After nearly three decades in Hawaii politics, in a career that has seen roughly as many dramatic wins as huge losses, Mufi Hannemann has not lost his self-confidence.
“I think that if I could talk to every person in this state, I’d win,” he told Civil Beat earlier this month. “I’d win.”
What he would win is the highest seat in the land, the governorship that he lost to Neil Abercrombie four years ago in the Democratic primary.
It’s a tall order for a tall man — 6 feet 7 inches — and Hannemann is well aware that the odds may be against him. But he is convinced that he is the best candidate for the job and that Hawaii voters are hungry for bold, nonpartisan leadership.
That’s why Hannemann is running as a third-party candidate in a race that also features Democrat David Ige, Republican Duke Aiona and Libertarian Jeff Davis.
Hannemann seems excited about his run, despite public opinion polls that have shown it’s a race between Ige and Aiona and that he might be playing the role of spoiler at best.
“What I’m doing is very different, very new,” he said. “I really have to speak to as many people as possible and frame what we are trying to do here, because people are so used to the same-old, same-old way of voting. In the general election in Hawaii, you vote for a Democrat or you vote for a Republican.”
Hannemann believes the “same-old, same-old,” a phrase he has employed numerous times during the general election, isn’t working.
“My message is this: Our most recent experience with a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature, what happened? At the end of the day, people sent a strong message: ‘It’s not working,'” he said, referring to Abercrombie’s four years in office.
Same goes for the other major party.
“I really have to speak to as many people as possible and frame what we are trying to do here, because people are so used to the same-old, same-old way of voting.” — Mufi Hannemann
“The last time we had a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature, what happened? Gridlock, just like what we are seeing in D.C.,” he said, referring to Linda Lingle’s eight years as governor prior to Abercrombie’s election. “One-hundred-five bills were vetoed by the governor, sent down to the Legislature. They were overturned, including a record 38 in one year.”
Hannemann, the former Honolulu mayor and City Council chairman, believes support for Ige and Aiona is “soft.” Aiona is still tied to Lingle as her lieutenant governor, Hannemann said, and is trying to take credit for things that worked under Lingle — like the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative — while distancing himself from the disappointments — like Furlough Fridays. Ige’s huge primary win, Hannemann argues, is “a manifestation” of voter discontent with the status quo. Hannemann believes many voted for Ige because they wanted to dump Abercrombie.
“So what I’m suggesting is, in life, when something doesn’t work, in athletics, when the same play doesn’t work, you do something new,” said Hannemann. “You try something different. This is what an independent candidacy means to me. This message is more meaningful than ever before.”
It’s a tough sell. Hawaii has never elected an independent candidate as governor. There are indications, however, that voters may gradually be warming to the idea nationally. The Hill reported last week that, “As Americans sour on partisan sniping this election cycles, many are turning towards independent candidates as a better option.” That trend has been most apparent in races for the U.S. Senate. Independents could “serve as spoilers” for Republicans in Kansas and South Dakota, says the Hill, and keep control of the chamber by Democrats. But independents are also a factor in races for governor, including in Maine. The reason?
“The problems are bigger than the parties. People are more important than the parties.” — Mufi Hannemann
“Independents, it seems, are the wave of the future,” The Hill suggests. “They’re harnessing Americans’ disillusionment with the parties, who are viewed increasingly poorly and as largely ineffective in voters’ minds.”
It is that disillusionment that Hannemann hopes to capitalize on here at home. He points to his time working for two Democratic presidents (Carter and Clinton) and two Republican presidents (Reagan and the first Bush) as an example of how he can reach across party lines.
“It’s part of my DNA to rise about the party and do what’s best for the people, and bring the best of the Democrats and Republicans in,” he said.
It’s not clear if the independent wave has washed ashore here. But there are examples of where it has had appeal.
The gubernatorial contest of 1994 was a four-person race, too, just like 2004. Democrat Ben Cayetano beat Republican Pat Saiki, but Best Party candidate Frank Fasi came in second. Green Party candidate Keoni Dudley finished fourth. The Best Party was Fasi’s creation and was for only that ’94 race.
The former Honolulu mayor ran successfully several times for mayor as a Republican and as Democrat. He ran unsuccessfully for governor as a Democrat twice and once again as an “Independent Democrat.” And he later sought his old seat back, only to lose three times as a nonpartisan candidate. He also ran for the U.S. Congress as a nonpartisan, losing to Democrat Ed Case, and to Hannemann in the 2004 mayoral election. (Fasi died in 2010.)
