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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, October 27, 2002

It's McDermott vs. a legacy

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer

Bob McDermott remembers the day he found an old Advertiser newspaper on the ground somewhere in Saudi Arabia in the months leading up to the 1991 Gulf War.

"There was a story about how the entire Hawai'i congressional district voted against a resolution giving President (George H.W.) Bush authority to fight Saddam Hussein," said McDermott, a Marine supply lieutenant at the time. "It made me so mad that I vowed to come back someday and fix that."

More than a decade later, McDermott is trying to make good on that pledge. A Republican candidate for the state's 2nd Congressional District, McDermott is campaigning in part on his unconditional support for the current President Bush's efforts to end Saddam's regime in Iraq.

In one of the most intriguing Hawai'i congressional races in years, McDermott pits his unabashedly conservative image against the legacy of one of the state's fiercest, most unrepentant liberals, the late Patsy Mink. Libertarian Jeff Mallan and Natural Law candidate Nicholas Bedworth also are on the ballot for the seat, which represents rural O'ahu and the Neighbor Islands.

"People said we were somewhere between a long shot and a no shot when we started," McDermott said. "Now ... everything has changed."

Bob McDermott has the unenviable task of campaigning against the still-fresh memory of one of the state's most popular politicians, the late Patsy Mink.

Advertiser library photo

Mink, who served in Congress for more than 20 years, died Sept. 28, two days too late to have her name removed from the general election ballot. With Democratic Party officials urging people to cast a "tribute" vote for Mink, McDermott is left with the unenviable task of campaigning against the still-fresh memory of one of the state's most popular politicians.

If McDermott wins, he'll become only the third Republican from Hawai'i to serve in Congress (Pat Saiki served in the House from 1986 to '90, and Hiram Fong was a U.S. senator from statehood in 1959 to 1976). If Mink wins, a winner-take-all special election will be held Jan. 4 with a likely field of more than 40 candidates, including McDermott.

In any case, another special election will be held Nov. 30 to fill the last five weeks of Mink's current term in Congress; her husband, John Mink, is a candidate for that position.

Even beyond the choice between a living candidate and a deceased one, voters couldn't have a clearer choice in the general election.

Mink, a diminutive Japanese American raised in Hawai'i's plantation culture, was a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, a staunch fighter for women's rights and social welfare programs, as well as a frequent critic of military excesses.

McDermott is a 6-foot-1, 280-pound ex-basketball player born in Pennsylvania who sees himself as a straight shooter who can joke about about his regular-guy image: "Even in a freshly pressed suit, I look like I just slept in it for three days."

McDermott promises to support Bush's military strategy, "including launching full-scale combat operations against Iraq" should that become necessary. He also vows to strengthen military infrastructure, protect traditional family values, "defend all innocent life, from conception to natural death," and oppose any tax increase proposals.

"I don't know why some people think I'm an extremist. My roots and positions are really working class," he said. "I think they are in line with many ideas held by most Democrats in Hawai'i." He insists the Democratic Party's long domination of Hawai'i politics comes more from a population that fears Republican job-cutting than it does from any social idealism.

McDermott came to Hawai'i as a 20-year-old Marine stationed in Kane'ohe. He was discharged in 1985 and went on to get his bachelor's degree from Chaminade University, where he met his wife of 16 years, Utufaasili Jacinta. They have four children.

Disappointed with job opportunities after graduation, he returned to the Marines, this time as an officer, spent eight months in a combat area in Saudi Arabia, and again returned to Hawai'i, where he was discharged as a captain in 1992. He then earned a master's degree in economics from Chaminade and found work in Hawai'i's coffee industry.

McDermott ran unsuccessfully for a state House seat in Kalihi in 1994, then in 1996 defeated 'Aiea-Salt Lake Democratic incumbent Len Pepper, almost solely on the issue of McDermott's opposition to a same-sex marriage proposal then being pushed at the Legislature.

"Absolutely, that's the issue I got elected on," McDermott said.

During the next six years at the Legislature, he earned a reputation as a Republican sometimes at odds with his own party.

He believes his biggest successes were winning a $750,000 appropriation for repairs at rundown Radford High School and forcing the state to use federal education impact aid money on schools, rather than put it in the general fund.

"I did the best I could for six years, and now it's time to move on," McDermott said, deciding last year that Mink might be vulnerable to a challenge from a Republican with elective experience and credentials — the type of opponent she had not faced in years.


Patsy Mink, who served in Congress for more than 20 years, died Sept. 28.

Advertiser library photo

We knew it would be an uphill battle, but we thought we could win if we could raise some money for a challenge," McDermott said.

Then came Mink's death, which changed everything.

Talk of tribute vote 'crass'

Since then, McDermott has tiptoed a fine line of praise and compassion for Mink's family as Democratic Party officials urged residents to cast a sentimental and practical vote for her.

"First, we're asking people to vote for Patsy to pay honor and tribute to her for her hard work and success on behalf of the people of Hawai'i," said Lorraine Akiba, chairwoman of the state Democratic Party.

"Secondly, we want them to vote in the general election so that voters will have the opportunity to vote for the best possible candidates in a special election Jan. 4. We want that election to be fair, open and with the widest possible choices."

McDermott thinks voters may be put off by such talk.

"Frankly, I thought a lot of that talk was quite crass," McDermott said. "This isn't Chicago or New Jersey. We don't go around using the name of the deceased for political purposes."

McDermott hopes John Mink's entry into the Nov. 30 special election will allow friends to honor Patsy Mink's memory without forcing another election on Jan. 4.

With a last-minute infusion of money into his campaign, McDermott thinks he can prevail in the general election.

The money has been slow to materialize, however. He has raised a little more than $75,000 and spent most of it. With the Republican Party concentrating its efforts on Linda Lingle's run for governor, and boosting its presence in the state House by trying to appeal to a more moderate base, the determinedly conservative McDermott has been left to his own resources.

"Let's just say I'm not the shining light of the new Republican Party in Hawai'i," McDermott said. "Some people see me as a maverick, but I've just stuck to my guns as the party has shifted."

Bedworth and Mallan offer alternatives.

Bedford, a chief technology officer from Wailuku, Maui, promises to push for an overhaul of public education. Mallan, who lives in Kapa'a and is president of Artful Expressions, says the current political process poses a threat to "our way of life, our economies and liberties." His No. 1 piece of legislation would be to "start the impeachment and removal of the Bush administration."

Abercrombie seeks 7th term

In contrast to the Mink-McDermott race, the campaign for Hawai'i's 1st Congressional District (Urban Honolulu) seems rather staid.

Democrat Rep. Neil Abercrombie, seeking his seventh straight term in Congress, is being challenged by Republican Mark Terry and Libertarian James Bracken in a race that has drawn little attention so far.

Terry, a self-employed auto detailer from 'Aina Haina, says he is running because of a "great unhappiness with our current congressman." He promises his top priority in Congress would be voting to get an exception to the Jones Act, which protects domestic cargo shippers, in a move that he says would lower the cost of living in Hawai'i.

Bracken, 48 and a first-time candidate for political office, says he wants to reduce, if not eliminate, the federal income tax. "More common people should serve in a political capacity," he said. "The days of professional politicians should be eliminated."

Abercrombie has spent most of his adult life in politics, serving on the Honolulu City Council, state House and Senate before being elected to Congress in 1990.

"I want to leverage my seniority for Hawai'i's benefit to secure more federal spending in Hawai'i," he said, adding that his top priority in the next Congress would be to ensure that the state continues to receive a fair share of federal money to improve the economy and public schools.