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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, September 8, 2004

Hannemann offers local roots, wide experience and 'passion'

 •  Televised mayoral debate set
 •  A closer look at Mufi Hannemann and where he stands

By Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Staff Writer

He's the athletic kid from Kalihi who became an ambitious Ivy League scholar and a rising political star.

Mufi Hannemann
When Muliufi Francis "Mufi" Hannemann won a seat on the Honolulu City Council in 1994, he was the first person of Samoan ancestry to hold elective public office on O'ahu. He became council chairman within four years, and was a strong leader who ruffled feathers.

Hannemann worked earlier in the White House and held a top job at one of Hawai'i's original "Big Five" companies, and once headed the state's business and tourism department. He's articulate and witty, and his campaign for mayor stresses his local roots with a simple slogan: "Our home, our mayor."

During public forums with rival candidate Duke Bainum, Hannemann has aggressively challenged his opponent's stand on issues and campaign tactics, and has pushed for more dual public appearances and open debates.

Hannemann, 50, says he has the wide experience and real-world know-how to move Hono-lulu forward by building consensus. But political opponents from City Hall say he has a mean streak, and have characterized him as confrontational and intimidating. The reputation has lingered, but Hannemann says it's unjustified.

"My passion is definitely misinterpreted, and it's exacerbated by the fact that I'm big and I'm Polynesian," he said. "I think when we show our passion, it comes across as intimidating. When a shorter person does it, they get away with it, and people call him a fighter."

At 6 feet 7, he usually stands out in a crowd, and is recognized most everywhere he goes on O'ahu. He is serious and focused when discussing important topics, but can also be friendly and humorous. His impersonations of celebrities and local personalities are uncanny.

Marries in '92

Primary election basics

• The primary election is Saturday, Sept. 18. Polling places will be open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

• Walk-in absentee voting sites are open through Sept. 16. Any registered voter may vote early. Here is a list of sites:

O'ahu: Honolulu Hale; Pearlridge Center, Uptown; Windward Mall; Kapolei Hale, 1000 Uluohia St.

Big Island: County Building, Hilo; Kona mayor's office, 75-5706 Kuakini Highway; Waimea Community Center; Pahala Community Center; N. Kona District Courthouse

Maui: County Building, Wailuku, seventh floor

Moloka'i: Mitchell Pauole Center, Kaunakakai

Kaua'i: County Building, Lihu'e

• To see which candidates will be on your ballot and to find your polling place, visit www.hawaii.gov/elections and click on "Find Your Polling Place — Review Your Ballot."

Mufi and Gail Mukaihata Hannemann were married in 1992, the first wedding for each. She grew up in Torrance, Calif., graduated from UCLA with a degree in economics, and later worked as a congressional aide in Washington. She now heads the Girl Scout Council of Hawai'i. The couple live in 'Aiea and have no children.

Mufi Hannemann's 1994 council campaign remains his only elective victory in a contested race. He was unopposed when he won re-election in 1998, and lost two campaigns for Congress and a previous mayoral race.

Born in Honolulu in 1954, Hannemann was the sixth of seven children in a family of Samoan, German and English ancestry. His parents emigrated from American Samoa and settled in Kalihi the year before, after spending a few years on Guam.

His father, Gustav, worked at a dairy and in retail stores, and later became a Mormon bishop. His mother, Faiaso, was the daughter of a Samoan chief.

Hannemann recalls his early years in Kalihi fondly.

"The house was always filled with members of the extended family," he said. "Sharing food and shelter was much a part of how I was raised. There was always the feeling of 'ohana."

He said his parents stressed the value of education and that he was always encouraged to read.

Hannemann attended public schools, then enrolled in Iolani School, where he became student council president and a promising basketball and football star. "To know me is to love me!" is the quote he included in the yearbook published when he graduated in 1972.

Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, who lived next door to Hannemann as a teenager, recalls him as a friendly and outgoing athlete who carried himself confidently.

"His family is very musically talented, and they would always sing," she said.

It was easy to hear people singing in the shower, she laughed, and Hannemann would often belt out a rendition of "Mrs. Robinson," a song from the 1967 film "The Graduate."

When Hannemann went to Harvard University, he took the student job that paid best but required the most humility: cleaning toilets. He majored in government and graduated cum laude in 1976, and was a Fulbright scholar at Victoria University in New Zealand.

