- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Hawaii’s Neil Abercrombie is finding trouble in paradise as he makes the rocky transition from longtime congressman to first-time governor.

Elected at the height of a volcanic budget battle, Mr. Abercrombie has jumped from crisis to crisis since his January swearing-in. Some of his headaches, such as the state’s budget deficit, have been beyond his control, while others, including his swat at the NFL Pro Bowl, are largely of his own making.

His favorability rating has hovered at about 50 percent in the 10 months since he took office, a surprisingly anemic number for a previously popular Democrat in the nation’s bluest state. Mr. Abercrombie may still have sand between his toes and a lei around his neck, but the honeymoon is definitely over.

“Neil has always had a reputation here for being kind of a loudmouth, but one who gets along with people very well,” said Neal Milner, a political science professor emeritus as the University of Hawaii. “He’s lost that aura of being competent and telling it like it is. Instead of being seen as provocative, and having that work for him, he’s beginning to be seen as kind of clumsy.”

It doesn’t help that his predecessor, two-term Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, enjoyed higher job-approval ratings her first year despite dealing with a Democratic Legislature every year. Mrs. Lingle announced Tuesday that she would run for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Daniel K. Akaka in 2012.

Faced with a budget shortfall that would hit $1 billion, Mr. Abercrombie tangled with the state employees’ unions over pay cuts and cost increases on benefits. In an amateur video that went viral on YouTube, he’s seen arguing with a nurse during a public meeting in May.

He called it “so stupid” to pay $4 million for the rights to host the Pro Bowl, even though critics say the event brings in seven times that in tourism spending. He reacted to questions about his support for cutting Medicare benefits for retired public workers by saying, “I am the governor. I’m not your pal,” which has become the most oft-quoted statement thus far of his term.

Mr. Abercrombie’s latest public-relations problem comes with the sudden resignations in October of four top staff members, including Chief of Staff Amy Asselbaye and Deputy Chief of Staff Andrew Aoki. The reason given was that they wanted to spend more time with their families, but their abrupt departures have led to an impression of disarray in the governor’s office.

“Now you have people asking, ‘Is this a sign of discontent? Is this cleaning house?’” said John Hart, communications professor at Hawaii Pacific University.

Mr. Hart said part of the problem lies with Mr. Abercrombie’s changing image. During the primary campaign, he played the easygoing “good cop” to former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann’s combative “bad cop.”

“The perception was that Neil was the non-Hannemann, that he was this old hippie who was all about ‘aloha,’ ” said Mr. Hart. “So when he hit the ground running and took some positions that the unions didn’t like, and took a position against the Pro Bowl — this wasn’t the Neil people were expecting.”

Mr. Abercrombie has begun replacing the departing staffers with experienced government hands. Analysts say the staff resignations could be simply a case of former campaign workers leaving after staying on to get the administration started.

“Each of them decided to make a change in their lives and felt this was the opportune time to make a transition before the legislative session starts in January,” said Abercrombie press secretary Donalyn Dela Cruz in an email. “These were decisions that they made on their own, and the governor is grateful to them for the sacrifices that they’ve made and is also respectful of the fact that they want to commit themselves to their children at this point in their lives.”

During his campaign, Mr. Abercrombie promoted what he called his “New Day in Hawaii” plan, which included economic growth and investment in education. The tight economic climate has made it difficult to implement much of his proposal.

At the same time, Mr. Abercrombie has made inroads in reducing homelessness, one of the key points of his plan.

“It’s not easy being governor anywhere right now,” Mr. Hart said.

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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