Touring a public housing complex in Kalihi on Wednesday, Gov. Neil Abercrombie was at his best — warm, sensitive, caring.
As he spoke one on one with residents of the Towers at Kuhio Park, inspected their kitchens and peeked in their kids’ bedrooms, the governor shook hands, gave hugs and posed for photos.
Abercrombie’s tour was covered by a flock of reporters, and the story of a governor doing good was sure to make headlines.
Much the same happened on two other occasions earlier this week. The governor went to Waikiki to announce that public schools would make surfing an official sport. And he went to the University of Hawaii to promote an anti-bullying campaign.
What the three events also had in common was that they were not formal news conferences, where it’s accepted that reporters can ask questions on any topic.
In fact, Abercrombie has only held three news conferences since June 9 — the day he stirred up a storm by calling the NFL Pro Bowl a “stupid” waste of taxpayer money.
In his nearly four decades in public life, Neil Abercrombie has rarely shied from expressing his views, usually with flair.
He managed to tamp down on his verbal propensities while running for governor as a candidate who listened. But, from his first day in office, glimmers of the Old Neil immediately surfaced.
In his very first news conference in executive chambers on Dec. 6, 2010, the new governor cracked jokes about blaming his lieutenant governor for anything that goes wrong and said the public should fear the mysterious workings of two agencies. Reporters and others in attendance roared with laughter.
“Our new governor runs an entertaining news conference,” wrote Richard Borreca in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “Gone are the heavily scripted news conferences of former Gov. Linda Lingle that featured command performances from the entire Cabinet and GOP legislators along with staffers required to fill all the empty seats in the governor’s formal fifth-floor ceremonial office.”
That same month, in announcing his Cabinet hires, Abercrombie also took reporters’ questions on a variety of topics and kept having fun.
It didn’t last long.
By late December the governor lost his composure at a news conference announcing that the state’s finances were much starker than forecast. As reporters pressed him on what he was going to do about it, the governor only grew more exasperated.
In subsequent news conferences during the spring, sometimes the governor took a lot of questions. Other times, however, Abercrombie seemed eager to head for the door, and his aides were only too happy to make sure he got there before another question came.
Abercrombie held half a dozen news conferences from January through April, also usually focused on single topics, such as the March tsunami. With the Legislature in session and a Cabinet being assembled, it was also a busy time.
The low point for Abercrombie came in early June at a news conference to announce the hiring of an early-childhood coordinator. Unprompted, the governor complained that the state should not pay the NFL $4 million to host the Pro Bowl.
“You know, we’ll get more out of civil unions in a weekend than we’ll get out of those guys,” he said, incorrectly.
The Pro Bowl rant went viral.
Abercrombie did not stop talking to the media after that. He often speaks to reporters following public appearances, for example, and has permitted some sit-down interviews.
But, while the governor has delivered remarks in many public forums, he has rarely put himself in the position of answering questions in a formal news conference. When such events are held, his office sends out an advisory to the press.
An examination of media advisories from his office from June 10 through Oct. 5 shows that Abercrombie held only one more formal news conference in June, one in July, one in August and none in September.
(In an unusual case, on Aug. 17, the governor invited media and dignitaries to Washington Place for a status report on his “New Day” plan. But he took no questions afterward, and instead made available his Cabinet heads.)
None of the three news conferences was held in executive chambers, and each was focused on a specific topic — a broadband initiative (Aug. 23), the hiring of a health-care transformation coordinator (July 28) and the Justice Reinvestment program (June 28). Because of the settings or the guests he’s invited, it can be challenging for reporters to bring up a question about another topic, particularly unpleasant ones.
By contrast, in May, the governor held seven news conferences, most of them in executive chambers. The subject matter ranged from fisheries and forestry initiatives to a homeless plan to beach replenishment. On one day, he held two.
Then came the Pro Bowl business.
Perhaps not coincidentally, since the cutting back of press conferences, the governor also has not made a major gaffe along the lines of his Pro Bowl remarks.
The practice of holding news conferences varies considerably for government executives. In Arizona, for example, former Gov. Janet Napolitano held weekly meetings with reporters while her successor, Jan Brewer, has not.
Abercrombie’s predecessor, Linda Lingle, did take questions at executive chambers’ press conferences, and she held many throughout her administration. But, as the Star-Advertiser’s Borreca observed, she usually stuck tightly to her talking points.
Abercrombie spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz told Civil Beat Wednesday that it is inaccurate to say that this governor’s media availability is controlled.
“The Governor has had several press conferences, too many to count,” she said via email. “I’m unclear of what you’re asking in terms of reporters asking whatever else they want. Reporters can do that at any event; but like anything, there is an appropriate time to ask which is usually on the side following the purpose of the event. The Governor has almost always made himself available, schedule permitting.”
Reached later by telephone, Dela Cruz reiterated that the administration had made the governor available, “and any time a reporter wants to talk to the governor one on one, that happens.”
(In fact, that’s not true when it comes to Civil Beat. A formal request to talk to the governor about budget issues was denied, even though he spoke personally with other reporters.)
Dela Cruz acknowledged that the governor’s schedule is controlled, because she says it has to be. He described her boss as “very personable,” too, the kind of person who can give long answers to questions — invariably prompting his aides to gently remind him that he has other matters to attend to.
“If we did not do his scheduling and appointments, we would not be doing our job,” she said. “There are hundreds of issues the governor has to give his attention to, so we have to make sure that we are providing him with the right information at the right time so that he can dedicate himself to the public.”
Dela Cruz said Abercrombie believes governing involves direct engagement with the public and pointed to the public housing tour as an example.
“Instead of just sitting with reporters, he is going to talk with people and invite the media along,” she said. “He wants to hear from the residents themselves.”
Dela Cruz, a former TV reporter, also said the governor dislikes “photo-ops,” though he recognizes their value.
The public housing event was certainly a photo-op. But, it also showed government at its best — in this case, a $135-million renovation of the complex. The work is being done through a public-private partnership between the Hawaii Public Housing Authority and private companies Michaels Development and The Vitus Group.
The Towers at Kuhio Park, the state’s largest public housing project, used to be called Kuhio Park Terrace, a place notorious for criminal acts like stabbings. For a governor to show up there, as he did at Mayor Wright Homes, shows his commitment to the people living in public housing.
As the governor toured the complex, residents were clearly thrilled with his presence. And, though they had been selected to show the governor their units, the residents appeared sincere in their gratitude for the state’s investment in their home.
Speaking to reporters after his tour, Abercrombie said smiling residents told him they loved the maintenance work, which he described as “life-changing”:
“It’s one thing to talk about change, it’s another to live through it, and you can see it just from these folks and their reactions today. It’s not just a matter of me showing up, this is a matter of their everyday life changing for the better and for good.”
Neil Abercrombie, at his very best.