Neal Milner


POSTED: Friday, December 18, 2009

Neal Milner is the go-to guy for Hawaii media seeking frank political insight, and the University of Hawaii political science professor sees 2010 shaping up as an exciting, but potentially nasty, campaign season.

Milner, who will be back teaching at Manoa in the spring semester after a six-month sabbatical, has been with UH since 1972, spending most of that time as a professor, but also serving stints as an ombuds officer, union negotiator and assistant dean.

He grew up in Milwaukee and attended the University of Wisconsin, earning a bachelor's degree, master's and doctorate in political science there before venturing ever farther west.

The Hawaii Kai resident also is a playwright and actor, having just wrapped up his latest role, in The Actors Group Theater production of David Mamet's “;November.”;

As a storyteller and writer, Milner describes life as an outsider in Hawaii. As he put it in a story in the online Jewish Magazine, “;Being Jewish adds zest, recognition, and mystery to my haole status.”;

He and wife Joy have two children, who are grown and living on the mainland.

At 68, his own political leanings remain “;left of center and I'm sure that colors my perspective, because nobody is truly objective,”; said Milner, a frequent political commentator for TV news stations and other Hawaii media. “;But when I do this kind of stuff, I have absolutely no interest in being partisan at all. I'm a teacher. I like analyzing and explaining what's going on. And there's a lot going on.”;

QUESTION: Let's talk about Neil Abercrombie resigning his U.S. House seat to run for governor. Who benefits the most from this move, and who has the most to lose?

ANSWER: Neil Abercrombie benefits the most because it lets him come back and campaign full time, really get into it … I don't think anyone has a whole lot to lose because of this, although it does put a little bit more pressure on Mayor (Mufi) Hannemann to decide on whether or not he's going to run, and it takes away the control of the timing of that announcement from the mayor a little bit.

Q: Will it pressure him (Hannemann) to officially enter the race sooner than he might have liked?

A: Yes, I think so. There are two things that have happened that have made Mufi's life a little more complicated. … Neil has now pushed a little harder and the rail groundbreaking has been delayed. … But you always have to remember that Mayor Hannemann is out there campaigning every day. It's the nature of the office. … That's one of the reasons that Neil decided to come back, I'm sure.

Q: What if the rail groundbreaking is delayed again? Does the mayor have to wait for the groundbreaking to officially join the governor's race?

A: Not really. This is all kind of a kabuki that gets created by the media and by the candidates who for some reason feel like they have to play coy about the fact that they actually have ambition. … The truth is that any large public works project is never going to make the deadline, ever, and that's not a tragedy, that's just a natural part of the process. … If he's got to make a commitment to running for governor, I think at some point he will, whether or not ground is broken.

Q: Do you think Democrats are worried at all that Hannemann won't run, a la Jeremy Harris?

A: What do they care if he runs or not? They've got another candidate who's pretty good. … This is not a Jeremy Harris situation. When he dropped out there was a real shortage of strong Democrat candidates … They ended up with Mazie Hirono and she lost to Linda Lingle. This time, what's the worst thing that would happen? Neil Abercrombie is a strong, loyal Democrat, who will run a strong campaign. Unless a person is a really strong Hannemann supporter, I don't think the state party really cares.

Q: The 1986 (U.S. House) primary race between Hannemann and Abercrombie was especially ugly.  Do you think it will be like that this time, assuming Hannemann does enter the race?

A: Here's what you have: You have two smart guys, good campaigners, who don't like each other very much, are thin-skinned, speak very well and don't differ very much on policy. What that means is that there's a strong possibility that more abstract issues, character, values, that sort of thing, could come into play and the temptation and perception (of going negative) is there … This is going to be a pretty hard-fought one and because on policy issues they do not differ that much, we could get into these more abstract things — honesty, confidence, loyalty, etc., personal characteristics that could veer into personal attacks and negative campaigning.

Q: What about the unions, both government and private-sector? What role will they play?

A: … I think they are probably going to wait around here and see how it plays out a little. … Both (Abercrombie and Hannemann) have well-established contacts with the unions so they may have to make a decision between two people they have supported in different contexts in the past 10 years or so.

Q: Why is Abercrombie running now? After eight years of a Republican administration, now his friend is president and Democrats control Congress.

A: Exactly. If he doesn't do it now, he's never going to do it. It's not like he's going to give up his seat to a Republican. … If he thought there was a risk that a Republican could win his seat he might have had second thoughts.

Q: But isn't he taking that risk? Doesn't Charles Djou have a chance? (The Honolulu City Councilman is the leading Republican in the race for the 1st Congressional District seat Abercrombie is vacating.)

A: A chance, yea, but a very small chance. … The upside for Djou is that he's not running against an incumbent and he was smart enough to understand that this is such an uphill battle that he really declared for this race three years ago … But the downside is that the Republicans are in terrible shape here. …Voting is a habit and you have to work very hard to change the habit and there's no indication that's going happen. … Hawaii, statistically, is a very strong Democratic state and that doesn't go away just because you have a bright young candidate.

Q: What about Ed Case and Colleen Hanabusa (Democrats vying for that seat)?

A: I don't know who's going to win. I think that Case is running his campaign just the way a person would who has experience. Right out the gate, he's out there, reminding people that this is about experience and that he has it. … Hanabusa has been a little bit slow getting into this. Again, this is a race where there are no insurgents. Both are well-established Democrats …

Q: Isn't Case considered more of an insurgent, having challenged Sen. Daniel Akaka in the 2006 primary?

A: There is some of that and Hanabusa will have to figure out a way to play that out. … I'm just not so sure that it's going to translate. … The average voter right now is much more likely to recognize Ed Case's name than Colleen Hanabusa's and name recognition is a huge part of this.

Q: What about baggage for Hanabusa from being state Senate president during the fiscal crisis?

A: I think every person who currently holds office in this state holds some baggage because of the state budget crisis. Nobody has handled it well, regardless of party, regardless of position. … But the budget situation is very abstract, it's hard to pin responsibility down and it will be interesting to see if Case uses that issue against Hanabusa.

Q: Other than Hanabusa, there doesn't seem to be many female candidates in statewide races.

A: I guess part of that is, where would they be coming from? In the Legislature, Hanabusa is clearly the most visible woman. … You look at the history of women in the Legislature and the City Council and so on and there just haven't been many women lately.

Q: Does Linda Lingle have a political future in Hawaii?

A: … First it depends on if she wants one and then it depends on what seats (open up). … It really comes down to is she interested in a (U.S.) Senate seat? … What limits her political future more than anything else in this state is purely and simply that she is a Republican. … If I'm looking at everything — what does she want, what seats are going to open, her record — the biggest obstacle is still the fact that she's a Republican in a state that prefers Democrats.