Now that dust has settled, it might be helpful to turn to the Hawaiian pidgin English dictionary to get a better grip on why Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie was so handily blasted out of office by his underfunded and relatively unknown challenger, state Sen. David Ige.
On Primary Election Day, Ige was still so unfamiliar to some voters, I heard a fellow refer to him as “the Japanese guy running against Abercrombie.”
A key reason Abercrombie became Hawaii’s first incumbent governor to lose a primary election is what I call the “Wot, Boddah You? “ factor.
Boddah You (bah dah YOU) or Why, Boddah You? in pidgin or Hawaiian Creole English means, “Whaaat, you got a problem with what I am doing?” Or more bluntly, “You don’t like what I am doing? Well, F-bomb you.”
In pidgin, this is known as “attitude” or “get attitude.” And it is not a nice way for a politician to “ ack” or act.
Honolulu City Councilmember Ann Kobayashi sign waves with Gov. Abercrombie at the corner of South King and Ward before his last campaign rally of the Primary season on August 5, 2014.
PF Bentley/Civil Beat
Almost from the beginning of his first year in office, Abercrombie began to belittle and blame his critics, sometimes shouting them down — most famously on Maui. Abercrombie’s heated exchange with a group of Maui nurses in May 2011 was recorded on amateur video and went viral. The governor leaned forward to shout and point his finger at a nurse who questioned him about a proposed 5 percent pay cut for public sector nurses, which at the time was part of his administration’s proposed budget.
It wasn’t so much what Abercrombie said as how he said it. It was like he was trying to pick a fight with the poor nurse. Wot, boddah you?
Randy Perreira, the head of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, Hawaii’s largest public workers union, says what Abercrombie did in office “totally belied what he promised when he ran for office four years ago: an inclusive, collaborative government, a new day of cooperation and civility.”
“We all thought here is this grandfatherly, college professor coming home from Washington to set Hawaii right,” Perreira says.
Instead, he says, from the beginning it turned out to be the opposite with Abercrombie berating people and saying things he didn’t need to say.
“Neil seemed to have the Midas touch in reverse. Everything he touched turned to stone,” Perreira says.
With Abercrombie it was clear even before his first year in office was over that the public didn’t like him.
When he was booed and shouted at by public workers during a February 2011 legislative hearing on his proposal to cut Medicare reimbursements for retired public workers, the governor was asked later by a reporter if he was surprised by the negative reaction.
This could be also called the High Makamaka factor, which lead to Abercrombie’s downfall.
Abercrombie answered, “I am the governor, I am not your pal, I am not your counselor. I am your governor. And I am determined to be truthful with everyone about what we will have to do together to survive.”
Abercrombie was saying the right thing, which is that as a leader you have to take tough stands and you can’t expect everyone to like you. But after it was widely quoted, usually out of context, it translated to many to mean what is called in pidgin “tantaran,” which means “I wear the crown and you don’t. What I do matters. I’m elected. You have to do it because I say so.”
This could be also called the High Makamaka factor, which lead to Abercrombie’s downfall. Abercrombie would have done well to listen to the wisdom of the late entertainer Don Ho who said, “The bigger you are, the smaller you must act.” Be humble not “tantaran.”
And, talk about things that didn’t need to be said: Abercrombie didn’t need to infuriate Hawaii’s hundreds of thousands of football fans when he questioned the $4 million the state pays to the National Football League to host the Pro Bowl.
Abercrombie said the Pro Bowl “happens to be an easy target because it is so stupid. You can’t do things like give $4 million to a $9 billion football industry and not give money to children.”
Abercrombie’s logic was flawless but the way he expressed himself was a disaster to his tailgating, football loving, former supporters. In pidgin it was “irraz” — irrational, annoying, irritating. To say something like that is to seem out of control, to “Make A (make ass), make a fool of yourself, as in “Eh, no make A.”
Abercrombie lost touch.
It wasn’t just Abercrombie’s “irraz” way of talking. It was the unexpected things he did that left his supporters shaking their heads. As the months wore on, different constituencies who had rallied to support him started to feel marginalized and betrayed.
In pidgin, these unexpected twists generated the “Haaah??” factor, meaning “ Wot?” or “How could you?” “What were you thinking? Haaah?”
Old folks were astounded when Abercrombie moved to tax the pensions of any retiree receiving more than $37, 500 in benefits.
Advocates of transparency in government were surprised when Abercrombie refused to release the names of court nominees from the state Judicial Selection Commission. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser sued for disclosure of the names and won in Circuit Court.
This was the same governor who had promised to be open.
Environmentalists were taken aback when Abercrombie failed to straighten out elements of the rail transit contract they thought were egregious. And to fight for farmland and open space. Instead, Abercrombie supported the Hoopili and Koa Ridge projects on Oahu. Also, environmentalists were angered by his backing of the Public Lands Development Corporation, an agency formed to fast-track development of state lands.
“He managed to alienate every environmentalist who supported him,” said author and former political reporter Tom Coffman.
Coffman had volunteered to help Abercrombie, but he said he drifted away from him when he saw the governor doing the opposite of what he had promised.
Many other residents say they lost faith when they perceived Abercrombie was giving up necessary governmental oversight to allow Kakaako to turn into a free-for-all zone for any developer who poured money into Abercrombie’s campaign. It was a perception that stuck as more concrete towers began to rise up to block out views of the Koolau mountains.
In pidgin, this is the “Fo Real?” factor. Meaning “what do you think you are doing? Are you Fo Real?”
Abercrombie’s logic was flawless but the way he expressed himself was a disaster.
Former Gov. Ben Cayetano, once a close ally of Abercrombie, says “Neil went off the deep end with developers. He supported plans that included new buildings higher than 600 feet tall. Never in my wildest dream did I believe he would support something like that.”
Or in pidgin: Is he Fo Real?
A pidgin amplification of what Cayetano is saying: “No, shame, Neil. No shame, you.” Meaning “Wow, Abercrombie, doesn’t anything embarrass you?”
Political analyst Dylan Nonaka, a former executive director of the Hawaii Republican Party, told me five months ago Abercrombie ‘s political career was finished. He told me then Abercrombie would lose to David Ige by double digits.
Nonaka said “Abercrombie has lost the trust of the people. Once you lose trust, you are a dead duck in politics.”
How exactly did Abercrombie, who had been successfully elected to public office for 40 years, lose the trust of so many voters? The feisty Abercrombie voters loved when he was a Congressman far away in Washington. Who knows exactly, But everything became “all hammajang”, all messed up.
There was no going back. Once you “stay all hammajang, you stay pau.”
It is over.
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Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.