Neil Abercrombie has been a fixture in Hawaii politics for more than three 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.
Abercrombie’s honeymoon with the press and the public did not last long.
It was primarily driven by stark budget realities that required tough decisions. But, the governor has not helped 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.
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 him to.
Because of those actions, the governor has been saddled with a reputation for shunning government transparency.
However, the governor has also had several 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 has 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 governor imposed a contract on the Hawaii State Teachers Association that established pay cuts and increases in employee health costs. The matter is currently before the Hawaii Labor Relations Board and is a major test of a governor’s authority versis collective-bargaining rights.
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 staf
As governor, Abercrombie has based his administration’s mission on a vision outlined in his New Day plan, an ambitious document released during the latter part of his gubernatorial campaign.
The New Day plan addresses a multitude of issues — e.g., health, small businesses, technological development — but above all stresses the state’s need to “invest in education and rebuild our economy,” achieve sustainable growth and “restore public confidence.”
The biggest challenge for the Abercrombie administration has been aligning the goals of the New Day plan with the state’s tight fiscal situation. Shortly after assuming office in December 2006, the administration had to revise biennial budget projections due to a $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 has 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 still at issue with the HGEA’s nurses unit, the United Public Workers and the Hawaii State Teachers Association as of October 2011.
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 that will go toward 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.
Abercrombie said the sale allows the state to build up its reserves and pay down its debt. Counting the new bond debt, the state has a little less than $4 billion in outstanding deb
Abercrombie was born in Buffalo, New York on June 26, 1938. After graduating from Williamsville High School, he attended Union College in New York where he earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1959. After graduation, Abercrombie moved to Hawaii where he would complete 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 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, this time running 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 Senate from 1980 to 1986.
When Representative Cecil Heftel resigned from the United State 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 would be short lived, though, as Abercrombie would go on to lose the Democratic nomination for the seat to Honolulu’s future mayor, Mufi Hannemann. Hannemann would in turn lose the general election to Republican Pat Saiki.
After losing in the primary, Abercrombie ran for Honolulu City Council. He won that race and served as a councilman from 1988 to 1990. After completing his term, Abercrombie rain again for Congress, this time winning and going on to serve for almost twenty years.
Abercrombie has been elected 10 times to Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District. 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.
When Abercrombie decided to resign, 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 in passing or rejecting the bill.
Inouye said 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.
As a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, an 80-plus member group in Congress that promotes traditionally liberal policies, Abercrombie has acquired a staunchly left voting history over his career.
He has been a strong advocate for affirmative action and abortion rights legislation. He is a proponent for federally funded health care and believes in tighter restrictions for gun owners. He has strongly opposed the Iraq War, the death penalty and the Patriot Act.
Abercrombie describes 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 scored a strong win over Hannemann, 60-38 percent.
Abercrombie was elected to Hawaii’s top post in the 2010 general election. Along with running mate Brian Schatz, Abercrombie trounced Republican opponents Aiona and Lynn Finnegan 58-41 percent.