Hannemann later became a special assistant in Washington with the Department of the Interior's Office of Territorial and International Affairs, and was selected for a White House fellowship in the Reagan administration under Vice President George Bush.

Back in the Islands

In 1984, Hannemann joined kama'aina company C. Brewer & Co. Ltd. and later became its point person on a controversial development plan in the Big Island's Ka'u District. The idea included a facility to launch commercial satellites, but some Ka'u residents strongly opposed it, and the plan eventually fizzled.

Hannemann was aiming high when he made his first bid for public office at age 32. He ran for Congress as a Democrat in 1986 to replace Cec Heftel, who decided to run for governor and stepped down from the House seat that represents urban Honolulu.

Hannemann noted that Hawai'i's two House seats are rarely up for grabs, with no incumbent seeking re-election.

"When those seats open up, as long as you feel you can do the job and you're qualified and experienced, you gotta go for it," he said. "Once somebody wins it, it's locked up for life."

Negative campaign

Hannemann ran in the Democratic primary against Neil Abercrombie, who holds the seat now. The race is remembered most for the negative campaign ads Hannemann sponsored. The television and print ads suggested Abercrombie was soft on drugs, and quoted an old newspaper story that said he smoked marijuana. Abercrombie said the charge was untrue, and the ads created quite a stir.

Hannemann won the primary, but later said the ads had been inappropriate and too strong for the times. Abercrombie won the winner-take-all special election to fill the three months that remained of Heftel's term, but Republican Pat Saiki later won the general election for the new term.

Hannemann was left empty-handed, but he didn't give up. Four years later, he ran for the U.S. House district that represents rural O'ahu and the Neighbor Islands. He lost to Patsy Mink in the Democratic primary, and she later won the seat. Hannemann said the losses were a tough learning experience, but that he has no regrets.

"It was clear to me that people felt in those two races that I hadn't paid my dues, that I didn't have the record that Pat Saiki had or Patsy Mink had," he said.

'Tested under fire'

In 1991, Hannemann joined the administration of Gov. John Waihee as head of international relations, and soon became director of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

The new post was a challenge: the economy was hurting from a downturn in tourism worsened by the Gulf War with Iraq and the devastation of Hurricane Iniki, which struck Kaua'i.

"It helped me develop a skill that I carry with me today," he said. "I'm a leader who's made decisions under pressure, a leader who's been tested under fire."

In 1994, Hannemann shifted gears and ran for City Council to replace Arnold Morgado, who had stepped down to run for mayor. Hannemann won a solid victory with more than 51 percent of the vote in a race that included five other candidates, so no runoff election was necessary. He won re-election in 1998 unopposed.

Council decisions

One of the council decisions Hannemann and Bainum differed on involved a plan for a major new housing development near Sunset Beach, to be called Lihi Lani.

People backing the 1,144-acre project said it would create jobs and provide orderly growth on the North Shore, but opponents said it would change the area too much and lead to rampant overdevelopment. The council narrowly approved a zoning change for the project in 1995, but it became entangled in legal and financial problems and was never built.

Hannemann, who voted in favor of the project, said it was clear to him that many North Shore residents supported the idea, and that it was to include a neighborhood youth center and other amenities.

"There was a tremendous community benefits package on the table, and it would have provided jobs," he said.

Bainum, who opposed the project, said it was a classic case of special interests winning their way at City Hall despite community concerns.

Different views

During his time on the council, Hannemann was viewed as a strong leader by some colleagues, but others considered him a bully.

"With Mufi, it was pretty much his way or the highway," said former councilman Steve Holmes, who is backing Bainum in the mayor's race.

"He always seemed to want to get back at you for some perceived slight," Holmes said. "He was very vindictive. I've certainly seen the dark side of Mufi Hannemann."

Mayor Jeremy Harris has also publicly characterized Hannemann as intimidating, but declined to be interviewed about the mayoral race.

Holmes said one dispute in the council's office area grew so heated that he worried it would become physical.

"I told him that if he hit me, it would be the end of his political career," Holmes said.

There was no fight, and Hannemann said he has toned his personality down.

"I think I'm still passionate, but I demonstrate it differently, I guess," he said. "I've learned to be a little more restrained."

Harris later appointed Holmes as his energy coordinator. Hannemann questions whether Holmes is qualified for the position, which he could lose under a new administration.

Former councilman Jon Yoshimura, who has publicly called Hannemann a bully, said his view has softened in hindsight.

