Neil Abercrombie has been a fixture in Hawaii politics for more than four decades.
He resigned his seat in Congress representing the state’s 1st Congressional District in February 2010 to run for governor. On Nov. 2, 2010, he won the election for the state’s top job by a wide margin over Republican Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona.
He served one term and lost re-election in the August 2014 Democratic primary to David Ige, the former Senate Ways and Means chair who went on to win the general election in November.
Abercrombie was born in Buffalo, New York on June 26, 1938, and is a graduate of Williamsville High School. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1959 and moved to Hawaii where he completed a doctorate in American Studies from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
To support himself through school, Abercrombie worked in a series of different jobs, from custodian to probation officer. During his time at the university, Abercrombie befriended Ann Dunham and Barack Obama, Sr., the parents of former U.S. President Barack Obama.
Abercrombie’s first venture into politics was in 1970 where he failed to win the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate. Undeterred, he tried again, in a run for the Hawaii State House of Representatives, where he won a seat in 1975. Abercrombie’s first stint in the state house lasted until 1979, when he decided to run for a Hawaii State Senate seat, which he won. He served in the state senate from 1980 to 1986.
When Rep. Cecil Heftel resigned from Congress in 1986 in order to run for governor, Abercrombie was elected in a special election to serve the remainder of Heftel’s term (September 1986 to January 1987). His time in Congress was short lived, though, as Abercrombie lost the Democratic nomination for the seat to Honolulu’s future mayor, Mufi Hannemann. Hannemann then lost in the general election to Republican Pat Saiki.
After losing in the primary, Abercrombie ran for Honolulu City Council and won that seat as a councilman from 1988 to 1990. After his one term, Abercrombie again ran for Congress, this time winning and going on to serve for almost 20 years.
Abercrombie was a popular congressman elected 10 times to Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District representing urban Honolulu. In his last race, he won in a landslide, taking 70.6 percent of the vote.
During his tenure in Congress, Abercrombie chaired the Armed Forces Subcommittee on Air and Land Forces. He was also a senior member of the Natural Resources Committee.
As a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, an 80-plus member group in Congress that promotes traditionally liberal policies, Abercrombie acquired a staunchly left voting history over his career.
He was a strong advocate for affirmative action and abortion rights legislation. He was a proponent for federally funded health care and believes in tighter restrictions for gun owners. He strongly opposed the Iraq War, the death penalty and the Patriot Act.
When Abercrombie decided to resign to run for governor, he was mildly criticized by U.S. Senator Daniel K. Inouye. At the time of his resignation in February 2010, President Obama’s health-care reform bill was highly contested and it was believed that one or two votes could be the difference.
The senator ignored the fact that a replacement would likely be a Democrat and noted in a prepared statement, “Congressman Abercrombie’s announcement is a surprise and leaves us a vote shy in the House at a time when major policy changes like health-care reform, a war spending measure, the Akaka Bill and others are shaping up for debate and passage. However, I accept the congressman’s decision and I thank him for his 10 terms of service in the U.S. Congress.”
Abercrombie As Governor
Abercrombie described his bid for governor on his campaign website as “the culmination of a lifetime of public service.”
The 2010 primary race between Abercrombie and Mufi Hannemann was distinguished most by negative campaigning from Hannemann and his supporters that recalled the 1986 race between the candidates for the 1st Congressional District. But Abercrombie overwhelmed Hannemann, 60-38 percent.
Abercrombie was elected to Hawaii’s top post in the 2010 general election. He and running mate Brian Schatz trounced Republican opponents Aiona and Lynn Finnegan, 58-41 percent.
After the 2010 election, Abercrombie’s honeymoon with the press and the public did not last long.
His job was complicated with stark budget realities that required tough decisions. But, the governor did not help his case with a series of controversial decisions.
For example, he refused to release the names of candidates submitted by the state’s Judicial Selection Commission. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser successfully sued the governor, who grudgingly released the names. The Judicial Selection Commission also reversed its policy of keeping the names it submits to the governor secret.
