A rock-hard constant in the life of Neil Abercrombie is his love for the YMCA and lifting weights.
“I would come here every day if I could,” the former governor says.
“I never hear a mean thing said here or feel a bad vibe,” he says. “All people want to do is help.”
We are in the weight room of the Nuuanu Y, where Civil Beat photographer Cory Lum is taking pictures while I converse with Abercrombie about what he’s been doing in the seven months after his gubernatorial primary election defeat by David Ige.
I interviewed Abercrombie in this same YMCA weight room in 2010, the day before his upset primary election victory over Mufi Hannemann, after which Abercrombie went on to become Hawaii’s seventh elected governor.
Now for the first time in 40 years, Abercrombie the politician is Abercrombie the private citizen.
As he huffs through three repetitions of standing barbell curls, I ask him what he misses most about being governor.
Abercrombie gives a sincere, politically correct answer: “I miss working with the people — the dedicated people I worked with for whom public service was not a phase but a way of life.”
But he quickly adds, “What I don’t miss is the phony drama, the drama that is created by the instant commentary that is antithetic to the spreading of knowledge, drama that is created by a lack of understanding.
“It is strange but the more access we have to the communications media, the less access we have to real knowledge.”
Abercrombie means the kind of vacuousness that Karl Taro Greenfeld described so vividly in his New York Times article, “Faking Cultural Literacy.”
“What matters to us awash in petabytes of data is not necessarily having consumed this content first-hand but simply knowing that it exists – and having a position on it, being able to engage in chatter about it,” Greenfeld wrote. “We come perilously close to performing a pastiche of knowledgeability that is really a new model of know-nothingness.”
“It has never been so easy to pretend to know so much without actually knowing anything,” Greenfeld wrote.
Abercrombie, a 20th century man operating in a 21st century world, says he yearns for the days before the digital onslaught when people had conversations, focused, listened and shared different perspectives — when they based their opinions on carefully gathered facts from reading and talking, rather than on sensationalized, out-of-context statements cherry-picked off the Internet.
“Real dialogue with the idea of resolving an issue has virtually disappeared,” he says. “People react now, they don’t reflect. A democracy needs reflection.”
It is funky to be having such a serious conversation in a weight room.
Maybe I am imagining it but a young man next to us seems to be purposefully clanging his weights down on the ground, hard and loud, making me wince each time a barbell slams onto the floor. Maybe the weight lifter doesn’t think I should be standing there in my dress and high heels, taking notes. It’s probably me just imagining that. After all, Abercrombie says people here are kind.
Abercrombie is hugged by office worker Chelsey Yadao as she leaves the weight room to shower before heading for work.
“The governor has always been such an inspiration. He keeps fit. He keeps the aging process down,” says Yadao.
Abercrombie’s main focus in the gym used to be bench pressing. In 2010, he reached his goal of lifting 200 pounds more than his age, when on his 72nd birthday he bench-pressed 272 pounds.
Now with a strained shoulder, he’s lightening up, concentrating on the exercise machines and free weights.
He has lost 30 pounds, going from 215 to 185.
“Want to know my magic formula? It will save you a lot of money. Do more cardio and eat fewer calories. It’s foolproof,” he laughs.
He is wearing a faded navy-blue T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, a Team Abercrombie campaign emblem on the front. “I guess I won’t be needing this now,” he says.
Will he ever run for political office again? “No, I am running away,” he smiles.
Abercrombie says that he doesn’t miss being an elected official because “I have an inner life.”
“It was never my life to be the governor or a member of Congress. Those were roles I sought and I played them to the best of my ability, but when they were over I went on with my life.”
“In some ways,” he says, “it is like being an actor. If you are an actor and you confuse the role you are playing with your true self, you are in serious trouble. My life was never the role.”
“I am in the best shape I have ever been in my life.” — Neil Abercrombie
I ask if he thinks his bombastic personality might have done him in with the electorate.
He says, “I am who I am. I am straightforward and open. Nothing changed about me. People knew what I was like. I have always been feisty. But sometimes a person’s virtue can be their vice, especially in the Internet age when what you say is isolated and ramped up and takes on a life of its own. But you can’t let that get to you.”
Since his primary election loss in August, Abercrombie has traveled to Morocco, partially, he says, for a vacation, partially for business. He has opened a consulting business on North King Street in Chinatown where he goes most days after the gym.
The two-room, solo person office is furnished with a desk and chairs he purchased decades ago from the Rattan Art Gallery in Kaimuki for his Hawaii congressional office.
Abercrombie says he doesn’t want to name his clients. He says he is giving them business advice about Washington, D.C., matters to help when they have difficulty understanding and navigating their way through federal regulations. He says he is advising his clients but not lobbying for them.
Abercrombie and his wife, Nancie Caraway, a University of Hawaii political science professor, are renting an apartment on the ocean at Diamond Head while their Manoa home is remodeled. He says the goal of the remodeling is to transform the house they saved for 23 years to purchase into an elderly-friendly residence, so as they age it will be possible for them to remain there the rest of their lives.
He is hoping to live a long, energetic life. “I am in the best shape I have ever been in my life,” he says. “When you are young you take your physical health for granted.”
