Martin Hamburger has a mainland style — one that he’d prefer you describe as “whimsical” — that’s become popular with Hawaii politicians.
The Washington, D.C.-based consultant is behind some of the state’s most recognizable recent advertising campaigns, including one that sank the comeback attempt of former Gov. Ben Cayetano.
But Hamburger has mostly used his sense of humor and slick television stylings to cement his foothold in the islands.
In 2014, for instance, when Gov. Neil Abercrombie was on the precipice of suffering an upset defeat, Hamburger pumped out an ad simply named, “Cab.”
The spot showed a smiling Abercrombie behind the wheel of a yellow checkered cab, a vehicle that was once as much a part of the former congressman’s political persona as his flowing long hair and Jerry Garcia beard. The hope was to paint Abercrombie as a nice guy when his reputation was suffering from a perception that was quite the opposite.
Abercrombie still lost to state Sen. David Ige, a relative unknown, in a landslide. But Hamburger wasn’t skunked. That same year, Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui hired Hamburger to help him win re-election.
Tsutsui had his own problem — his name. It wasn’t the most recognizable. It was also hard to pronounce. That’s when Hamburger launched the ad titled, “Call Me Shan.”
Abercrombie said the ad defined Tsutsui’s campaign. He cruised to victory.
“The second that ad came out I knew it was going to score,” Abercrombie said. “It could not have been better.”
Hawaii’s known as an insular place, especially for outsiders like Hamburger who’s spent several decades in Washington. He said he was able to make inroads here in large part because of his ability to listen to his clients, especially as they discussed the nuances of island politics.
“People from every state say, ‘Things here are different.’ But things here really are different,” Hamburger said during an interview with Civil Beat on the lawn of Iolani Palace in downtown Honolulu.
Hamburger got his start in Hawaii in 2010 working for Kirk Caldwell, who at the time was running for Honolulu mayor. Hamburger said he was connected through a friend who worked with John White, a local political consultant who was helping with Caldwell’s campaign.
His next gig came in 2012 with the Pacific Resource Partnership, which was trying to prevent former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano from being elected Honolulu mayor.
PRP, which was headed by White, launched a super PAC to take out Cayetano, who wanted to stop the city from proceeding with its multibillion-dollar commuter rail project. Rail was supported by the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters, the union that was bankrolling PRP.
It was an ugly campaign that used political tactics not seen on the islands before, such as micro-targeting voters.
But it was PRP’s decision to flood the airwaves with negative advertising about Cayetano’s record of pardons and political favors that truly defined the 2012 mayoral campaign.
Cayetano eventually sued PRP for defamation and won a legal settlement worth $125,000 and a public apology.
Hamburger said that while there are aspects of the 2012 campaign that he regrets, he sticks by the substance of the ads, especially those related to Cayetano’s gubernatorial pardons.
“I’m very cautious about everything I write,” Hamburger said. “We had factual backing for every claim we made.”
Hamburger’s work with Caldwell, White and PRP led to more opportunities. State campaign spending data shows local political campaigns, beginning with Caldwell’s in 2010, have paid Hamburger’s company more than $630,000.
Two of his current clients are Honolulu City Council Chairman Ernie Martin, who is running for Congress, and Bobby Bunda, who is trying to replace Martin on the council. The Martin TV spots have a similar soft tone to those Hamburger produced in 2014 for Abercrombie and Tsutsui.
Hamburger also worked in 2014 for the Hawaii Children’s Action Network to advocate for a constitutional amendment that would have allocated public funds for private early childhood education programs. Voters defeated the measure.
With a name like Hamburger, he says you can’t take yourself too seriously.
He’s been able to carve out a niche in the political consulting world that revolves around his sense of humor and that of his team. Even the website for his company, Hamburger Gibson Creative, is modeled after a diner.
“We’ve got a lot of food jokes all over the place,” he said. “There are other colleagues in our business that look like ad agencies on Madison Avenue or that try to look like law firms with embossed leather this and that. But I don’t think that tells anybody what they would be getting if they hired us.”
As political advertising shifts online, consultants are looking for new ways to target specific audiences to maximize influence. For Hamburger that means changing how he tells a joke.
“A lot of my TV ads are: Set-up. Set-up. Set-up. Punchline,” he said. “But now I have to do: Punchline. Explanation. Explanation. Explanation. And I should be able to do that. That’s a good challenge.”
Hamburger likes to talk about the aloha spirit when discussing why he thinks his consulting style has resonated in Hawaii. He said politicians here seem open to new ideas, and they’re willing to take the time to listen and consider what he’s pitching.
His island foothold helps him in other parts of the country, too. He said he can point to his ability to break into this market as a way of proving he can work anywhere.
As for what Hamburger takes back to the mainland, look no further than his aloha shirt. It’s Sig Zane, the very same brand worn by his first Hawaii client, Kirk Caldwell.
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