Neil Abercrombie’s life and career reveal a boundless commitment to serve others with integrity, honesty, energy and humility. His election as governor in 2010 was another chapter in a stellar career in which Neil always puts people first. His 2014 re-election bid will be his final campaign and the culmination of a lifetime of public service.
Decades of Service to Hawai‘i
Neil’s first run for office was a bold and unlikely bid in 1970 for the U.S. Senate against Republican Sen. Hiram Fong. Fueled by his opposition to the Vietnam War, Neil’s colorful “Super Senator” campaign has become legendary in local politics (along with the Yellow Taxi he drove around town).
In 1974, Neil ran for the State House of Representatives in Makiki-Mānoa. He walked the district daily, introducing himself to families and discussing issues. A big break came when Democratic Party Leader Nadao Yoshinaga endorsed Neil. As Neil remembers: “Here was a political visionary giving a long-haired haole boy from Mānoa a chance. Nadao become my mentor in public service. To him it was always about what’s on the inside. He is my hero and role model to this day.”
Neil was elected and served in the State House from 1975 to 1979 and in the State Senate from 1979 to 1986. He earned a reputation as a tenacious fighter for the interests of the people. Neil helped elderly depositors regain their life savings when Mānoa Finance collapsed. He helped start the award-winning Healthy Start prevention program for at-risk mothers and children.
In 1986, Neil won a special election to Congress to fill the unexpired term of Rep. Cec Heftel. He was the last person sworn in by House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Neil returned home to serve as special assistant to the superintendent of the State Department of Education and helped to implement Hawai‘i’s distance-learning programs.
In 1988, Neil was elected to serve on the Honolulu City Council. Again he worked tirelessly to improve the lives of everyday people. He was one of the early advocates of a rail transit system in Honolulu.
In 1990, Neil was elected to return to Congress. There he spent nearly two decades, securing billions of dollars for the islands in high-tech, health and education sectors. He built strong relationships with Democrats and Republicans to help support our troops. His military housing initiative transformed the living conditions of every military family in the country, and resulted in tens of thousands of construction jobs nationwide and here in Hawai‘i. He received the Harry S. Truman Award — the highest honor given by the National Guard Association of the United States — for “sustained contributions of exceptional and far-reaching magnitude to the defenses and security of the United States.”
Local Focus, National Connections
When President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, it was a moment of pride and inspiration for Neil. He had befriended President Obama’s parents, Barack Obama, Sr. and Ann Dunham, while they were all students together at the University of Hawai‘i, and he was one of the first to support President Obama in his historic run for office. Neil saw President Obama’s election as a call-to-action to return home and run for governor to confront the enormous challenges Hawai‘i was facing. He knew we had a president who understands the intricacies of our island state. As Michelle Obama told her husband’s biographer: “You can’t really understand Barack until you understand Hawai‘i.” In Neil, we have a governor who understands Hawai‘i and has strong ties to Congress, the White House, and the federal government. Having started his career at the Hawai‘i Legislature, he also understands and appreciates the balance between the executive and legislative branches of government.
Accomplishments as Governor
Since taking office as governor in 2010, Neil and his team have tackled the fiscal sinkhole his administration inherited and, after a series of hard choices and difficult decisions, have restored financial stability to the state.
The Abercrombie administration is now focused on establishing a solid foundation in education, one of the key platforms in his New Day plan. His early childhood education and school readiness initiatives are top priorities. The administration is also working with the private sector to address the critical shortage of affordable housing, especially in the urban core. Other top priorities include food security and meeting the state’s energy goals.
As public confidence in the economy grows, the goal of sustaining Hawai‘i for future generations is within sight. And given major changes in Hawai‘i’s Congressional delegation, where Neil ably served for two decades, our governor is now mentoring a new generation of leaders.
He’s doing this with his now familiar qualities: solid homework on the issues; a passion for the working person, endless energy, and leadership.
Lifelong Lessons from Humble Beginnings
On a personal side, Neil will never forget his roots. Growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., Neil learned the value of hard work. His father was a small businessman, a broker for food manufacturers. Neil and his brother Hal would help their father on his sales route. Neil’s mother Vera was a kindergarten teacher who, like so many women in those days, faced open discrimination in the form of lower pay and benefits simply because she was a woman.
After earning a B.A. in sociology from Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., Neil came to Hawai‘i a month after statehood in 1959. He was attracted to the islands’ reputation for social diversity and the adventure of studying at the University of Hawai‘i in America’s newest state.
While pursuing a master’s degree in sociology and later a Ph.D. in American studies, Neil supported himself through a variety of jobs. He was a waiter at Chuck’s Steak House in Waikīkī, a locker desk clerk at the YMCA, a custodian at Mother Rice Preschool, and a construction apprentice program director. He also worked as an elementary school teacher and a college lecturer.
He eventually met and married Dr. Nancie Caraway, a fellow graduate of the University of Hawai‘i and his wife of 30 years.
After serving as governor, Neil, Nancie and their beloved dog Kanoa will move back to the lower Mānoa home they purchased in 2000. Having been renters for the first 20 years of their marriage, they are familiar with the struggle so many in Hawai‘i continue to face.
As governor, Neil meets and talks with everyday people in communities and homes across the state. He continues to be touched by their stories, as he was when he first moved to the islands and worked in a variety of jobs. He has long embraced Hawai‘i, recognizing it as a model of tolerance and diversity for the world.
Neil’s career as a public servant serves as proof that when we let aloha into our hearts and stand by our values, we accomplish great things.