07/12/2010 12:05 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Neil Abercrombie Interview

Neil was my second interview of the day (and the first that agreed to be interviewed). I've always appreciated Neil in D.C. because he was a smart, thoughtful, progressive voice in the House. The giant impression you get from Neil is that he is having the time of his life. He's loving the campaign, and also very happy to be out of the toxic atmosphere in D.C.

So on to the interview. My first question was why does he enter the arena (of running for office).

He first talked about the need to have a drive to make the world better. Without that running for office made no sense. And for Neil that started with wanting to end the Vietnam war which was truly a matter of life and death for many. He then went on to talk about how you need family and close friends who support you because the political life tends to consume you - and that tests the relationship from both sides. (Neil's first date with his wife he took her to a fair where he had to sit on the dunk tank.)

He then went on to add that he "doesn't think anyone wants to do it but that people are called to do it." And that the work has to be its own justification. Neil brings up the very good point that doing this job well requires "civic courage" which requires fighting for what is right even when it is unpopular.

My $0.02: I think this is a beautiful way to describe what should motivate a candidate.

I next asked what's the one thing that will be better if he is Governor.

Neil immediately answered "leadership." He then differentiated himself from Duke and Mufi on this issue. He sees the fundamental issue that without effective (his) leadership, Hawaii will import real estate speculators and export our kids and grandkids.

I followed up by asking 4 years from now, name something where people were surprised by what he did.

Neil said that he will do this everywhere. That it will be necessary to get to 4 years. He brought this back to the issue of leadership and stressed that it was character leadership, not personality leadership (with the obligatory comparison to Mufi).

Neil then discussed how education was the primary issue requiring this leadership. That fixing education is the necessary precursor to addressing the other big problems facing Hawaii (boy is that true!). He then discussed the need for strong leadership to address education, oil independence, increased local food, better jobs, etc.

Neil then dove in to education saying he wants to decentralize the system so the schools are in control of their own destiny and the principals become CEOs (Chief Education Officers). He said Hawaii is essentially a rural state with the stretch along South Oahu being the one dense urban part, containing half the state's population. So half the students are in little enclaves or villages. And he sees that with the internet this can be done connecting each school to outside resources.

I asked how do we get accountability in this decentralized system.

Neil's first response to this is that "a lot of the measurements [saying the schools are performing poorly] are false and of no real utility." He did bring up the real need to measure critical thinking. And he is very contemptuous of the tests that measure rote learning and the various forms the teachers have to fill out, all of which takes time away from teaching. Neil has been a teacher (I would guess a very good one) and so he can truly put himself in the position of the teachers. Neil summed this up with "I would take personal responsibility [as Governor] for restoring public confidence in the education system."

To dive further in, I asked if there would be consequences for schools under this decentralized system that are not doing a good job (and brought up the specific example of Colorado's new law that removes tenure for teachers doing an inadequate job 3 years in a row).

Neil first challenged what Colorado was doing, asking among other things will the legislature provide all the additional funds needed to improve the schools (the answer today is no because with the recession there is no more money). He then went on to say "I couldn't disagree with that approach more" calling it the Captain Bligh approach.

Neil went on to say that teachers want to do a good job. That teachers are in that position because they want to teach. And he then discussed the issues with having a few high stakes tests (which is a real issue). And what those tests measure which many times is rote learning and nothing creative (also a serious issue).

Neil is very passionate about good education. He talked about what makes a good teacher and the tremendous impact those teachers have on a child's life. And how critical it is to have teachers like that. I agreed and asked him how do we insure that we have teachers like that in the classroom. Neil's reply was that by eliminating the tests and leaving teachers alone, they would then teach at this level. He concluded by saying the Governor's role is to encourage this.

My $0.02: I think everyone is in total agreement with Neil about what we want to see in the classroom. And Neil is very passionate on this issue - it truly will get a lot of his attention as Governor. But Neil's approach has no system to find where teaching is sub-standard and no process to improve the classroom in those cases. I think Neil's experience with superb teachers blinds him to the teachers that do a lousy job. So the intent and effort is there, but not a systemic approach.

