That said, if his rival Mufi Hannemann wins the nomination and the general election, he is a Mormon and he will veto it. The Republican, Duke Aiona, is a very devout Catholic and has said he will veto it too.

This is not the first time Hawaiian Democrats have had to pick between Abercrombie and Hannemann.

No it’s not. Abercrombie was elected to the state house in the early ’70s and was later elected to the senate. He made a run for Congress in 1986 and he was opposed in the Democratic primary by Mufi Hannemann, who was younger, and that was the first race Hannemann won. There was a special election involved because the congressman had quit to run for governor. It was quite a dirty race. Hanneman won the Democratic nomination, but lost the special election. A Republican held that district for two terms.

In the meantime, Abercrombie came back and was elected to the city council. When the house seat became open again, Neil ran and won it. He’s been in the U.S. Congress since 1991. He’s been in politics for thirty-five years at the state and federal level and he’s a very colorful figure. He’s short but loud, he can be very articulate and very funny. He was quite a radical in the ’70s; he opposed the war in Vietnam and he went on to vote against the war in Iraq. And yet he’s been very supportive of the troops, contributing a lot to building housing for military personnel in Hawaii.

Has he done much to change that radical image?

He’s had to sober himself up. Some people didn’t like that more radical image; they still see him as a campus radical. All politicians do their attitudinal studies, and he’s pretty sober now, and I find it boring compared to the old Neil.

Mufi Hannemann hasn’t been very boring. He recently came under fire after his campaign released a mailer that asked readers to compare him with Abercrombie, and made a point of noting Abercrombie, who is white, was not born in Hawaii. Why did that anger people so much?

Mufi has a record of this, going back to ’86, and to when he was first elected mayor of Honolulu in 2004. Back then, one of the unions supporting him brought up some nasty stuff about his opponent’s wife—it was alleged she and her mother had defrauded an elderly Japanese man. Mufi is a very competitive guy, a former basketball player at Harvard, and he plays hard. He has to: he comes from a small ethnic group [Samoans], he’s a bright guy, politically very astute.

But sometimes he gets a little too clever and a little too cute, and he stumbled recently with that mailer. It was meant to accentuate that he was more local, his roots were deeper than Neil’s, he was browner, his wife had a Japanese surname, Neil’s was a pasty Caucasian like Neil. And there were a couple of other things that were sophomoric. You found yourself thinking, “Did you really have to do that?” He took it on the chin, not just from me, but everybody responded to that. Even Inouye went after him—and Inouye hasn’t endorsed him, but he definitely wants him to win.

Does race often get brought into elections in a nasty way in Hawaii?

Not compared to what you folks do up there on the mainland. You wouldn’t see that crap they’re pulling on poor Obama. Sure, ties that bind matter. Filipinos don’t have many candidates in office, so if there’s a good-looking Filipino candidate, they will vote that way. But that can only win in a few districts. It’s the same with the Japanese population. Nobody’s got a good enough hold, except in state legislative districts, to do it. People might say, “You nasty this!” or, “You effing that!” over a beer. But you don’t see it in the public square very often.

Polling has Abercrombie up by as much as seventeen percent. Is it over for Hannemann?

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.