He also criticized the state for paying the NFL to host the annual Pro Bowl, something he called a subsidy for a “scrimmage in paradise.” And he angered AARP Hawaii, saying he would “roll over” the advocates for seniors as part of his unsuccessful proposals to tax the pension income of government workers and to eliminate Medicare Part B reimbursements.
And, in September 2011, it was revealed that the governor had assumed emergency powers to help relocate endangered birds, fix a Kauai road and allow quick cleanup of ordnance in public places. The governor cited public safety and expediency, but he did not inform lawmakers or the public before assuming the emergency power as the Constitution allows.
Because of those actions, the governor was saddled with a reputation for shunning government transparency.
However, the governor also had several major legislative victories, including the signing of Hawaii civil unions into law. He appointed a new Hawaii Board of Education and the state’s first lesbian to the Hawaii Supreme Court. And his administration made eradicating homelessness, improving early childhood development and modernizing the state’s antiquated information-technology system top priorities.
Most critically, in the summer of 2011 the governor imposed a contract on the Hawaii State Teachers Association that established pay cuts and increases in employee health costs. The matter went to the Hawaii Labor Relations Board, which upheld the governor’s action. The governor’s actions upset powerful labor groups in the state.
The Abercrombie administration’s troubles reached a tipping point on Oct. 6, 2011, when it was announced that Chief of Staff Amy Asselbaye and Deputy Chief of Staff Andrew Aoki had submitted their resignations. While the official reason was that both wanted to spend more time with their young families, Abercrombie had been pressured for months to shake up his staff.
Abercrombie appointed Bruce Coppa, head of the Department of Accounting and General Services, as his new chief of staff.
He based his administration’s mission on a vision outlined in his New Day plan, an ambitious document released during his gubernatorial campaign.
The New Day plan addressed a multitude of issues such as health, small businesses, technological development, but above all stressed the state’s need to “invest in education and rebuild our economy to achieve sustainable growth and, “restore public confidence.”
The biggest challenge for the Abercrombie administration was aligning the goals of the New Day plan with the state’s tight fiscal situation. Shortly after assuming office in December 2010, the administration had to revise biennial budget projections due to an $843 million budget shortfall.
That shortfall soon exceeded $1 billion, and the governor and the Hawaii Legislature were forced to balance the books with a combination of increases in taxes and fees, elimination of some tax breaks, raiding of special funds and cutbacks to programs.
As well, Abercrombie pushed for a 5 percent pay cut and an increase in health benefit expenses for public-sector unions — something accepted by the state’s largest union, the Hawaii Government Employees Association, but challenged by the HGEA’s nurses unit, the United Public Workers and the HSTA.
To help shore up the state’s finances, Abercrombie in December 2011 announced the largest bond sale in state history — $1.3 billion of general obligation bonds.
The sale included $800 million in new debt for capital projects already under way at schools and other public facilities. The state also refinanced $488 million worth of existing bond debt at a lower interest rate, which the state budget director said will save taxpayers $59 million through fiscal 2017. The state had a little less than $4 billion in outstanding debt.
Other notable highlights of Abercrombie’s tenure as governor included calling the state Legislature into session in order to pass same-sex marriage legislation in late 2013, and settling a long dispute over ceded land payments to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
Arguably Abercrombie’s most controversial decision was in naming his lieutenant governor, Schatz, to replace the Inouye, who died in December 2012. Inouye, a political legend, had asked the governor to appoint U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa to fill his seat. The move angered many Democrats who revered Inouye.
In spite of his vulnerabilities, in his 2014 re-election bid no brand-name Democrat emerged to challenge him in the primary. A little known state senator named, however, ran against the incumbent.
Though Abercrombie far out-raised and outspent Ige, the challenger prevailed on election day by a more than 2-to-1 margin. It was the first time in Hawaii’s history as a state that a Democratic incumbent was thrown out of office, and it was the largest primary defeat for a sitting governor in U.S. history.
Abercrombie has not sought political office since.