Neil Abercrombie the MauiTime Interview

You locked us out!” says Neil Abercrombie, entering the MauiTime office in a buttoned-down Aloha shirt, hair slightly disheveled, a stack of papers under his arm and two campaign aides on his heels. And it’s true, though in our defense Abercrombie was running late—a product, he says, of an over-long engagement on the West side and a mix-up involving Maui’s public transportation system. Fortunately, we still found plenty of time to talk.

Abercrombie, a ten-term U.S. Congressman who resigned in February to run for governor, will face an array of pressing issues if he becomes Hawaii’s seventh chief executive. We discussed some of those issues with him, got his take on the state of national politics and even delved into the philosophy of fear. But first…

To read the interview with links and audio go to

OK, let’s address the elephant in the room. Hawaii just spent almost $1 million on a special election to replace you, and the winner, Republican Charles Djou, is your ideological opposite. Do you regret resigning?
I’m running for governor. You run for governor, you go all in. Political figures come and go. I have no claim to that office other than whatever faith and trust people put into me. You don’t have to look any further than the headlines in the Advertiser, where we voted all that stimulus money for education, for transportation, for health care, and we’re among the worst states in the country for actually putting that to work on people’s behalf. This state cries out for filling that leadership gap, that leadership vacuum. You can’t do that running part time pretending you’re a member of Congress. Once I made the decision [to run], I determined very quickly I’d have to campaign full time. I don’t think it’s an honorable thing to do to take a paycheck for one thing when you’re doing something else. As far as the election is concerned, it exemplifies one of the dilemmas that the [Democratic] Party has to respond to. It has nothing to do with me. The demographics of the voting population are changing significantly—you can’t just stand up anymore and say, ‘I’m a Democrat’ and expect to get elected. Or for that matter, ‘I’m a Republican.’ The Republican didn’t get the majority of votes in the special election, on the contrary—Mr. Djou got just about the number of votes that a representative of the Republican Party would be expected to get. It’s up to the Democrats now to put together a compelling candidacy. We’re in the midst of trying to figure that out.

Djou—and it would have been the same for Case or Hanabusa—has to run in the upcoming primary and general elections, meaning he has to start campaigning again almost immediately. Won’t that impede his ability to learn the ropes in Washington, let alone accomplish anything?
I can speak with some authority on this because I had exactly the same experience in 1986. This is not anything new for Hawaii, nor for the rest of the country. You cannot be appointed to the House of Representatives, you have to be elected. And state law requires that when there’s an opening, you have a special election. [In 1986] I was elected in September. At least this special election took place in May. In terms of learning the ropes, I guess I learned them pretty good—I was appointed to the Armed Services Committee and I was appointed again when I came back. You’re there to vote on issues; if you’re not prepared for that, you shouldn’t have run in the first place.

Education is a key part of your platform. One idea you’ve proposed is the “decentralization of authority…with principals in charge of budget, program and staff.” It sounds like you believe there is wasteful bureaucracy in our state school system, something the current governor has also said. Yet she’s had serious problems dealing with the unions. How will you succeed where she failed?
Having been a union organizer myself when I was at the University of Hawaii, and having been elected to the executive board of the AFL-CIO, and having been part of a negotiating group to put together the first contract that was offered to the faculty at the University of Hawaii, and having been the education chairman and been involved in supporting collective bargaining agreements for all of my legislative life, I don’t think that’ll be a difficulty for me. The governor, I think, regardless of what her motives or intentions were, put forward a program nothing like the one that I’m advocating. She wanted to have a series of boards of education, not just one but several. You want to talk about a proliferation of administrative overhead and hierarchy, that would have just compounded the problems that exist. I think it’s less a matter of waste, because I think the people who are involved in the current system are doing the best they can. I’ve known members of the Board of Education for years; many are personal friends. The issue is whether or not the Board of Education as presently constituted and the system of education we have is suitable for the 21st century. I think it is not. My proposal is hardly original with me. This emphasis on deemphasizing centrality of administration and diffusing authority and responsibility to the street level, to the school level, is something that’s either being implemented or worked on and proposed all over the country. With our centralized funding system, with statewide revenue being the basis for the dispersal of funding, this is an ideal opportunity to keep the advantages of a central fund [while] decentralizing the decision-making to the school level. Every principal I’ve talked to is eager to assume that responsibility; teachers couldn’t be happier about it. I’m putting my election on the line with this. If I’m elected, I’ll have a clear mandate. If I succeed, it’s because the public wants to have a revolution in education. 

