Bill Lee remembers very well the 6-foot boy who sat head and shoulders above the rest of his eighth-grade geography class at Iolani School.
driven to succeed
By Tim Ryan
Muliufi F. Hannemann was the only one of seven children -- four boys and three girls -- to attend school outside his Kalihi neighborhood when he entered the private school in the seventh grade.
But Hannemann, of German, English and Samoan descent, had been getting noticed for his size and athletic potential, and would be offered a "scholarship" to Iolani, made easier by his grades, which were well above average.
"Even though I was just a kid, I knew I was being noticed; I tried to make the most of it," says Hannemann, 46, a former City Councilman running for mayor against incumbent Jeremy Harris.
Efforts to better himself continued as he grew into a self-driven, highly disciplined, ambitious, charming, a bit manipulative and occasionally self-absorbed young man who plotted his life's course years ahead.
It was Hannemann's mother, Faiaso, the daughter of notable Samoan chiefs, who described the boy as "my American dream," emphasizing to all her children -- but with an eye directed at Muliufi -- that one would attend Harvard University.
Hannemann embraced Faiaso's dream. He became an athletic superstar in two sports at Iolani and received an academic scholarship to Harvard based on grades, student government, school activities and community work.
Faiaso began telling friends her son was going to Harvard even before he received his acceptance letter. He was also accepted at Yale, Princeton and Stanford.
"I didn't really feel any pressure because I knew I was capable of all of it," says Hannemann, the first college graduate in the family.
Faiaso was Hannemann's always-present inspiration, largely because his father, Gustav, worked three jobs.
"His mom instilled in him self-confidence, the drive to excel, to never be a quitter," says Colin Ching, classmate and longtime friend. "I have never heard him say 'I can't,' " Ching says. "If he loses, he blames himself."
Faiaso died at age 58 when Hannemann was 18 and a freshman at Harvard. Her death didn't diminish Hannemann's passion to be noticed and may have intensified it.
Lee, now Iolani's dean of students, says even in junior high Hannemann was focused on attending "the best college in the United States."
"He was always interested in bettering himself," Lee says. "No kid I've ever talked to at that age was so focused."
Ambition is a description used by Hannemann's critics and supporters, with opposing definitions.
But for a kid from a poor family in Kalihi who never owned its own home but also never accepted government subsidy, Hannemann's absurd aspirations and self discipline have led to extraordinary success.
"It was very fascinating," Lee says. "Here was this very tall Samoan boy who from day one ... was a very good student; surprising considering his background and where he came from."
And by his sheer size, Hannemann, who is 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds, attracted people, "not by intimidation but charm and that smile," Lee says.
Hannemann credits his mother's genes, citing her royal Samoan heritage, for his leadership abilities. But "when you're tall and large, people look up to you," he says.
That attention initially made Hannemann shy, classmates say. He was so self-conscious about his height that he would often bend over so far to see people eye-to-eye that he suffered backaches.
And he was embarrassed about his first name -- Muliufi -- because some friends, teachers and sportswriters had trouble pronouncing and spelling it. Muliufi was shortened to Mufi during Hannemann's high-school athletic career by Star-Bulletin sportswriter Jim Easterwood.
It is his ambition that has taken Hannemann from Kalihi to Harvard to Washington, D.C., a six-figure salary for a Hawaii company and into local politics.
Along the way, he has made passionate enemies -- not simple adversaries -- as well as friends. Political opponents and some who have worked under him at state and city levels say Hannemann can be be intimidating, demeaning, demoralizing, an emotional bully who doesn't appreciate being disagreed with.
While willing to discuss their criticisms, some of the workers refused to be identified publicly, fearing "eventual" retribution, certain Hannemann will surface again politically even if he loses the mayor's race. Others remain in government service and don't want to be reprimanded by supervisors for speaking out.
Hannemann, they say, often took credit for accomplishments of lower-level staff members, or prohibited them from talking to news media even just to relay facts.
But supporters say that Hannemann's drive is simple -- accomplish specific goals for the good of the community -- and that he has little patience for bureaucrats or anyone who wastes his time.
"In the ninth grade, Mufi said he wanted to be student council president (as a senior)," says classmate Ching, now general manager for a real estate development company.
"He was a politician even in high school," Ching said. "Mufi studied history and politics voraciously. Make no mistake, he's an excellent history scholar."
Ching was the first friend Hannemann told when he was accepted to Harvard.
"He called out to me on campus waving his acceptance letter," says Ching. "He knew his mother would be so proud."
At Harvard, Hannemann -- the first Samoan to attend the school -- was freshman class president, played on the basketball team and would graduate cum laude with a degree in government.
But during his early years at the school, no one really knew what he was, ethnically.
"I used that confusion to my advantage," says Hannemann, who divided the student body into three categories: Wonks were the bookworms; jocks, the athletes, and preppies, "snobs."