Next I asked if he has someone who is his insurgent (someone who challenges him on the fundamentals).

Neil said that is any parent who fought back against furlough Friday. He then went on to talk about how the discussion over furlough Fridays became wrapped up in process instead of people working through from their values. He wrapped it up by saying his insurgent is the parent who makes clear that the process is less important than getting the education to the child. (Furlough Friday was the worst possible alternative and everyone who signed off on that - every single group - deserves contempt for that "solution.")

I next asked if there was a vote he took that hurt his political future.

Neil's answer was "all of them." He said voting against the first Iraq war undermined a lot of the work he had done to build up relationships with veterans and people in the military. So many characterized him as anti-military. (That was a brave and principled vote on his part.) He also talked about his support for the new time shares that are being created by Marriot & other major chains because they are different (i.e. not a rip-off) from the old kind of throw up the buildings, sell them, and run away time shares.

He next discussed healthcare, that regardless of what is promised and how it's structured, "if costs keep rising precipitously, promises to pay won't mean anything if you don't have the revenue." Some people then take that as he wants to eliminate HMSA & Kaiser rather than he wants to discuss the workability of the underlying system.

I asked if there was a state program that he would eliminate.

At first Neil said no although he would reallocate in some areas. But he then came up with he would get rid of the Aloha Stadium authority. That a lot of money is being spent there with no idea what it's going to be used for. He thinks the stadium should probably be turned over to the University (if they're going to be a division 1 football team).

I then asked the flip side - is there a program he would create.

This got an immediate yes, that he wants to have a cabinet level position for early childhood education. And he sees this as much more than school, there's health, social issues, etc. (Good idea.)

I next asked if the legislature offered to pass one bill he gave them, what would that bill be.

Neil's first answer was the budget (good idea). I told him not the budget so he then immediately came up with the bill to begin the decentralization of the schools.

My final question was asking him to speak to the issue that his experience is all legislative and this job is executive.

Neil replied that this is exactly what is needed. He first brought up how at present there has been nothing but clashes between the legislature and the governor. While he does agree that some was Democrat vs. Republican but he sees a lot of this as a question of leadership and character which increases the inability to work together. He then listed problems the state has from garbage piling up to concrete being poured into streams, and on... and says the record of executive experience hasn't been good. He then listed problems with the mayoral executive experience (i.e. Mufi) from EPA fights, increased fees, and on... and says that executive experience has been one long series of disasters.

Neil then went on to discuss his experience on the Armed Services committee working through a budget much larger than the City & County of Honolulu has. And he has to do that working with some very conservative legislators from the South. But his subcommittee has produced their part of the budget faster than any other subcommittee and many times with a unanimous vote.

Neil summed this up saying that the most important thing needed in the governor's office is someone who can work with the legislature and has no ambition to use the governor's office as a stepping stone to their next position. Neil went on to call out Mufi on item after item and did so forcefully (I don't list that here because this interview is about Neil, not Mufi).

So what do you get with Neil Abercrombie? More than anything else you have someone who listens to his inner voice and is true to that voice. Neil will embrace changes so significant that most will dismiss them as impossible. With Neil as governor more will be accomplished. The flip side of that is by definition most people will be thrilled with some of that change, and upset with some.

Neil will also try to work with the legislature to a greater degree than the others - at least at first. But significant change tends to be resisted and so who knows how that relationship will play out over 4 years. But attempting to have a strong collaborative relationship is good (as is disagreement when it comes to the legislation). This could be a plus but things like this are awfully hard to predict.

Finally, based on where Neil would take the conversation almost every time, education is his passion. That will get most of his time and attention. And that is the most important service the state provides and the most critical one to fix. On the flip side, I don't think his approach will improve things. But Neil is a smart guy and I think he'll look at results and adjust - hopefully.

I think Neil is the biggest wildcard in the election - he could be a superb Governor, or a mediocre one. (And if he's superb, then many will call him awful - that's what happens when you are effective bringing about significant change.) And I think this is key to his winning - convincing people that his reach will be greater and that the state needs that significant change.

Interview recording: Neil Abercrombie Interview

Interviews with Duke Aiona and Mufi Hannemann