been part of any socialist or communist organization. These rumors are being spread by Neil’s political opponents and conspiracy theorists including those behind the so-called ‘birther’ movement who continually claim that President Obama was not born in the U.S.”

Abercrombie’s website also has e-mail, Twitter and Facebook links to help supporters instantly counter any rumors and false charges. By Monday the campaign was tweeting its disgust over the brochure.

Abercrombie also has his friends in the blogosphere, such as newspaper journalist-turned-blogger Ian Lind. Shortly after the Hannemann mailer went out, Lind had a response on his web page that included the following:

“Mufi’s whole career has been as the candidate of the corporate-political elite. He’s been encouraged to run, supported in his campaigns, and ‘taken care of’ with corporate or political appointments when he lost, and has the perspective and baggage that flows from that privileged position…

“Neil Abercrombie has run for office at every level of government – county, state, and federal – and he has won on his own, the voters choice and not the corporate elite’s choice. … Voters have trusted him, not because he doesn’t make mistakes, but because they are his own mistakes, not those of the elite who would cozy up to him to do their bidding. When push comes to shove, he’s been on our side, not theirs.”

Will Things Go Viral?

Why Hannemann has chosen to step up his attacks is not clear, though conventional wisdom suggests he may be worried that he hasn’t sewn up the primary, even with a large fund-raising advantage.

What’s clear is that two candidates with few fundamental differences on most issues are spending more time talking about something beside the issues, although they might call it character or experience.

Abercrombie’s impatience with Hannemann was evident at a candidate forum in Kapolei on Friday.

In response to Hannemann’s contention that he took action to address Oahu’s growing homeless population, for example, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported Abercrombie as saying Hannemann “just shoved people out of parks. That was his solution. And they’re all back again. Anybody want to go out on the beaches right now when we leave here and see whether or not what I’m saying is accurate?”

While the exchange may be an example of the return of the passionate engagement Abercrombie is known for, it also may be an indication that Hannemann is succeeding in getting under his skin — just as voters begin to tune in to statewide televised debates and ad after TV ad.

If the Mufi versus Neil battle gets too bloody, will it allow Republican James “Duke” Aiona to slip into Washington Place — just like Saiki got to Washington in 1986?

UPDATE (9 a.m. HST, Tuesday, Aug. 17): The Hannemann campaign got back to Civil Beat after our publication deadline and declined to tell us how many brochures were mailed, how much it cost, and why Abercrombie’s beard is a relevant issue.

Carolyn Tanaka, Hannemann campaign spokesperson, said in a statement, “The information in the mail out is all factual information, cited and sourced. Our opponent continues to quickly dismiss any unflattering fact about his record as negative campaigning yet he does not contest the accuracy of those facts. And he is doing it again.”

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