The Story of Mufi Hannemann and Tulsi Gabbard

The story of Tulsi who? Exactly. And dealing with the “who” is the essence of the thirty-year-old City Council member Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign against Mufi Hannemann for the 2nd Congressional District seat that Mazie Hirono plans to vacate to run for the U.S. Senate. Gabbard has a good story to tell about herself, but right now for most of the public she is unknown and under-defined. Overcoming that is her first campaign challenge. Hannemann certainly does not have the same challenge. He has the opposite problem. Hannemann is overly defined.

Political campaigns are collections of stories that candidates tell and have others tell about themselves and their opponents. If the election were held today, Hannemann would trounce Gabbard because voters don’t even know who she is. She can’t tell your story if the audience does not even know that she is a storyteller. Among Second Congressional District voters, her name recognition is not much more than a blip.

That’s just one side of the story, and one that the Hannemann campaign will stress throughout the campaign. (His campaign will do that in various ways, but the overall theme will be “who’s that little upstart Gabbard, and why is she wasting our time?”) Mufi Hannemann has a very different problem. He has to re-create the existing image of himself that has become visible, detrimental, and widely shared. It may be easier for Gabbard to fill a vacuum than it is for Hannemann to break a mold.

Everyone who is at all involved with Hawaii politics seems to have a Mufi story that that, they are certain, illustrates exactly what Hannemann is really like: “That’s Mufi all right!”

In the past Hannemann has been able to surmount the negative Mufi stories. He won elections, had high approval ratings, and got things done, including, against all odds, the beginning of rail. Like him or not, people saw Hannemann as a Master Politician, not necessarily likeable but nevertheless effective, impervious, and invulnerable. That changed after his 2010 loss to Abercrombie. In the eyes of Hawaii’s political class and in the eyes of the attentive public, Mufi has become a flawed candidate who snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory. All that money, all those union endorsements, all those heavy hitters and social conservatives, all those accomplishments as mayor, all his claims about his leadership experience, and he flopped, a Master Politician no more.

In the past there have been at least two common favorable Hannemann political campaign stories: Mufi is unbeatable, and Mufi has Senator Daniel Inouye’s support. When Hannemann recently announced his candidacy for Congress, he emphasized the first story. Hannemann cited a poll that showed he was beating Gabbard six to one among all voters. In his announcement he worked very hard to give the impression that he was unbeatable and that Gabbard was a nobody. Considering Hannemann’s loss in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, that story is no longer as convincing. Besides, being the unbeatable candidate will be crucial only if the Republicans run a strong candidate for the seat. Only then will the big national players like the PACs and the national Democratic Congressional Campaign committee worry about who is the strongest candidate and try to influence the Democratic primary choice. If they do not have to worry about winning the seat in the general election, the national players as well as the Democratic Party leaders in Hawaii may stay neutral in the primaries.

The second story, that our senior senator is a strong supporter of Hannemann, has always been rather mystical, a form of magical thinking as much tied into Inouye’s aura as the political kingmaker as anything of substance. “Mufi and Dan are really close.” “Dan really wants Mufi to beat Neil.” “Dan thinks Mufi should seek national office.” “ Dan may not actually say good things about Mufi, but that’s what he really believes, and he is pulling the strings behind the scenes.” Maybe, maybe not. You can spend time trying to read the tea leaves if you want to, but whatever the Senator wanted in his heart of hearts in the 2010 governors race, he never publicly endorsed Hannemann. Consider what happened to Ed Case when Senator Inouye decided he wanted to express a real public preference.

Voters in primaries are likely to be more intensely partisan and more attentive to cues about what parties stand for, so in primaries candidates try to describe themselves as party loyalists — the true Democrat or Republican, the true progressive (liberal) or conservative. (That’s what is presently going on among the Republican candidates for President.) That has traditionally been a hard story for Hannemann to tell. A sizeable number of Democrats distrust Hannemann because they think he is really an opportunistic conservative disguising himself as a Democrat. The extraordinary shift among Democratic voters from Hannemann to Abercrombie in the midst of the 2010 campaign did not just indicate how badly Hannemann’s people misjudged the effects of his disastrous and inept “let’s compare” ad. The shift also indicated just how soft and tentative that support among Democrats was in the first place.

No question that Mufi Hannemann has the upper hand in this election and that he is the odds on favorite to beat Gabbard. Still, Hannemann’s weaknesses clarify what Gabbard needs to do. Gabbard needs first to get many more people to know who she is and what she is running for. Call it branding, call it name recognition, the process involves variations of this essential message: “Hi, I’m Tulsi Gabbard. That’s T-U-L-S-I G-A-B-B-A-R-D, and I’m running for The Second District Congressional seat.” She also needs to convince a very cautious Democratic establishment that now is a good time to bring in new blood. She needs to convince unions with longstanding ties to Hannemann that it is no longer necessary to keep these ties. Gabbard needs to learn how to hold her own against a politician who may now new longer be the master he once was but who is an excellent debater and an experienced campaigner. She needs money, lots of money to do all of the above.

Meanwhile, Mufi Hannemann has all of the surface advantages: poll numbers, money, an experienced campaign operation, and a vast amount of experience on the political stump. But it’s the things beneath the surface that could come to haunt him.


About the author: Neal Milner is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii where he taught for close to forty years. He is a political analyst for KITV. Neal is also an actor, playwright, and story teller.

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