"The Afro-Americans would say 'What's up, pineapple?' and then on the other side of the room the Caucasian conservatives would say "Hello Mr. Hannemann, how are you today?
"I could mingle with all of them."
The Harvard class ring is the only ring Hannemann wears.
So why is this scholar-athlete, who supporters say will take time at a moment's notice to speak at public schools or participate in charity events, so vehemently disliked in some quarters?
Doc Buyers, president and chief executive officer of Big Island-based C. Brewer & Co., which hired Hannemann in the early 1980s to a high-paying job, says Hannemann's "zeal" for the political life and his "burning ambition" sometimes is "misinterpreted."
Hannemann joined the Big Five company in 1984 after returning from Washington, D.C., where he had been a White House Fellow under Vice President George Bush. Hawaii Gov. George Ariyoshi suggested that Hannemann meet with Buyers.
"I found Mufi very personable; for such a large person, his smile and manner made people feel at ease," Buyers says.
Hannemann was about to make a curious decision after years of grooming for a life in government. He told Buyers he wanted a business career, so the CEO made him director of government affairs and corporate communications.
"I taught him a lot about business," says Buyers, who wanted Hannemann to be his man in the nation's capitol. "Mufi was like a sponge, arriving early to work and leaving late. He's a quick study, very good with people.
"When we went to see a senator or congressman, they never forgot us. Here was this huge Polynesian guy with a great smile and personality and we would one-two them and won that Farm Bill by a huge margin."
Hannemann learned the importance of being recognized, Buyers says.
"It used to be 'Mufi who?' wherever we went but not anymore," he says. "Mufi's no longer shy, he knows how to work a crowd. He's got charisma."
As director of the state's Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, Hannemann made a point to visit film and television series' locations when news media were there, special production events or other opportunities where he might have the chance to talk with reporters.
An oft-told story by some department employees about Hannemann's tenure there is the employee's slogan "MMLG," which stood for "Make Mufi Look Good."
"It rang so true that it quickly spread," a DBEDT worker said. "It seemed like everything we did was to "MMLG.'"
Hannemann bristles at the charge.
"I am also quick to give credit and take the blame," he says. "As a leader you have to assume responsibility if things go wrong."
Retired Big Island firefighter Larry Balberde, who met Hannemann about 15 years ago at C. Brewer, believes Hannemann's motivation is "to help people."
"He's done a lot of fund-raisers here for the (University of Hilo) Vulcans," he says.
A few years ago, Hannemann took some NFL players to the Big Island for a charity basketball game. Afterward, a woman presented leis to the players but not Hannemann because she apparently disliked C. Brewer.
"Mufi asked me her name, then walked over to her and introduced himself," Balberde says. "He asked her some questions, then responded. In 15 minutes, she was walking out with her arm on his arm and Mufi was wearing a lei."
After four years with C. Brewer, including two years living on the Big Island, Hannemann resigned.
"He has Potomac Fever," Buyers says. "There's a lot of ambition in the political world and Mufi has it. He wants to be in the House, the Senate, the governor and now mayor.
"There's no mistaking he likes the political life. Mufi was good at business but didn't have the zeal it requires. He has that for politics."
But Buyers advised Hannemann not to run for mayor.
"It's a road to nowhere," Buyers says. "The mayor is the natural enemy of city councils and you always end up with a lot of enemies. And no Honolulu mayor has ever ended up as governor, which is something Mufi wants.
"He's had some other people advising him and (I think) they're using him a little."
Hannemann's father, Gustav, is 89 years old and lives in a Honolulu care home, confined to a wheelchair but still "quite cognizant," says Hannemann, who visits at least weekly.
His father was a prominent educator in Samoa when he and his wife Faiaso came to Hawaii in 1953 via Guam, seeking better economic opportunities and education for their growing family.
"I had a happy childhood ..." Hannemann says. "My parents always told us we were just as good as anyone else. We learned not to be afraid to step out because we knew we had things to offer."
Despite his lengthy resume, Hannemann still can't relax.
"I haven't been able to do everything I've expected of myself," he says. "I know I have high expectations but, to whom much is given, much is expected."
Eight years ago, Hannemann married Gail Mukaihata in Los Angeles. They had met in Washington, D.C., a dozen years earlier when she worked for two congressmen and held other political jobs.
Though Hannemann comes from a large family and Mukaihata has three sisters, the couple have no children.
"We want kids, but it just hasn't happened," Hannemann says, almost hesitantly. "It's a desire of ours."
Hannemann found Mukaihata "very appealing, attractive and strongly opinionated."
"It makes me a better person to hear her side of things; she's not afraid to share them," he says.
But Mukaihata, a UCLA graduate with a degree in economics, didn't automatically throw her support behind her husband's plan to run for mayor.
