Enactment of marriage equality was a major accomplishment of the Abercrombie administration. But is that really the reason Gov. Neil Abercrombie was overwhelmingly rejected by voters pulling the Democratic Party ballot on Aug. 9?

That’s what the governor told The Associated Press last week, in a story that was picked up across the country.

“Republicans crossed over en masse to vote in the Democratic primary, and then the religious factor came in,” the AP reported Abercrombie saying. “Doctrinally I was outside the circle and paid for it.”

There may have been some voters who chose to dump Abercrombie because of his ordering of a special session of the Hawaii Legislature in the fall of 2013. But it was likely at best only one of many reasons, as has been widely reported.

The AP itself said voters interviewed at polling stations “did not mention gay marriage as their reason for voting for other candidates. Instead they complained about the way Abercrombie handled contract negotiations with teachers and his proposal to tax pensioners.”

Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie holds up pen after signing into law the Same Sex Marriage Equality Act at the Hawaii Convention Center, Honolulu, Hawaii 11.13.13 ©PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Gov. Abercrombie holds up pen after signing the Same Sex Marriage Equality Act at the Hawaii Convention Center, Nov. 13, 2013.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The Mantle of Martyr

What the governor appears to be doing is rejecting the heap of criticism over his governing style and positions and instead assuming the mantle of martyr to make himself feel better for such a humiliating loss — the worst of any sitting governor in the history of the nation in a primary.

Abercrombie himself hinted at his martyrdom by telling the AP that it was worth losing re-election to pass a law legalizing gay marriage.

“There’s no way I could live with myself if I thought I was diminishing another human being’s ability to reach their full capacity,” he said.

It’s not the first time Abercrombie has sought to portray himself in such a noble, selfless light.

It’s not the first time Abercrombie has sought to portray himself in such a noble, selfless light, and over the very same issue of gay rights.

Four years ago, when he was first running for governor, Abercrombie said he was the victim of an anonymous e-mail campaign that he compared to Nazi propaganda.

Speaking to leaders of Faith Action for Community Equity at Harris United Methodist Church in downtown Honolulu, the candidate said religious objections to his candidacy were primarily rooted in a disagreement over civil unions.

If elected governor, Abercrombie said he would sign civil unions into law, which he did. His opponent, Republican Duke Aiona, opposed civil unions.

At the FACE talk, held three weeks before the 2010 general election, Abercrombie said he began every day with readings of meditations from spiritual leaders. They include Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian who was executed in 1945 for resistance against the Nazis.

The Marriage Equality Act before signed by Governor Neil Abercrombie.  11.13.13 ©PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The Marriage Equality Act before being signed by Governor Neil Abercrombie.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

‘A Moral Society’

The Bonhoeffer story is fascinating and the subject of a new biography.

He was linked to a failed conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler, wrote some of his best work imprisoned in a concentration camp and was hanged just week weeks before Hitler committed suicide and Allied forces liberated the camp.

Abercrombie has brought up Bonhoeffer in other speeches and forums over the years, and it is understandable why the politician might find inspiration and solace from the theologian.

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Here are several quotes attributed to Bonhoeffer:

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” 

“The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.” 

“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” 

“Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

‘To Act on Behalf of Others’

Neil Abercrombie is not a typical politician when it comes to spiritual and intellectual influence.

He wrote his doctoral thesis on historian and philosopher Lewis Mumford and author Norman Mailer. He befriended Mailer and spoke at his funeral.

Besides Bonhoeffer, he told FACE that other faith inspirations include the Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton, the German-American theologian Paul Tillich, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Mohandas Gandhi and the Dalai Lama.

He has said that he carries two talisman with him always, one holding a quote from Gandhi and another from Sister Maureen Keleher, who ran St. Francis Hospital in Hawaii.

The quote from Gandhi is this: “Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be any use to him.”

“Your job is not about you. It is your capacity to act on behalf of others.” — Neil Abercrombie

Speaking to FACE in 2010, Abercrombie said, “Think about this if you are a government official. Then you will find your doubt in self melting away. You are not the important one anymore. Your job is not about you. It is your capacity to act on behalf of others.”