Are you prepared to promise the voters that if you’re elected, Furlough Fridays will be a thing of the past—permanently?
It’s central to the theme I’m proposing. It’s more than reform of education; it’s completely reorienting it, systematically. So the answer is yes. In fact, I’ll say to you explicitly: I intend to take full responsibility for the restoration of public confidence in the school system. I have to do that. Because the governor, as we now know, is the final arbiter over the expenditure of funds. The Board of Education can’t authorize or appropriate or expend funds. The governor is the one who, for better or worse, has that control. 

Do you support civil union bill HB444 and would you sign it if you were governor?
Sure. Although I wish it hadn’t gotten to this stage; we should have settled this a long time ago. People’s civil rights are their civil rights. That shouldn’t be a question in the first place. 

Both your Democratic opponent, Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, and the presumed Republican nominee, Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona, have said they oppose HB444 on religious grounds. Do you think it’s appropriate for an elected official to let his religious beliefs guide public policy?
Well I think their religious beliefs will guide their view of life, and that always affects what you do in terms of public policy. And you certainly can have a position with regard to that, self-referencing your own beliefs. That’s what the First Amendment says, that the government shouldn’t make any law or interfere in any way with what people believe. But that works both ways—you cannot take your religious beliefs and foist them on someone else, not in the public arena. I think the best example of how to reconcile your public role with your private beliefs and philosophy is Governor Jack Burns, [Hawaii’s] first Democratic governor. Burns was a devout Roman Catholic, he went to Mass seven days a week. And he had grave reservations about the bill that passed the legislature when he became governor with regard to reproductive services, specifically whether someone could elect to have an abortion. He opposed it on religious grounds, but he allowed the bill to become law without his signature. His view was, he was making very clear what his belief was but he did not veto it because he felt that would thwart the will of the legislature, which had done the same kind of agonizing about it. I can’t think of anybody with greater integrity, nor can I think of a more clear way of indicating that we have separation of church and state in this country for a very good reason. Not separation of philosophy or belief or moral compasses or guides, but the incapacity under our Constitution to force your religious will on someone else.

Do you believe the counties should be allowed to keep their current share of the Transient Accommodations Tax?
I think we need to take a look at the whole thing. This is all policy stuff. I was there [at the state legislature] when they passed the so-called “Transient Accommodations Tax.” It’s a hotel room tax—let’s call it what it is. This is just a division of the funds coming in. However rational or useful it was, a determination was made that a certain percentage should go to the counties. It makes sense to do that. Whether the formula is the right one, I don’t know and I don’t much care. The figure is arbitrary to begin with, but it’s probably not capricious. Maybe we could revisit the formula to try and make it more useful to the counties, but I have no objection on any philosophical or legislative basis for sharing it; we should be sharing it. What we need to do is figure out how it’s being spent. That’s the question. Who controls this money? The governor has just allowed a bill to become law that lets this money be spent in secret. Forget about whether the county gets a dollar more or a dollar less, the question is, who’s making that decision? Is it being made in secret? And if it is, how are we going to get any accountability about the tens of millions of dollars that are being expended by a group of people who are appointed? The idea behind it, I was told, is that we don’t want anybody to know our marketing secrets. Excuse me? What marketing secrets are known among the Hawaii Tourism Authority that are unknown to the rest of the world? Is there some special kind of marketing deal that has sprung full-blown into their skulls? What are they, Saul on the way to Tarsus, falling on their okole and getting a revelation? We’ve got 70 or 80 million dollars a year being spent and allocated in secret. I’m much more worried about that.

Do you agree that energy independence and food security are two of the biggest issues facing Hawaii?
Absolutely, it’s in my platform.