Now at age 76 he works at it. “If you fail to stay active, your muscles atrophy. You deteriorate and disappear. Your sense of self diminishes.
“Exercise wakes up everything, both your physical and mental acuity. You expend energy to grow energy.”
I asked Abercrombie why as a long-time legislator he had such a tough time persuading Hawaii’s lawmakers to support his initiatives.
He says it is because times have changed from when he first entered public service. “Too many people in the Legislature today are political entrepreneurs. Being a lawmaker is their only job. They worry about getting re-elected. They are risk-adverse.
“I thought the Legislature was going to be more supportive but it wasn’t. I was asking them to do things they didn’t want to do but had to be done.”
Abercrombie is talking about the legislative and public worker union pushback over budget cuts he enforced when he successfully reduced the state’s $700 million budget deficit.
Union members and some lawmakers cringed when faced with Abercrombie’s more politically unpopular proposals such as a 5 percent across the board pay cut for public workers and his unsuccessful move to take away the current Medicare Part B reimbursement checks for public worker retirees.
All people on Social Security have their payments for their Medicare Part B coverage automatically deducted from their monthly Social Security checks. But in Hawaii, the state reimburses 30,000 government retirees and their spouses every quarter for the premiums. The reimbursements are an extremely generous employee benefit unheard of in the private sector.
“I am content that I said what needed to be said and did what needed to be done.”
Abercrombie says he was astounded when some state retirees said to him, “ Eh, governor, why did you bring this up? Nobody knew we were getting the money back.” He says another retiree said, “Eh, Neil. Don’t take the checks away. That’s my Vegas money.”
Abercrombie says he mourns the fact that people are so individualistic these days, so unwilling to pull together for the benefit of others.
“Some workers would rather keep their Vegas funds than free up money to buy laptops to make sure that Hawaii’s public school children can keep up in the digital age. The days are gone when we sacrificed for the kids.”
I ask Abercrombie if looking back now, there is anything he would have done differently,
He says, “I am content that I said what needed to be said and did what needed to be done. I turned the economy around. The state is in a good position with a good credit rating with positive interest rates. Unemployment went down.
“I pushed legislation that couldn’t be ignored to start paying down the unfunded liability in the public employees pension fund.”
He points with pride to other accomplishments, such as adding a fourth lane on the H-1 Freeway both ways from Punahou Street to Middle Street to speed up the traffic.
Also, he mentions his success at reaching a settlement with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to give OHA 25 acres of prime oceanfront land at Kakaako as payment for rental claims on lands formerly owned by the Hawaiian Kingdom.
“I may not be everything everyone wanted,” Abercrombie says, “but in terms of environmental stewardship I will put my Department of Land and Natural Resources director William Aila up against anyone. My Cabinet members were superb.”
As for victories for the environment, Abercrombie mentions his administration’s successful lobbying to get the world’s largest conservation event, World Conservation Congress, to be held in Hawaii for the first time, and his successful effort to preserve in perpetuity more than 600 acres at Turtle Bay.
“You may not agree but if you look carefully at what I accomplished, I deserved a second term.”
Abercrombie says his biggest sadness was his failure to win public support for his plan to use public money for private partnerships for preschool education for all of Hawaii’s 17,200 4-year-olds.
“You may not agree but if you look carefully at what I accomplished, I deserved a second term.”
Last year, voters rejected a constitutional amendment to allow the state to use public funds to subsidize private preschools. Hawaii is one of 11 states without a state-funded preschool system. The teachers’ union fought Abercrombie’s efforts to create preschool parity.
And Gov. David Ige, who was endorsed by the teachers’ union, continues to oppose public-private partnerships for preschool education.
“There have been a thousand excuses, yet you can see the educational benefits instantly when a child has the opportunity to go to preschool,” says Abercrombie. “The teachers’ union members were willing to sacrifice the kids in a minute when they thought the union would lose total control of the preschool jobs.”
Abercrombie is also disappointed by his inability to persuade lawmakers to generate enough money to insure that every public school student in the state has access to a laptop.
Abercrombie managed to get the ball rolling when Hawaiian Electric Industries and Hawaii Electric Light Co. partnered with the state to donated laptops to all the students and teachers at Keaau Elementary and Intermediate Schools on Hawaii Island.
And in 2013-2014, lawmakers appropriated $8.2 million for a laptop pilot project at eight public schools across the state. But the effort is still far short of what Abercrombie envisioned.
“Without laptops, Hawaii’s public school children are condemned to falling backwards in 21st century learning,” he says.
He says he’s been surprised by the number of people who stop him, sometimes even in the dark of night when he is walking Kanoa and imagines no one will recognize him as he trudges along in his slippers, T-shirt and cap.
“The people are so pleasant, so encouraging. They say ‘you took the heat and you paid for it. You did it for us. Thank you.’ There is never a mean comment.”
“It has been an honor. Hopefully, I have used good judgment. I have had a great batting average, losing only three elections in 40 years. And they were primary elections. I won every general election I entered.”
Abercrombie says his guiding light the whole way has been to not get attached.
“It’s knowing it isn’t my office. It is the people’s office. I will occupy it only as long as the people want me.”
Abercrombie may be out of public office, yet after four decades it is difficult not to miss his energetic, forthright and colorful personality.