Over the last couple of months, Neil Abercrombie has played Santa Claus, sans the red hat and coat.

The Hawaii governor has been releasing tens of millions of dollars for capitol improvement projects across the state.

Even though the money is appropriated by the Hawaii Legislature and the projects are selected by legislators, the governor has the authority to actually give the money out.

So, there was Santa — er, Abercrombie — on May 7 presenting a $1.5 million check to Kauai Mayor Bernard P. Carvalho Jr. and representatives of the nonprofit Kauai Philippine Cultural Center. The CIP grant will help construct a new 30,000-square-foot facility.

In a press release later that day, the administration said the CIP money will also “further stimulate the economy and generate local jobs while benefiting community members.” And, the release explained, it recognizes and celebrates Hawaii’s diverse culture, a characteristic that Abercrombie touts every chance he gets.

McNeil Wilson Communications

Public employees retirement speech, May 20.

Abercrombie has been spending a lot of time on Kauai, the only island he lost (narrowly) to Mufi Hannemann in the 2010 Democratic primary. It was the island where he was also angrily shouted down at a Cabinet In Your Community meeting in Lihue in September because of opposition to GMOs and the PLDC.

This time on the Garden Island, it was a different story.

The local newspaper ran an article about the CIP money for the cultural center titled Happiness is $1.5M. The accompanying photo showed Abercrombie with a giant “check,” surrounded by happy islanders like state Rep. Jimmy Tokioka, who pushed for the appropriation.

Labor’s Love Not Lost

This is how governors win re-election — using their office to perform official duties but also to keep the governor in the public eye through favorable coverage.

Civil Beat examined the governor’s public schedule, travel, press releases, union endorsements and other material over the past two months, the period when Abercrombie began campaigning in earnest.

What the material reveals is a governor using the power of incumbency to dole out tens of millions of dollars for capitol improvement projects, pose with adorable-looking children and affirm his commitment to a sustainable Hawaii.

Gov. Abercrombie

Celebrating the UPW contract, April 29.

Most importantly, the campaign — as seen in news reports, photos, video, advisories, tweets, Facebook posts — shows a governor patching up relations with the Democratic Party of Hawaii‘s most important constituency: labor unions.

Abercrombie’s relations with unions, especially public sector organizations, were strained by the state’s cutting of pay and benefits in 2011 to help the state get back in the black. The protracted contract dispute with the Hawaii State Teachers Association only upset other unions even more.

The governor is starting to put that all behind him.

On May 26, the Hawaii Laborers Union Local 368 gathered several thousand of its members at the Wet n Wild Waterpark in Kapolei, where the union endorsed the governor at a picnic. The union’s business manager and treasurer, Peter Ganaban, used the same language the governor uses in his own speeches, saying Abercrombie has “made some tough decisions” that resolved a “financial crisis.”

Two weeks later, on June 7, Brian Ahakuelo, the business manager and financial secretary of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1260, sang from the same hymnal: “Governor Abercrombie has had to make some tough calls, but the bottom line is he has resolved the fiscal crisis his administration inherited, and deserves another four years to build an even stronger economy.”

IBEW Local 1260, Local 1186 and Local 1357 endorsed the governor, and Abercrombie welcomed it, reminding the unions — and recipients of the union’s press release, which can be found on Abercrombie’s re-election website — of “the tough choices that were made” when he became governor in 2010 and found the state in “fiscal chaos.”

Abercrombie for Governor

Accepting IBEW endorsement, June 7.

Other recent labor triumphs include the ratification of the HSTA contract on April 18 and the ratification of a collective bargaining agreement by members of United Public Workers on April 29.

The love for labor was also evident May 20, when the governor gave “gave an impassioned speech” — that’s what the press release says — to members of the National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems.

Abercrombie defended the group’s decision to hold its annual meeting in Honolulu, and added that the state has had success “in improving and reforming its public pension system.”

