Hawaii: First District|
Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D)
Last Updated June 1, 1999
Tourists in Honolulu see the airport and adjacent Hickam Air Force Base, the Arizona monument in Pearl Harbor, perhaps the downtown with its wondrously Victorian Iolani Palace, and of course Waikiki, with its 40-story hotels rising within a few feet of one another. This is tight-packed Hawaii, between the 3,000-foot Koolau Range and the beaches and harbor, where tropical bungalows and garden apartments house Hawaiians of all incomes. Here are Hawaii's largest shopping centers and its state university; here are neighborhoods where the rich overlook the ocean and neighborhoods where the relatively poor are packed into people-clogged streets. Hawaii's topography also jams cars into just a few freeways and avenues, where traffic slows during rush hour and the aloha spirit is sorely tested.
Politically, the neighborhoods around Honolulu's downtown and the university campus are lower income and usually Democratic. To the west, around the harbor, are many military families in modest neighborhoods who may vote for Democrats but can be attracted to Republicans. To the east, past Waikiki, around Diamond Head and out to the Kahala and Koko Head beach areas, is higher-income territory, voting for Republicans when they seriously contest a race.
The congressman from the 1st District is Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat with a graying beard who used to sport a pony tail; he has been called an aging hippie but celebrated his 60th birthday by bench-pressing 260 pounds in the House gym; he debates with an aggressiveness and bombast tempered by enthusiasm and good humor. After college in Upstate New York, he taught school, moved to Hawaii, earned a Ph.D. in sociology; he was elected to the Hawaii legislature in 1974 and served 12 years. Abercrombie first came to the House in 1986, when he won a special election, and served only three months; he lost a primary for the full term to a Democrat who then lost to Republican Pat Saiki. When she ran for the Senate, Abercrombie won a three-way primary in 1990 for the House seat and won the general election easily.
Abercrombie is one of the distinctive and often delightful figures in the House. His voting record is mostly, but not entirely, liberal. He has the '60s liberal's visceral skepticism about military spending, but he has used his Armed Services Committee seat to work for $50 million in military housing at Schofield Barracks and Kaneohe. He wants to stop a nuclear waste dump on Palmyra Island, 1,000 miles from Hawaii, and make it easier for Koreans to get U.S. tourist visas. Recalling his backpacking trip across India, he co-sponsored an Asian Elephant Conservation Fund and has kept tabs on human rights practices (improved, he says) in Punjab. He co-sponsored a $13 million National Oceanographic Partnership Act included in the 1997 defense spending bill. After the Republican takeover of the House, he co-authored Blood of Patriots, a thriller in which two terrorists disguised as staffers walk into the House during a vote and murder 125 members of Congress. He opposes repeal of the Jones Act and called for retaliation against the European Union for barriers to banana imports.
Abercrombie has survived spirited competition in the 1st District. In 1994 and 1996 he faced Orson Swindle, Marine Corps pilot and Vietnam POW, a national leader of Ross Perot's United We Stand America in 1992. In 1994 Swindle charged that Abercrombie was too dovish, but Abercrombie outraised him and won 54%-43%. In 1996 Swindle labeled Abercrombie a far left hippie and called for big spending cuts. Abercrombie only narrowly outspent him, and won by only 50%-46%, even as Bill Clinton was smashing Bob Dole locally.
In early 1998, with Hawaii's economy still declining and Governor Ben Cayetano trailing in polls, Abercrombie seemed to be in trouble again. His likely opponent seemed to be Quentin Kawananakoa, a descendant of King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolanoi and minority leader--of 12 Republicans--in the state House. In a November 1997 poll Abercrombie led by an insignificant 38%-35%; in August his lead was an uninspiring 47%-37%. But on August 26, Kawananakoa, hospitalized for hypertension, though only 36, abruptly withdrew from the race for health reasons. This left the nomination to Gene Ward, another legislator with Christian right ties, who in the same August poll trailed Abercrombie 52%-26%. Ward emphasized his record as a Peace Corps volunteer and Vietnam veteran, said he would be a business advocate and argued that he could do more for Hawaii as part of the majority party. Oddly, he said he wanted to use the House to head a United Nations agency or be appointed ambassador. Abercrombie argued that the all-Democratic Hawaii delegation had reduced the economic damage of Hawaii's recession and accused Ward of voting against smaller class sizes and against notifying communities about polluters. And he outspent Ward 2-1.
The polls appear to have been right: Abercrombie won 62%-26%, his best since showing since 1992. Whether he will have a tough contest in 2000 depends on the strength of the Republican nominee.
Potentially Competitive. This is not a particularly competitive district--and indeed should be relatively safe. But Abercrombie has yet to nail it down. Though he is certainly favored in 2000, his close calls in 1994 and 1996 warrant watching this district very closely for a possible upset.
- Pop. 1990: 554,174
- 0.2% rural;
13.1% age 65+;
- 29.1% White,
0.4% Amer. Indian,
5.3% Hispanic origin;
56.2% married couple families;
27.6% married couple fams. w. children;
54.4% college educ.;
median household income: $40,257;
per capita income: $17,508;
median gross rent: $615;
median house value: $311,200.
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