What are some concrete steps you’d take to achieve both?
This points back to the rationale for my campaign, the reason I left Congress to run: the collapse of leadership. This is a leadership question. You’re not going to get any argument that we should be growing more of our own food. You know when I first heard that? The 1970s. We’re importing more food now than we were in the 1970s. So how’s it working out? Same with energy. I’ve been hearing for years that we shouldn’t be dependant on importing carbon-based fuel, ie oil, from Indonesia or wherever the heck we’re getting it today. So what are we gonna do? I look at energy independence and trying to utilize the advantages we have in terms of solar or wind or geothermal or biofuels or any combination thereof as a survival question. Those decisions have to start being made in 2011. Water issues are tied in as well. Look at what’s going on on Maui today, with this unseemly argument about stream flows, pitting taro farmers against plantation workers. That is antithetical to energy independence let alone food security let alone good public policy. We need to figure out, what is our water policy to begin with? It’s not a question of  who’s getting what. You wouldn’t have that argument if we had a good understanding of how to share the water we do have to maximize our capacity to be able to feed ourselves. When you start looking at the problem in front of you as opposed to a challenge between factions, that’s when you begin to get the answer. The specifics [of food security and energy independence] are the subject of another program. And it’s not that I don’t want to get into it, but I imagine the people who read MauiTime are up to their eyeballs in ideas and suggestions. It’s not that we lack proposals or game plans, it’s that we haven’t had the leadership and the will to say, this is where we’re going and there’s no turning back. 

You brought up the stream flow issue. Your colleague in Washington, Senator Inouye, recently pledged support for Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar, but parent company Alexander & Baldwin has made it clear that maintaining water rights is a prerequisite for keeping HC&S going, whether they’re producing sugar for consumption or fuel—
Well that’s what they say.

So you don’t believe them?
It’s not that I don’t believe them, but you can have all the intentions in the world. Look what happened to Maui Land & Pine. I’m quite familiar with this issue; I helped to keep sugar alive in this state for 20 years. And the reason for doing it, by the way, had nothing to do with capital versus labor or any of that, it had to do with fighting wage slavery in the rest of the world. Sugar is disappearing, not only in Hawaii but across the Mainland, for a very simple reason: no matter how productive you are, no matter how rich your yield, that doesn’t matter when you have global forces that can force wage slavery on you. That’s the reason that both pineapple and sugar went down. Now whether people lament that or think that history is falling apart, that’s immaterial to the point I’m raising. When it comes to agriculture, particularly plantation agriculture as we know it in Hawaii, it’s going to change regardless. We have to be prepared for that. That’s why we have to have a good water policy. Sure, I want to keep everybody working as long as possible. There’s nothing contradictory about saying you want to keep the plantation in business and at the same time be prepared for whatever transition has to be made. People can say whatever they want, but economic forces outside water will determine the outcome. Believe me, water will not be the principle or even, eventually, a peripheral consideration when it comes to whether these companies stay in business, or stay in the same kind of business.

Speaking of crops, as governor what steps would you take to make Hawaii’s medical marijuana law more workable? Do you support efforts like the one in California to legalize marijuana outright?
To the first question, you make it work by making it work, by committing to doing it. Whether it’s marijuana or any other drug, if it’s medically sanctioned for use, for relief of pain or any other symptoms, then of course it should be utilized. If you can advertise drugs on television for public consumption that include death as a side effect—I’ve seen this, as I’m sure you have. ‘Go ask your doctor.’ This isn’t even something that’s being ordered or prescribed by your doctor, you’re being urged to go see your doctor to see if you can use the drug. And it’s being stated on TV as possibly having a side effect of killing you! And someone’s worried about medical marijuana? We’re at a point of public idiocy. Now, I don’t want to move down the legalization side of it because that has so many variables it’ll actually interfere with the proper medical use of it. I’m willing to take a look at that down the line, but right now let’s get the medical use of any drug, marijuana or anything else, squared away. 

But philosophically, do you believe marijuana should be criminalized?
No, I don’t think so. It’s not a question of that, never has been in my mind. It’s a public health question. Just like alcohol. The question is how do we regard [marijuana] in terms of what sanctions we put on it. In that sense, I think it ranks pretty low compared to, say, white collar fraud. I wish they would spend a lot more time going after the Bernie Madoffs who destroyed people’s lives, or the Goldman Sachs who destroyed people’s lives. You want to talk about destruction of lives? They did a lot more with the derivatives and fake investments to destroy people than any drug probably did, including alcohol or nicotine, for that matter. So I’m not a big fan of prohibition. 