Abercrombie’s labor outreach extends across the waters. Last week he was in San Diego to address the 26th Convention of the Office and Professional Employees International Union. Other headliners included AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

Did the governor, who took personal time for the trip, perhaps engage in a little fundraising while in San Diego? Or from May 22-24, when he traveled to San Francisco? Or this week, when he accompanied the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii Military Affairs Council delegation’s annual visit to Washington, D.C.?

In response to a media inquiry, Abercrombie campaign manager Bill Kaneko emailed this statement:

Fundraising is a necessary element in running for any statewide race. While Governor Abercrombie’s fundraising efforts are focused on Hawaii, there are periodic opportunities for mainland fundraisers to be held. To date, Governor Abercrombie held one mainland fundraiser on February 23, 2013, in Washington, D.C. Keep in mind that Governor Abercrombie spent two decades in the U.S. Congress. During that time, he developed strong networks in the U.S. House and Senate, Pentagon, and various federal agencies which continue to benefit Hawaii. He also maintains strong relationships with friends and supporters throughout the country who admire his leadership, ability to make tough decisions, and desire to support his re-election efforts in 2014.

It certainly would not be unusual for Abercrombie to be raising mainland money now — all the better to beef up his war chest in time for the next campaign contribution report, which is due for release at the end of July.

Ethnic, Aina, Keiki

When it comes to good public relations, Abercrombie’s people should know what they’re doing.

His chief of staff, Bruce Coppa, is a former PR executive. His communications team includes Louise Kim McCoy, a former television reporter, and Keith DeMello, formerly of McNeil Wilson Communications.

Gov. Abercrombie

Gardening at Washington Place, April 17.

McCoy is the wife of Jim McCoy, who is handling communications for the campaign. McCoy is also a former TV and print journalist. He and Barbara Tanabe, another former TV journalist, run Hoakea Communications. Hoakea is Hawaiian for “to widen, broaden, enlarge, make public,” according to the Pukui and Elbert Hawaiian Dictionary.

As is common when incumbents run for re-election, the line between office and campaign blurs.

When the administration announced on June 6 the release of $41.2 million for CIP work, it read like campaign literature:

“Since taking office, this administration has released more than $1.5 billion for capital improvement projects across the state, investing in priority improvement and upgrades that will directly benefit the people of Hawaii,” Gov. Abercrombie said. “These projects are contributing to Hawaii’s improving employment and economic growth, predicted to outpace the national growth rate over the next year.”

As with the $1.5 million check to the Kauai Filipino Cultural Center, Abercrombie likes to deliver the largesse in person when he can — especially if it benefits a group of potential voters.

That’s what he did on April 22, when he presented a $450,000 check to the Filipino Community Center on Oahu for installation of a photovoltaic system. The event managed to both honor Filipino heritage and present the governor as green-friendly.

As with labor, Abercrombie’s reputation has suffered with environmental groups, angered by his apparent siding with developmental interests. (See PLDC.)

But as with labor, don’t be surprised to see the governor build a green streak — something he may have been doing on April 17. That’s when he and wife Nancie Caraway welcomed sixth- and seventh-grade students to the grounds of Washington Place to celebrate Earth Day.

Here’s what the press release said about the event:

“The New Day school garden project represents our commitment to food self-sufficiency and the importance of instilling that value — as well as the knowledge and skill to do it — in the next generation,” Gov. Abercrombie said. “Growing our own food and connecting our keiki to the land through hands-on environmental education can plant lifelong lessons that students will carry with them throughout their lives.”

The governor, who has no children of his own, is great around kids. Check out his photo gallery on the governor’s website: keiki city.

Abercrombie even has others using air time to tell his story.

On June 4, Olelo Community Media premiered its first “Signature Series” programming with Getting to Know You, a half-hour show hosted by journalist Paul Udell. It’s a conversation with Abercrombie — “the man, not the politician,” according to Olelo’s press release: “In the show, Gov. Abercrombie discusses what motivated him to come to Hawaii, his school years — even his favorite TV show. It is an insightful look into the life of a man who has enjoyed a colorful political career in Washington, D.C. and Hawaii.”

The infomercial — er, Signature Series — repeated this past weekend and Tuesday. You can view it online.

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