“Everything, I recognize, in life is perception, especially when you are in politics.” — Mufi Hannemann
Races for county mayors and councils are no longer partisan, and Hannemann likes to point out that he won a come-from-behind race against Duke Bainum in 2004 and was re-elected in a landslide in 2008 with 56 percent of the vote and 173,000 votes. Hannemann acknowledges that his loss to Abercrombie in 2010 was due in part to some voters being unhappy that he stepped down in the middle of his second term to run for governor. But he has never denied his ambitions for higher office. Besides, because of Fasi, election law was changed to require Honolulu mayors to resign when seeking another office.
But Hannemann has never been fully embraced by the Democratic Party of Hawaii. Many have wondered that, given his socially conservative views, whether he actually leans Republican. In fact, Hannemann’s interest in public service seems mostly to be about solving problems regardless of ideology. “The problems are bigger than the parties,” he said. “People are more important than the parties.”
Another challenge for Hannemann is the perception that he is a political loser. Not only did he lose badly to Abercrombie four years ago and against Tulsi Gabbard in a congressional race two years ago, he also lost two previous races for Congress.
But Hannemann has done the math.
“With 35 to 40 percent (of the vote), I can win this race,” he said, adding, “Yes, this race is an uphill battle.”
“My strength is my weakness. My strength is that I’m a big guy.” — Mufi Hannemann
Another set of “baggage” is his reputation in some circles. Hannemann has given that some thought, too.
“My strength is my weakness. My strength is that I’m a big guy,” he said. “Walk into a room? Everybody notices. But my strength too is that when I take a position on something … I need to speak in softer tones. … And it’s taken me a long time to understand that. Because I am not a bully. I’m not. Anybody who knows me well knows that. I mean, how can you be a bully and go on the radio show and do the kind of stuff I do? I sing at the drop of a hat.”
It’s true, Hannemann loves to break into song. And he favors pop and soft rock from the 1950s to the 1970s — this is a guy who will play Olivia Newton John’s 1974 hit “Have You Never Been Mellow” — and contemporary Hawaiian music.
“But everything, I recognize, in life is perception, especially when you are in politics,” he said. “If I were a shorter guy, if I were a woman, speaking as forcefully as I do at times, ‘He’s a fighter! He’s a fighter!’ But because I’m Mufi Hannemann, large, dark, Polynesian male, well, it’s believable when they say ‘He’s a bully.’ So that is something that I have consciously tried to overcome.”
Bottom line, Hannemann believes he’s the most qualified, experienced and educated candidate for governor. He continually reminds audiences that he is the only candidate running who has executive experience, has hired a cabinet and forged a budget.
Hannemann is proud of his record as mayor, bragging that he left the city in better shape than he found it. He did unpopular things, like increasing sewer fees, and his most defining achievement is his most controversial: securing a rail line from East Kapolei through downtown to Ala Moana Center. As a candidate for governor, his platform stresses cost of living issues. He makes energy and health care top priorities but also bringing back the Hawaii Superferry and bringing back a raceway track to Oahu.
Hannemann has been energized by the debates, where he thinks he has outperformed his opponents. Audiences are noticing, and Hannemann is trying to capitalize on that, too. On Sunday he tweeted out how Honolulu Star-Advertiser columnists David Shapiro and Richard Borecca, as well as Hawaii News Now political analyst Colin Moore, have recently sung his praises. He has used their glowing quotes in ads on the newspaper’s website.
The negative advertising from the national groups against Ige and Aiona has increased, but Hannemann thinks it will hurt both candidates, even though the ads are independent from the campaigns. “People in Hawaii don’t like negative campaigning,” he said, adding with a laugh that his campaign doesn’t have the money for those kind of attacks anyway.
“I really am in the best position to be the next governor. I’m hoping at least that four out of 10 people will get that.” — Mufi Hannemann
The Republican Governors Association, which has run ads tying Ige with the unpopular Abercrombie, is now starting to pay attention to Hannemann. On Monday it sent out an email blast titled “Ige And Mufi: More Of The Same.” Among other things, the RGA calls Hannemann a bully, short-tempered, a dirty campaigner and responsible for the increase in Oahu’s general excise tax to pay for rail. The fact that the RGA is paying attention to Hannemann, however, means it is now taking him seriously. Hannemann’s hope is that when voters mark their ballots, they’ll look to the “new and improved” Mufi Hannemann, as former UH football coach Dick Tomey describes him in his TV ads praising the candidate.
“I recognize my weaknesses, my faults,” Hannemann said. “But I also say that, of anybody that is running, I really am in the best position to be the next governor. So, I’m hoping at least that four out of 10 people will get that.”