WASHINGTON — Over the years, former Honolulu Mayor and newly announced congressional candidate Mufi Hannemann has developed the reputation of being a bully.

His supporters say that people misread him. They point to his ambition and his direct style of leadership. They remind critics that it’s not Hannemann’s fault that he’s 6-foot-7-inches tall and towers over just about everyone he meets.

But the reputation persists.

People called him a bully at City Hall, where city workers still swap stories about his short temper. They called him a bully during his fierce and ultimately unsuccessful campaign for governor last year, with some claiming that his negative campaign tactics ultimately cost him the election.

Now, it appears Hannemann may try to run a campaign for Congress that shows off a gentler side.

“Getting back to basics, a grassroots kind of approach,” Hannemann told Civil Beat. “You know, the talk story coffee-hour format. This is how it’s done on the neighbor islands. I’ve got tremendous name-recognition, but we’re not going to rest on that.”

For better or worse, Hawaii residents know Hannemann. Most people refer to him simply as “Mufi,” and many can easily pick him out of a crowd (his height helps). He also has a reputation as a songbird, a sports fan and a social media enthusiast — he boasts more than half-a-million followers on Twitter.

Hannemann is certainly better known than opponent and City Council member Tulsi Gabbard, who is 27 years his junior and — despite an impressive resume — has far less experience than he does. Hannemann’s task isn’t to make voters aware of who he is, but to smooth over the negative associations they may already have.

For starters, Hannemann must convince voters that he is worthy of their support after fighting hard and still losing to Gov. Neil Abercrombie last year.

Abercrombie resigned from Congress in February 2010 to run for governor, whereas Hannemann announced he would run in May 2010. Hannemann didn’t step down as mayor until the end of July 2010, and Abercrombie crushed him in the Democratic primary a month-and-a-half later.

“That was a tough race, and we lost fair and square,” Hannemann said. “I really stayed in the mayor’s job too long. Neil was very well organized and we were reeling. I was playing defense the whole time. I (waited to resign) because of what I bequeathed to Mayor (Peter) Carlisle. He really will have a much easier time. We made a lot of tough decisions on implementing fees, improving sewers. We got APEC to Hawaii… My purpose was to leave the place better than I found it.”

Carlisle has said that he was surprised by the financial stability he inherited, and the fact that he did not confront a budget deficit his first year as mayor. At the same time, he criticized the Hannemann administration for capital spending that Carlisle said added to the city’s long-term debt.

With both Carlisle and Abercrombie in office for just long enough to disappoint some one-time supporters, Hannemann also stands to gain from those experiencing voters’ remorse. If Hannemann is indeed looking to minimize his harsh reputation, he’ll leave Hawaii residents to draw their own grass-is-greener conclusions and instead remind them how he expressed support for Abercrombie the day after the election.

Ultimately, if Hannemann’s tone is gentler in this congressional campaign, it may be because he believes it is his to lose. While he says he takes all opponents “seriously,” Hannemann demonstrated the advantage he believes he has with a QMark research poll he commissioned. The survey, released along with the announcement of his candidacy, shows Hannemann with a 50-point advantage over Gabbard.

“The feedback I’m getting shows no indication that we’re going to be limping in this race,” Hannemann said. “Yeah, I’d love to be governor. But that was then and this is now… When public service is in your bones, it’s not so much ‘where can I serve?’ but ‘how can I serve?'”

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