There is at least one argument to support Abercrombie’s contention that Republican voters crossed over in the primary as retribution for same-sex marriage: State Sen. Clayton Hee, author of SB 1, was defeated soundly in his bid for lieutenant governor.

But there are more examples to the contrary: Ige voted for same-sex marriage, for example. So did state Rep. Mark Takai, who beat state Sen. President Donna Mercado Kim, who voted against SB 1, in the Democratic primary for the 1st Congressional District. And Abercrombie’s own LG, Shan Tustsui, won the primary.

Republican state Rep. Cynthia Thielen held off a challenge by a GOP minister who ran in no small part in opposition to marriage equality. Thielen was the rare Republican who voted for SB 1.

‘Part of the State’s Social Fabric’

Meanwhile, even gay-oriented publications like The Advocate suggested there were other reasons for Abercrombie’s loss besides same-sex marriage.

The Advocate pointed to a National Journal report that identified the governor’s decision in 2012 to appoint Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz to fill the U.S. Senate held by the late Daniel Inouye, who favored U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.

The Journal also cited Abercrombie’s support for development in Kakaako and ignoring of environmental groups that got him elected in 2010.

Gay Marriage Supporter Celebrates PF

A gay marriage supporter celebrates passage of same-sex marriage legislation at the Hawaii State Capitol.

Even Duke Aiona found it implausible that there are enough Republicans in Hawaii to have kicked Abercrombie out of office, although he told the AP that many residents were angered that the same-sex marriage question was not put to a ballot vote.

On that second point, it is worthwhile to note that Aiona and independent candidate for governor Mufi Hannemann told the West Oahu Economic Development Association last week that, while both would uphold Hawaii’s same-sex marriage law if elected, both feel a special session was the wrong way to go.

Even Ige said he didn’t think the special session was warranted and suggested that voters can always work to change laws they don’t like.

Even David Ige said he didn’t think the special session was warranted.

Interestingly, the day after the news of Abercrombie’s rationale broke, Equality Hawaii, the group that helped lead the fight for gay marriage, issued a press release marking marriage equality’s “positive impact” since its enactment.

“Evidence strongly suggests that it has become an essential part of the state’s social fabric, boosted the state economy and helped multiple candidates win elections in the recent party primaries,” the group stated.

It’s not coincidental that Equality Hawaii issued its release after Abercrombie’s remarks. (Why mark nine months rather than wait for the full year, after all?)

Abercrombie’s rationale for his loss is unsettling, particularly for those who worry that a same-sex marriage backlash could manifest itself come Nov. 4.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie does some last minute sign waving in Manoa on Primary Day on August 9, 2014

Last-minute sign waving  in Manoa on primary election day.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Which brings us back to the governor.

During the course of the primary election, in addition to his “hard choices, tough decisions” campaign theme, Abercrombie often struck another chord: one of gratitude. He frequently expressed how humbled he was for the faith that voters had placed in him over the years, and how he hoped he had met their expectations.

It’s because of you and your support and your encouragement I have the energy I need to do everything I need to do for Hawaii Nei,” he told supporters at a rally just four days before the primary.

Gratitude for the Right Call

My take on calling a special session is this: That Abercrombie made the right call for Hawaii Nei.

Debating same-sex marriage would have seriously interrupted the regular session. Fundamental human rights like marriage must never be decided at the ballot box. Hawaii is where the gay marriage movement began, its where the nation is headed and it was high time that Hawaii helped lead the way again.

For that, many people should feel gratitude toward the governor and not uneasiness that he has positioned himself as a martyr to a cause that is far from over and will require the help of many.

“We’re grateful to our legislative leaders, Gov. Abercrombie and all the many community allies who stood on the right side of history in making marriage equality the law of the land,” said Equality Hawaii. “Their principled work delivered a clear victory for Hawaii and its people.”

Thats sounds about right. Perhaps the governor will heed those words, as well as those of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who also wrote:

“In normal life we hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude. It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others.” 

About the Author