"In my experience, he's been a strong and forceful leader," Yoshimura said. "I've had my run-ins with him, but in retrospect, that's politics."

Council coup

A majority of the council voted to install Hannemann as chairman in a bitter 1998 reshuffling that ousted John DeSoto from the post. A year later, the council split again and Hannemann was ousted. The coup, which was supported by Bainum and installed Yoshimura as chairman, followed weeks of rancor over a city budget proposed by Harris, and changes pushed by Hannemann and others.

"We were asking too many tough questions," said Hannemann.

He noted that his opposition helped stop Harris' proposal to begin charging home owners a fee for garbage collection, and said it took passion and commitment to stand up to the popular and powerful mayor.

Hannemann said the experience helped convince him to step down from the council early in his second term to run for mayor in 2000.

"I felt the city needed to be run in a different way," he said.

Harris won re-election by a wide margin, beating Hannemann and former Mayor Frank Fasi in the primary election with enough votes to avoid a November runoff.

Hannemann said if he wins this election, his administration would closely scrutinize city finances and make more information available to the public.

"We're going to open up the books and end the guessing game," he said.

Reach Johnny Brannon at jbrannon@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.

• • •

Mufi Hannemann*In 1994, Mufi Hannemann became the first person of Samoan ancestry to hold elective public office on O'ahu.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

Muliufi Francis "Mufi" Hannemann

Born: July 16, 1954, in Honolulu.

Family: Married Gail Mukaihata Hannemann in 1992. No children.

Education: 1972 graduate of Iolani School; 1976 cum laude graduate of Harvard University; Fulbright scholar at Victoria University in New Zealand.

Career: Taught history and coached varsity basketball at Iolani before joining the administration of Gov. George Ariyoshi in 1979. Became a special assistant with the Department of the Interior's Office of Territorial and International Affairs in 1980. Selected for a White House fellowship in the Reagan administration under Vice President Bush in 1983. Worked for C. Brewer & Co. Ltd. from 1984 to 1991, leaving as vice president for corporate marketing and public affairs. Appointed by Gov. John Waihee as head of international relations, then director of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. Elected to the City Council in 1994 and re-elected in 1998. Served as council chairman for one year.

Issues at a glance


Does not support city plans for a Bus Rapid Transit system of special buses with dedicated lanes. Says light rail system is a better option, but that a ferry system linked to buses should be considered in cooperation with the state. Supports state proposal to build a "flyover" elevated viaduct over Nimitz Highway but has concerns about visual impact. Says a new east-west road is needed in the 'Ewa area, linked with a bridge, ferries or other method of crossing Pearl Harbor. Pledges to work out of Kapolei Hale once a week and encourage job growth in the area to reduce commuter traffic to town. Says better road maintenance will be a priority.

Leasehold condominium conversion

Supports efforts to repeal a 1991 law, known as Chapter 38, that allows the city to force landowners to sell qualified condominium owners the fee interest in the land under their units. Voted in favor of individual conversions while on the City Council, but supported a failed effort to weaken the law. Says he has always believed owners should be able to decide to sell their property or not, but voted to approve conversions because courts had upheld the law.

Sewer fees

Says he would propose fee increase as a last resort if thorough examination of city finances shows there is no other responsible way to pay for repair and upgrade work that must be done. Says he will eliminate the practice of taking money from the city's sewer fund to pay for other services. Says repairs must be a top priority because sewage spills are a growing concern for residents and could harm the tourism industry and damage the economy.


Supports efforts to expand recycling and minimize solid waste through technology upgrades and innovations, but says a landfill also will be needed on O'ahu in the immediate future. Has no preferred site, but says surrounding area should be compensated by the city with a package of community benefits. The Waimanalo Gulch landfill near Kahe Point is scheduled to close in 2008, and the state has given the City Council until Dec. 1 to decide whether to seek an expansion or choose another location. Three Leeward sites and one near Kailua are under consideration.

Farm tax

Does not support 2002 law that changed tax structure for agricultural land. Says forcing owners to dedicate land to farming in order to qualify for a tax break creates more pressure for development. Supported a City Council bill to grant tax relief this year for all agriculture-zoned property, including vacant land. Mayor Jeremy Harris refused to implement the measure but agreed to consider tax relief for land actively used for farming.

Full term?

Says he's committed to serving as mayor for four years and will not step down early to run for another office.