When Gov. Neil Abercrombie received a letter from U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, dated Dec. 17, 2012, the same day the longtime senator died, it urged him to appoint Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa as Inouye's successor in the U.S. Senate. The correspondence was marked "personal," the governor recalled in a phone interview Friday.
"When I got it, I inquired as to whether its contents were personal and private and meant for me, only. The answer I got was 'yes,'" he said, adding that he did not choose to make the letter public.
Nevertheless, it surfaced publicly, angering Inouye loyalists in the state's Democratic Party when Abercrombie chose to tap his then lieutenant governor, Brian Schatz, to succeed Inouye.
Now, of the disclosure that has put some wind in the sails of Abercrombie's Democratic primary challenger, state Senate Ways and Means Chairman David Ige, the governor said: "There obviously was a political agenda attached to that situation."
In a nearly hourlong interview, Abercrombie did not say who he believed released the letter, and he never referred to Ige by name or position, but he said accusations against him sound "like politics to me."
In an interview a week earlier at The Maui News, Ige discussed his candidacy for governor and insisted that he was running for governor and "not against Governor Abercrombie."
Abercrombie's interview with The Maui News was prompted by a request nearly a week earlier for comments on Ige's remarks.
The governor said that he had numerous conversations with Inouye before he died, and "I can assure you that I am well aware of what his preferences were and what he told me with regard to what my responsibilities and duties were as governor."
Abercrombie said Inouye encouraged him "to make the best decision that I could on behalf of the people of Hawaii."
The governor maintained that Schatz was his best choice, although Hanabusa and his other choice, Esther Kia'aina, then a deputy director in the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (later appointed as assistant secretary for Insular Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior), were also "very capable people to choose from."
Abercrombie said Schatz has a proven track record of leadership, chairing the state's Democratic Party, heading the Hawaii campaign for President Barack Obama and winning overwhelmingly the lieutenant governor's seat. And, the 41-year-old Schatz has the advantage of youth, being the same age as Inouye when he entered Congress and having the opportunity, over the years, to build up the same level of seniority in representing Hawaii, the governor said.
"My position was always that we needed to look at the future," he said, adding that Schatz could be in Congress a "long, long time." (Hanabusa, 62, is challenging Schatz for the Democratic nomination to fill Inouye's former Senate seat.)
Abercrombie acknowledged that there are those "with an alternate view" of Schatz's appointment and "that will be a factor in their decision-making."
However, "I hope that the Democratic Party is a multiple-issue party," he said. The decision had "absolutely nothing to do with the character or the quality of any other candidate."
When asked about Ige's comments a week earlier, questioning his leadership, among other things, Abercrombie said, repeatedly, that he was reluctant to respond to a "political commentary."
In the earlier interview, Ige said that he was encouraged by public opinion polls taken last month that put him within 10 percentage points or even with the governor in the Aug. 9 Democratic primary race. In one poll, Abercrombie received an unfavorable opinion from 45 percent of those surveyed and a favorable opinion from another 45 percent.
"Those numbers are pretty much par for the course across the country for any governor that's involved in making hard choices and tough decisions," the governor said. "The same polls showed that I was leading when it came to votes with respect to the primary."
Abercrombie said polls won't decide the governor's race.
"I'm pretty confident that the voters will be basing their decisions not on polls but on results that they see as being in their interest and the interest of the community of Hawaii," he said. "By nearly every metric I think the state is better off today than when I took office.
"When I came in, we were facing a horrendous $200 million-plus deficit, that we've turned around by making the tough fiscal decisions that need to be made," he said. "You have to have fiscal discipline, and you've got to look to the long run. . . . When I came in, there were furloughs. There were deficits. There was a complete lack of confidence in the economy. As you can see just from the recent Council on Revenues projections, the economy is not just humming along but is actually slated to improve next year and in the coming years."
Ige said that the Legislature, and not the governor, deserve credit for the state's current fiscal health.
Abercrombie said the state has more income than expenditures, giving it a positive balance, enabling the state to pay its bills and get strong backing from credit rating companies.
"We're paying down our unfunded liabilities," he said. "We are paying into our reserve funds. We're paying back the hurricane fund and the rainy day fund and so on that had to be tapped to meet our obligations."
Abercrombie said there's a flip side for state lawmakers who want to take credit for the state's fiscal strength.
"If you want to take credit for a positive balance or a surplus, will you also take credit then, and will the Legislature take credit for the deficit that I faced when I came in?" he asked. "You can't on the one hand claim credit when things are going well but deny responsibility when things are in the negative.
"I'm not accusing the Legislature of that," he said. "What I'm saying is that whoever had the responsibility legislatively and in the executive previously ended up handing me in December 2010 (when Abercrombie became governor) a deficit in the area of hundreds of millions of dollars."
The governor said that his administration's fiscal plan includes investing in Hawaii's infrastructure.
For Maui, those state investments include more than $7 million for a Waiehu Beach Road bridge, $3.3 million for Maui Memorial Medical Center and $4.5 million for the University of Hawaii Maui College's new science building, he said.
"We've made investments in infrastructure that have a positive value for Hawaii, not just now but in the future as well," Abercrombie said. "We're not looking at some year-to-year thing that curries political favor, but rather a long-term investment strategy in infrastructure that keeps money in this state; that puts together an infrastructure that's going to see to it that we get value from it and revenue from it."
Abercrombie said people who work in West Maui tend to live elsewhere "because we're not building enough housing."
The former member of Congress said that his responsibility for state government dates from entering the governor's office more than three years ago.
"What about those people who have had the responsibility in the Legislature for 10 years, 20 years, almost 30 years?" he asked. "Where have they been? Why are we still lacking the housing? Why are we still lacking the infrastructure?"
Abercrombie said he's also proud of the initiatives his administration has taken to raise the state's minimum wage and to promote early-childhood education.
When asked about his leadership style, which Ige characterized as being about "confrontation and division," Abercrombie said such remarks were "blithering generalities" that he couldn't comment on.
Nevertheless, he said, he's for initiatives, like early-childhood education.
"Is there really a division or confrontation about whether young children should get the best possible advantage in life? I don't think so," he said, rather his initiative has received "universal acceptance," although it has not advanced as fast as he would like.
"Nonetheless, we're moving forward from zero to accomplishments," Abercrombie said. "That has nothing to do with style. That has to do with leadership."
When he was asked about his appointment of former Central Maui senator and Senate President Shan Tsutsui as lieutenant governor to replace Schatz, Abercrombie said he "couldn't be happier."
"His work performance, his good judgment, his capacity for partnership, his optimism and his uplifting spirit is something that I treasure," he said. Tsutsui is "a remarkable young man with a great family. . . . My duty as governor is to encourage leadership for the future."
Abercrombie said serving as Hawaii's lieutenant governor has often been a path to becoming governor.
"I can't say enough good things about him," he said. "I see him as a partner in every way."
* Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.