As someone who spent close to two decades in Washington, do you feel that partisan bickering and gridlock have gotten worse? What would you say to people who have given up on the ability of our national leaders to get anything done?
If they’ve given up, shame on them. As someone who has had the opportunity to travel the world, going into war zones and seeing what happens when people don’t have the opportunity to vote and participate, no matter how difficult it is, to say that you’re giving up on it? When we could be shot for what we’re doing right now? We wouldn’t survive this conversation in dozens of places around the world. So I don’t have much patience for that. I didn’t take a gun to get into office. I worked for it, I talked to people, I asked them to take a chance on me. I’m under no illusions that I’m the answer to everybody’s prayers for good government, but I ain’t bad. I listen and I try to exercise my judgement in a way that advances the public interest. In that context, it’s true that the rancorous opposition [in Washington] has gotten more acute, particularly since the late ’80s and early ’90s, when Newt Gingrich came into the Congress of the United States and evolved a theory, which he then put into practice, that the way for the Republican Party to come back into power and back into the majority in the House of Representatives was to tear the institution to pieces—to denigrate it, to belittle it, to accuse it, to engage in a public denunciation of the House and the people in it. And they succeeded in 1994. It was a bloodless revolution in the sense that gunshots weren’t fired, although there were militias operating as there are now. But it devoured [Gingrich] as well, and he was gone in four years. Because he brought people in who believed him. And when he said, ‘Look, that was just what we said to get elected,’ they thought it was on the level. And so they kept it up.

On the subject of distrust of government, what’s your take on the Tea Party movement and what impact do you think it’ll have on this election cycle?
They’ll have some [impact], not as much out here. But you can’t institutionalize a mood. The Tea Party is a reflection of an atmosphere. It has no object, other than to say, ‘We don’t like this.’ It is kind of a choked reaction to the idea that you’ve been shoved totally to the sidelines. You have no control over your life. Particularly when you’re being propagandized all day long that you get to make choices, always variations on the theme of you as consumer of goods. And when politics takes on the same aspect, when you’re just the consumer of whatever’s being fed to you by cynical sociopaths who have no other purpose in life than to manipulate and maneuver you into doing what they want you to do, then you have a situation like the one we have now with the Tea Party. They don’t like it, but they don’t know what to do about it. I ran into somebody recently who asked me if I [supported] the health care plan. I said, ‘Yes, I’m for this healthcare plan.’ ‘Well then I’m against you. The government is coming into our lives. It’s a government plan, I’m against it.’ So I said, ‘Well are you against the Veterans Administration?’ ‘Hell no, we can’t do enough for the veterans!’ ‘Well, that’s totally a government program, [like] Medicare and Social Security. I suppose you don’t want that either.’ Now some people say they don’t. They don’t want it right up until the time they need it. I’m citing that not so much to say they’re hypocrites, because I don’t think they are being hypocritical. They don’t make the connections. [It’s] an emotional reaction to being frozen out of participating in life. They feel their tax dollars are not well spent. They feel they’re being tapped and tapped hard and often and deep and they’re not getting out of it what they think they should. But the political consequence is that it dissipates into the ether. It’s like a wave. All waves dissipate into the sand. No matter what kind of kinetic energy is associated with them, they dissipate into the sand. 

But won’t people always have reasons to be frightened and disillusioned?
Sure. But the question is, what do you do about that? In fact, on the subject of fear, I brought something with me, a meditation from the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama says there are two types of fear. One is, a decision needs to be made, but what to do? Do I know what to do? You fear that you’re going to make the wrong decision. The other is the imaginary fear; we fear the consequences, we imagine all kinds of terrible things are going to happen because we feel totally out of control. He says the answer to the first one is, is the motivation selfish? If you lose your sense of selfishness, if your motivation is one of trying to do good and advance what is good and loving, you’ll lose that fear. The second one, you lose your imaginary fear if you become calm and realize that it really is in your imagination. All the demons we carry in ourselves are always trying to get control of us. That can take precedence over us if you lose your sense of a calm reflection that as humans we have faults, we have failures. So yes, there are lots of things to be fearful about. Heck, I’m in this campaign. Am I gonna lose? Am I gonna make the wrong decision? Did I say the wrong word? Did I get half a sentence out that I wish I could pull out of the air and bring back? All those things are operating in us every day. The question is, how are you going to regard that? As long as you’re trying to advance the public purpose, and doing it in a loving and kind way, at least you’ve got a chance to get on the right course.

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