Sitting and conversing with U.S. Representative Neil Abercrombie is more enlivening than a cup of good coffee. I was lucky enough to share both this past weekend, meeting Neil to talk story at a Hana Highway java joint.
Abercrombie was just elected to his tenth two-year term in Washington D.C., after stints in the state legislature and as a Honolulu City Council member. Though elected by Oahu voters, he is nonetheless well known on the neighbor islands. A table of three at the coffee shop, apparently old friends, greeted him warmly as he entered. A steady stream of customers came by to shake his hand and share their greetings as we sat and spoke.
The reason for his visit to Maui was to address the kickoff of a coalition of church groups seeking to link their community efforts. The Faith Action for Community Equity (FACE) Maui met later that morning, with more than two dozen churches sending representatives to meet with non-profit organizations and unions to seek common ground in addressing jobs, affordable housing and immigration issues.
Abercrombie’s interest in FACE Maui falls much along the lines of 23-year old Barack Obama’s first community organizing amidst the churches and unions of Chicago. In fact, as a graduate student at the University of Hawaii (UH), Abercrombie knew Obama’s parents.
“Yes, I wanted to attend UH because it had the reputation for being culturally diverse and open,” Abercrombie said. “Much different than my East Coast roots [in Buffalo, New York].” He spread butter on a well-toasted English muffin as he continued. “Obama’s father was one of the first Africans to come to Manoa, and I knew his wife and young Barry, too.”
“Years later when I saw him elected to the Senate, I knew he was special, and his campaign proved to be a phenomenon,” said Abercrombie. “The Obama campaign went beyond frustration and anger at our government and its leaders and looked for political solutions. The Obama phenomenon also means that you and I, we all must be participating. There is recognition that politics does mean something. Once again, we hold the opportunity to bring the human dimension back into politics.”
Abercrombie’s own call to public service through politics traces back to 1970, when he ran for a U.S. Senate seat while still a UH grad student. He explained that his personal path was born out of the civil rights movement and the aloha spirit.
“Diversity defines us,” he said. “Diversity of opinions, cultures, races and ideas. We need politics that realizes Hawaii as a unique laboratory and opportunity. The ideas of `ohana [family] and lokahi [unity] are not just abstract. The Hawaiians knew that there is no way to separate humans from nature. They are inextricably linked together. It makes you feel good to use a reusable shopping bag. Why? Because you are contributing to changing the very dynamic of things.”
“What is needed more than anything else,” he continued, leaning forward to make his point, “is leadership without an alternative agenda. Planetary interest discussions took place in the context of readiness to expend incredible amounts of money for war. There was a reluctance to spend money to preserve the planet. Where are our priorities?
“We must understand the full flower of the thievery on the economic sector, and those who came in feeding like ravenous sharks. We gave hundreds of billions of dollars with no oversight to gangsters and con artists who got us into this mess.”
Abercrombie did not say if he was speaking directly about the federal bailout bill for Wall Street investment deals gone awry. He and fellow Hawaii Rep. Mazie Hirono both voted for the second version of that legislation, raising a few eyebrows. But an important consideration for both island legislators was the inclusion of renewable energy initiatives, added to sweeten the otherwise bitter pill of the financial bailout. Abercrombie also favored an earlier congressional bill that would have allowed more offshore drilling, but did so because of other elements contained in the legislation and because he recognizes the need for domestic, not imported, sources of carbon-based fuels to help ease the transition to renewable sources.
“What’s manifest is the local response,” he said. “‘Think globally, act locally’ is a necessity. Energy independence for Hawaii is the single most important thing we can control. It takes political commitment and leadership.”
Abercrombie is among the many co-sponsors of House Resolution 6709, an ambitious bipartisan bill “to greatly enhance the nation’s path toward energy independence and environmental, energy, economic, and national security by amending Federal policy to increase the production of domestic energy sources…” The measure has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment.
Abercrombie is one of a handful of Hawaii’s political leaders whose names have been recently mentioned as potential candidates to replace Governor Linda Lingle when her term expires at the end of 2010. While it is well understood that Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona will campaign to keep Republican leadership in the Governor’s mansion, only in recent days have murmurings of possible Democratic candidates for the post been discussed.
Weekend stories in The Maui News and Honolulu Advertiser noted that Abercrombie, Senate President Colleen Hanabusa and Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hanneman have all indicated interest in the 2010 gubernatorial race. Former U.S. Rep. Ed Case is also considered a possible candidate.
Hanabusa may find a constituency still unhappy with how she led the charge to support a special legislative session a year ago to overturn a court ruling and pass Act 2, which allowed Hawaii Superferry to sail in advance of preparing an environmental impact statement. Hanneman found sufficient opposition to his plans to fund and build a rail transit project to help address Oahu’s daily traffic tie-ups. Both would be required to resign from their current office upon filing papers to run for governor.
Though he and I did not discuss the issue of his running for governor, it’s clear that his dedication to serving the people of Hawaii will continue to dictate his future political choices. “I think it’s very, very important,” Abercrombie told the Advertiser, “that we leverage the governor position with regard to the congressional delegation and the fact that we have somebody who understands and is sympathetic to Hawaii in the White House. I think it’s an ideal opportunity.”
Al Gore’s recent New York Times op-ed outlined the momentous national leadership change and the great potential for making strides in addressing climate change while re-directing our economy toward renewable, domestic energy sources and technologies. His five-part plan highlighted solutions to re-power America and produce 100 percent of our electricity from carbon-free, non-combustive sources. The upshot of the commitment is not just greatly reduced greenhouse gas emissions, but creating millions of jobs that cannot be outsourced. Elements of the plan include providing large incentives for building concentrated solar and wind installations, creating a “smart grid” electric transmission system, helping the auto industry convert quickly to plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency and leading the way in addressing the planet’s carbon emissions by going beyond the Kyoto Protocol with a more effective treaty that could come out of talks in Copenhagen next year.
“It is crystal clear, the time for energy independence is now,” said Abercrombie, who generates quite a bit of it on his own. He acknowledged that the recently signed Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative was primarily created without public scrutiny, crafted by Hawaiian Electric with help from the Governor’s Office, the Consumer Advocate and the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
“If our public utility is supposed to be about serving the public good,” he asked, “then why do we have the highest electric rates in the nation?”
But, Abercrombie added, “we have to be very careful that we don’t get self-righteous. Jack Burns [Hawaii Governor from 1962-1974] once said, ‘Any damn fool can take a stand. The question is, what are you willing to do about it?’”
Rep. Neil Abercrombie’s track record of public service to Hawaii should be ample indication that he combines two essential qualities: the desire to meet the needs and dreams of Hawaii’s people and the political wherewithal to get things done. MTW