Forty Years Of Abercrombie

On Monday, Neil Abercrombie took the oath of office as Hawaii’s seventh governor since statehood. As my mammy used to say, “Whooda’ thunk it?”

When I first met him 40 years ago, we were both students in the doctoral program in American studies at the University of Hawaii. While we all wore long hair and funny clothes in those days, Neil wore his hair the longest, his clothes the funniest – from stompin’boots to brightly colored vests and the multicolored bag he wore. It contained a hairbrush that he’d pull out from time to time stroke those long locks.

But he was deadly serious about his politics, and in 1970 they revolved around opposition to the war in Vietnam. Abercrombie had led campus demonstrations against the war, but when I arrived in August of that year he had carried his crusade into electoral politics.

Complete with flowing cape and an “S” on his chest, the cartoon on his campaign handouts billed Abercrombie a “Super Senator.” He ran in the Democratic primary for United States Senate against wealthy broadcaster Cec Heftel and environmentalist Tony Hodges. He didn’t have a chance, but he brought all the juice to the campaign. So much juice that, although I hadn’t even registered to vote in my newly adopted state, I found myself passing out his leaflets amid traffic backed up on Red Hill.

We were teaching assistants in the same large introductory American studies class. The TAs were all assigned to give two to three lectures. Students yawned and read their issues of Ka Leo through mine; they practically danced in the aisles when Neil spoke. He strode across the Webster Hall stage, mixing erudition with humor, soaring rhetoric and new age politics. He was a one-man light show. Students loved him.

I didn’t always love Neil in the two doctoral seminars we took together. They were small classes of six to eight students, and a dyed-in-the-wool Goldwater Republican was one of the other students. Too often the book we had been assigned was forgotten as the two of them argued politics. It got old. Nor did I love Neil when I took a job as an assistant professor of history at then West Oahu College. On our first day of registration in 1976, Neil walked a picket line with members of the environmental group Life of the Land. Their signs denounced our school as nothing more than a “developer’s ripoff.”

By then Neil was in the midst of his first term as Manoa’s state representative. There he made common cause and lasting friendships with future Gov. Ben Cayetano and future superintendent of education Charles Toguchi. As representatives and later senators, they became the bane of the Democrats’ legislative leadership and, occasionally, of Democratic Gov. George Ariyoshi. But they – and especially Neil – became the delight of the media. They were feisty independents, and Neil was the most quotable among them. He made a scribbler’s job easy.

In 1986, Neil won a special election to Congress but lost his bid for the full term. Then – out of office – received a patronage job from friend Toguchi at the DOE. In 1988, he won a term on the Honolulu City Council.

Neil went to Congress for good in 1990, and there he made this liberal proud. He served on the House Armed Services Committee where he supported American service members and protected Hawaii’s bases, but also voted against George W. Bush’s fruitless invasion of Iraq.

His hair’s shorter now and his clothes anything but funny – maybe even on the drab side. But from time to time, I get the feeling that Neil the outsider is still there. And at this uncertain moment in our state’s and nation’s history, that could bode well for us all.

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