Sunday, October 9, 2011

Just sayin’ : Gov. Abercrombie’s tippy canoe

“Politics is poetry, but governing is prose,” former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo once said.

For Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie, this sentiment never rang more true than this past week, when four of his top staffers slipped over the side of his beloved canoe of state. Abercrombie, a firebrand in Congress and on the campaign trail, ran aground against the unbending reef of the old-style Democratic political machine, backed by the solid union presence that defines Hawaii.

First to go were Chief of Staff Amy Asselbaye and Deputy Chief of Staff Andrew Aoki, purportedly to spend more time with their families -- pretty much the same families they had during more than a decade of serving Abercrombie in Congress and later coordinating a slam-dunk campaign against political heavyweight and former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann. Next went Abercrombie’s public face: Communications Director Josh Levinson and Deputy Communications Director Laurie Au.

The four departures were the most public of Abercrombie’s 11-month tenure. But they weren’t the first.

Dr. Neal Palafox resigned his nomination to become Department of Health director in January, after being asked to resign for reasons the administration kept private. Next went Hawaiian Home Lands Deputy Director Bobby Hall, who resigned in May, a couple months after his appointment. In September, Human Resources Development Director Sunshine Topping left, also citing family reasons. Vice director of Hawaii State Civil Defense, Ed Teixeira, resigned last week, citing unspecified “changes” he didn't agree with.

Abercrombie won praise for bringing in a young government team – most in their early 40s -- to spearhead his New Day pledge. In a column titled, “Youth movement's fresh legs to carry Abercrombie's agenda,” longtime political wag David Shapiro noted, “It's to Abercrombie's credit that he seems committed to opening the door to a new generation and giving more seats at the table to those who will have to live with the decisions made today.”

But that youthful outlook didn’t sit well with many of the old-line Democrats. And the lack of experience transforming Abercrombie the firebrand Congressman into Abercrombie the solid, stable governor made matters worse.

“Several sources said Asselbaye and Aoki appeared devoted to Abercrombie's policy agenda and had the right instincts about insulating the governor from his older allies. But the young advisers did not have the gravitas or the relationships with influential Democrats and business and labor leaders outside the state Capitol to effectively contain the governor's impulses,” reported Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Derrick DePledge.

“The job of controlling Abercrombie fell to Asselbaye. But she had never run an executive office before, and her skills did not lend themselves to the kind of back-room back-slapping required to govern,” said Honolulu Civil Beat’s Chad Blair.

Granted, there have been better times to be a chief executive officer. The national and international economic slumps have devastated tourism, the primary economic engine. People are cranky and looking for targets for their displeasure.

“The truth is that the canoe, which is our beloved Hawaii, could capsize,” said a prescient Abercrombie in his January State of the State address. “We re in that unnerving moment when we could all huli.”

But it’s not too late. Abercrombie has served less than a year of his four-year term. He can pull his leadership back together, re-ignite that dream, deploy that charisma that has taken him so far. Perhaps there’s a bit of bending that can be undertaken by both sides. Maybe it’s time the old guards loosen some of that stranglehold and help Hawaii move into that New Day.

“Let us right our canoe,” Abercrombie said in his address, “Let us act in a pono way and begin our journey back to the heart of our island home with humble hearts and above all, with aloha for each other.”

Just sayin’.