HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - In his run for Honolulu mayor, Mufi Hannemann has a simple pitch to voters and it goes something like this: I’ve led Honolulu through tough times before and I can do it again.
His campaign materials refer to him as “Mayor Mufi.”
His website says he’s ready to serve again in his “old job.”
In other words, Hannemann is banking that worried Oahu voters ― facing incredible economic uncertainty and unprecedented unemployment levels ― will gravitate toward someone who knows what it’s like to run Honolulu Hale better than anyone else vying for the seat.
But Hannemann’s experience also comes with no small amount of baggage ― something not lost on his opponents. They’ve sought to paint him as part of what ails Honolulu and as more of the same.
And they’ve hammered him on his role in the city’s rail beleaguered rail project, which started construction during his administration, and his hands-off approach to homelessness while mayor. That’s put Hannemann, at times, in the uncomfortable position of having to explain past mistakes.
He’s even found himself apologizing on the campaign trail.
“Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea culpa,” Hannemann told a six-member panel from Hawaii News Now and Honolulu Civil Beat during a one-hour interview recently. He was responding to a question about his biggest regret from his time as mayor. His answer: Stepping down early to run for governor.
“Maybe I should have stayed and finished the job as mayor. I get it from those who say, ‘If you hadn’t gone, I’d be riding the rail right now. If you hadn’t gone, the road would be in better shape,” Hannemann said. “I get it. But I thought at that time I was making the right decision.”
Hannemann was Honolulu’s 12th mayor, serving from 2005 to 2010, and leading Oahu through the Great Recession.
Before that, he was on the City Council and in federal roles in Washington, D.C. After losing to Gov. Neil Abercrombie in 2010, Hannemann ran for Congress a year later and was defeated by Tulsi Gabbard.
Then in 2014, he ran for governor as an independent and came in third.
Colin Moore, HNN political analyst, said that Hannemann brings smarts, accomplishments and experience to the race. But during his interview with Hawaii News Now and Civil Beat, Moore said Hannemann’s answers focused too much on trying to explain his past and then “essentially saying, ‘Trust me.’”
Moore said voters rejected that message in the past three elections Hannemann lost.
“I’m not sure he’s really changed his strategy that much.”
Hannemann also comes to the race as someone who’s close to the tourism industry, as the president and CEO of Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association, at a time when residents are asking difficult questions about the role tourism should play in the future of Hawaii’s economy.
When asked how he’d respond to voters who have enjoyed Oahu’s break from crushing crowds of tourists at the island’s top beaches and attractions, Hannemann said he agrees it’s time to “re-brand” Hawaii as a place for sustainable tourism. “We want quality travelers here, not quantity,” Hannemann said, echoing what other mayoral candidates and several top economists have called for.
He added, “I want to save jobs, and the sooner that we can reopen, the more that I can work with business owners, not just hotel owners, small business owners to get them back on their feet.”
But more than tourism, Hannemann’s name is associated with the rail project.
“Rail is a very negative brand right now and it is solidly on him,” said Daryl Huff, Hawaii News Now managing editor and one of those on the panel interviewing Hannemann. He asked the former mayor whether he would accept any responsibility for where the project is now, long delayed and over-budget.
“So there’s been problems. I don’t think we need to go into why those problems happen,” Hannemann replied. “When I was there, we were on time, on budget, on schedule with all federal and state requirements to proceed. Now, the cost went from $5 billion when I left to $9 billion.”
He added, “All I’m saying is, this is where it is at $9 billion. My job is to go and fix it, complete it.”
Hannemann has also faced questions over how he handled homelessness while serving as mayor.
In 2006, he was roundly criticized by social service providers for pushing hundreds of homeless people out of Ala Moana Park even though there was no available shelter space for them.
He has explained the move by saying the state was responsible for moving homeless into housing or shelters because the city didn’t have a Housing Office.
In response to the park’s closure, the state opened the Next Step shelter in Kakaako.
“At that time, what I was trying to get the state to do, there was resistance, so we did a great job of cleaning the parks, but we weren’t able to meet the task of being able to relocate them to housing this time around,” Hannemann said, adding that the situation has now changed because the city created a Housing Office.
“There’s a very different environment today, a county and the state are working together on resolving homelessness. That wasn’t the case in my time, unfortunately.”
During his interview with HNN and Civil Beat, Hannemann said he’s also spent time reflecting on his overall leadership style and sought to ensure he’s making sure that “people feel that their voices count.”
“I can come across very strong and intimidating because it’s not often that you find a 6-foot-7 person who’s in politics in our community,” said the 65-year-old Hannemann. “I’ve tried to adapt the way I speak, the way that they know that I’m truly listening. And because I’m prone to make decisive decisions, I think I want to do a better job of making sure that their voices were heard.”
It’s those statements that might convince voters that this “Mayor Mufi” is different from the last one.
His fluency in reading a room and racking up likability points might do the trick, too.
Hannemann also isn’t afraid to show a personal side, something some of his opponents have struggled to do. When asked to describe one of the most difficult periods in his life, he talked about the death of his mother when he was 18 and his father when he was 46.
“Everything that I had, everything that I hope to be, is due to my parents,” Hannemann said, choking back tears. “It makes me feel that I have a mission in life to follow what they taught, and that is to train up your child in the way that should go, and when they are old, they will not depart from it.”