From early in his administration, longtime associates of Gov. Neil Abercrombie were alarmed at their friend’s performance.
After a near flawless campaign that culminated in landslide victories in the primary and general elections, once in office, Abercrombie seemed to make a series of blunders, both legislatively and in public relations.
By this summer, these associates were already talking with the governor about the need to make a change in staff, starting at the top with Chief of Staff Amy Asselbaye.
Asselbaye and to a lesser extent deputy chief of staff Andrew Aoki were seen as out of their depth in both managing an executive office and understanding the nuances of Hawaii politics.
Asselbaye smoothly ran Abercrombie’s office while he was in the U.S. Congress. Aoki is credited with being a key figure in his winning campaign for governor. But neither had the skill set to navigate a ship of state.
On Thursday, the administration announced that both would leave their jobs by the end of October. The “official” reason? “To spend more time with their families and young children,” according to a press release.
One Bad Thing After Another
Civil Beat granted anonymity to two political figures close to the governor to find out exactly what happened. Both are familiar with what transpired over the past 10 months, but neither would comment on the record for fear of damaging their relationships with Abercrombie and other Democrats.
The story they have to tell is this: That almost from day one the young administration made mistake after mistake, but wouldn’t listen to those who were raising red flags.
It began with a miscalculation of how severe the state’s fiscal situation was, continued with proposals to fix the budget that didn’t square with what lawmakers believed would work and peaked with the governor’s description of the NFL Pro Bowl as “a bribe for billionaires.”
The governor wanted a soda tax even though it has always been a tough sell at the Legislature. He was against raising the general excise tax, then for it, then against it again.
He publicly belittled a Republican lawmaker for challenging him on his controversial proposal to tax pensions, when the real problem was that he was taking on the core constituencies of seniors and labor. His plan to eliminate Medicare Part B payments pleased no one, either.
Seemingly minor incidents, like when Abercrombie condemned birther conspirators and promised to resolve the dispute — while President Barack Obama was vacationing in Hawaii — made international headlines and distracted from the business of state. He later had to back off on his promise.
The biggest legislative victories during the 2011 session — such as the passage of civil unions, mortgage foreclosure dispute resolution, Native Hawaiian recognition — did not come from him.
Perhaps Abercrombie’s greatest blunder came in alienating those whose support he had long championed: public sector unions.
Though he managed to secure pay cuts and increases in health-care costs from the largest union, the Hawaii Government Employees Association, labor leaders were not happy with the brusque treatment they received from the administration during negotiations. Long-standing protocols for resolving contracts were not followed, these leaders say.
He may yet win his battle to impose similar contract terms on teachers as he negotiated with the HGEA, but he has outraged the unions with what they perceive as a cavalier attitude toward collective bargaining rights.
“Things just didn’t move the way they were supposed to,” said one associate.
“They just didn’t know what they were doing — you could see what was coming,” said another, referring to the resignations of Asselbaye and Aoki. “He was batting 1,000 percent getting almost every major thing wrong and not doing much right at all, it seems. So they needed to change it around.”
A Failure to Communicate
Abercrombie has always been sui generis — outspoken, aggressive, charming, intelligent, ambitious, argumentative. Many local folks fell for the loud-mouthed, long-haired, balding haole in Hawaii Nei who drove a yellow Checker cab with his visage painted on the side.
When he ran for governor, longtime associates marveled at Abercrombie’s demeanor during the campaign: a wise father figure patiently listening to what the people had to say; a man with a plan to lead the state forward.
Once in office, however, “Neil was Neil,” said one associate.
The job of controlling Abercrombie fell to Asselbaye. But she had never run an executive office before, and her skills did not lend themselves to the kind of back-room back-slapping required to govern.
What’s more, her reluctance to engage people created a sense that the administration felt themselves superior, even a little cocky — as if they knew better than anyone else how to fix the state’s myriad problems.
Attempts to reach Asselbaye for comment were unsuccessful.
When Asselbaye did come before lawmakers, as when submitting the executive office’s budget, she appeared nervous and unsure of herself.
Aoki was a smoother presence, appearing on TV and at forums. But neither served well in the role the governor needed most: a liaison/go-between/consigliere to the power brokers who worked below the fifth floor of the Capitol.
“She wouldn’t let us help shape the framework,” said one associate.
“It’s like the Peter Principle,” said another associate. “You are promoted beyond your abilities.”
Asselbaye made it difficult for longtime political figures to reach the governor. There was a split between the younger leaders in the campaign like Aoki and Asselbaye and more seasoned, locally rooted associates, many who led the governor’s transition team.
But these associates — folks like Bill Kaneko, Charlie Toguchi and Randy Iwase — did manage to break through to their friend the governor. They succeeded in getting him to hire Kate Stanley, another associate concerned about the direction of the administration, as senior adviser.
Stanley, a former legislator and party veteran, started Sept. 1 and helped bring a well-connected grown-up to Abercrombie’s relatively young staff. (Asselbaye and Aoki are in their early 40s.)
But the problems lingered, despite the administration’s repositioning of the governor as a warm and fuzzy executive in photo-ops.
Finally, the governor accepted frank talk from his peers and cut his losses to save his administration and career.
On Sunday he leaves for a 12-day trip to Asia, his first official overseas trip as governor. He has scheduled no public appearances before his departure Sunday.
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