"I wanted to hear why he wanted to do it and not just because he had a bone to pick with Jeremy (Harris)," she says.
The couple's modest two-bedroom home on a 10,000-square-foot lot on a busy street in Aiea is within walking distance of Aloha Stadium, an apparent requirement for Hannemann, who enjoys attending University of Hawaii football games and concerts there.
The den, where the couple spend much of their time, has wall-to-wall bookcases along one side. Newsweek, Time and U.S. News & World Report magazines sit in labeled folders. There are framed pictures of Hannemann from magazine profiles, an autographed basketball and volleyballs signed by UH teams, high school yearbooks, memorabilia from a World Series game he attended.
The couple's out-of-date entertainment system includes an ancient record player on which Hannemann plays his hundreds of albums and 45s, including the "Theme from Shaft" which, Mukaihata says, he sings with "a lot of hip moving."
"He remembers almost every word from every song ever recorded in the 60s and 70s," she says. "He loves to sing."
On a "Hawaii Stars" program that featured public officials, Hannemann sang "100 Pounds of Clay," receiving a "perfect 10" from Gov. Cayetano.
In a sealed box somewhere in the house is a twin-size bedspread, which Hannemann used his freshman year at Harvard. He refuses to discard it.
"He's far more sentimental than people know," says Mukaihata, 43.
But Hannemann, while a powerhouse on the basketball court and ferocious adversary in politics, has no interest in learning how to operate anything mechanical or electronic.
"Mufi loves his music but would never read a manual on how to operate a CD player," she says. "He insists he doesn't understand the dials on the washing machine."
Mukaihata is shocked when told that Hannemann was a member of Iolani's Gourmet Club as a senior since her husband "doesn't cook ever," she says. Hannemann "thinks" he was recruited into the club because of his high profile at Iolani his senior year.
"It was probably more to sample food than prepare it," classmate Ching jokes.
Mukaihata met Hannemann at a government reception. It took time for their relationship to evolve from a professional relationship to friends, then romantic interest. Hannemann proposed while Mukaihata was driving over a bridge in a terrible rainstorm.
"The car was losing traction and he was leaning over totally focused on asking me to marry him," says Mukaihata. "It's so Mufi. I didn't want to discuss it then; but it sparked discussions about what we both wanted.
"I was no babe in the woods and wanted to make sure we both understood what we were in for. Mufi was very clear because he's always known what he wanted to do in his life."
And that life journey meant ensuring no mistakes to haunt his career.
"He was always very, very careful in school," Ching says. "Mufi was aware of the fine line he couldn't cross and here's a guy who always had women fawning over him. There are no scandals or skeletons in his closet."
But in 1974 Hannemann found himself arrested with brother Nephi at a Honolulu movie theater for allegedly assaulting an off-duty policeman and his wife. It's not something Hannemann wants to discuss, even though the arrest was expunged from his record and he received $11,000 in a false-arrest suit against the city. Even a polite question about the incident turns Hannemann's eyes into an icy stare.
"I am told by my lawyers I don't have to talk about that," he says. "It's ... not an issue."
"He was totally innocent," Ching says. "He wasn't upset then because he knew he was innocent; he is not confrontational. He was more embarrassed for Nephi and his family. He's worked so hard to keep his life straight."
The self-described gentle giant is more comfortable talking about his honeymoon, spent at Disneyland in Southern California.
"I've been to all four Disneylands in the world: Anaheim, Orlando, Tokyo and France," Hannemann says with childlike glee. "I'm a Disneyland freak; I love the fantasy of the world being such a fun place."
When Hannemann talks about his favorite ride -- "Pirates of the Caribbean" -- he breaks into the ride's theme song: "Ho, ho, ho," he sings in a deep voice.
Born July 16, 1954 in Honolulu
Married Gail Akiko Mukaihata in 1992
EducationAttended public schools in Kalihi, then Iolani School, where he was student body president and an all-star athlete in basketball and football
Graduated cum laude from Harvard University in 1976; served as Harvard freshman council president; varsity basketball letterman
Fulbright Scholar at New Zealand's Victoria University in Wellington in 1976
ProfessionalIolani School: Varsity basketball coach
Maryknoll School: Assistant varsity basketball coach
Began public service as administrative assistant to former Hawaii governor George Ariyoshi; special assistant with the U.S. Department of the Interior during Jimmy Carter administration
White House Fellow in 1983, serving on the staff of Vice President George Bush
Returned to Hawaii, named vice president for corporate marketing and public affairs for C. Brewer and Co.; lobbied for the sugar industry in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association
Joined the Governor's Cabinet, first as director of the Office of International Relations, then as director of the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism
1994: Elected to City Council
1998: Re-elected to City Council
During City Council tenure, served as Council chairman and chairman of Economic Development and Planning, Transportation, and Cultural Affairs committees, past chairman of the Military Affairs Advisory Task Force