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A Congressional Encounter of the Brief Kind : Hawaii Rep. Neil Abercrombie Serves One of the Nation's Shortest Terms

October 10, 1986|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Someday, when Hawaii Democrat Neil Abercrombie looks back over the entirety of his career in Congress, he won't strain his eyes. If he blinks, he'll miss it.

With Congress expected to adjourn for the year any day now, Abercrombie will have served for less than three weeks of House sessions--one of the shortest terms of office ever. And as far as he knows, he will not return. It is not so much a career as an encounter.

Short but Memorable

It has turned out to be a memorable quickie, though. Finishing out the term of a member who resigned, Abercrombie had been here for two days when he cast what could be considered the deciding vote in the $562-billion omnibus spending bill that kept the government operating, clearing the House in a tense 201-200 tally. Then he went on to vote for two blockbuster pieces of legislation: the tax overhaul bill and the override of President Reagan's veto on South Africa sanctions. Between votes, he was invited by Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) to go to Argentina on a government-paid journey to attend a conference of worldwide legislators.

That's pretty heady stuff for someone getting around Washington on the bus, carrying a map.

Abercrombie--who also has the longest hair among men in Congress--did not plan on traveling 6,000 miles to serve the shortest term anyone can remember. It just happened. He won a special election Sept. 20 to finish out the term of Democratic Rep. Cecil Heftel, who had resigned to run for governor. On the same day, primary elections were held to select candidates to oppose each other in November for the next Congress.

With his polls showing him 10 points ahead, Abercrombie assumed he would win both the special election and the Democratic primary, starting a long congressional career, although he worried that a "smear" campaign accusing him of using drugs might cause him to lose both elections. Abercrombie never dreamed that he would win the special election and lose the primary.

But he did.

Many Cross-Over Voters

Hawaii allows open voting in primaries, and the Republican candidate, Patricia Saiki, was unopposed. So, rather than waste votes on her, thousands of Republicans who had voted for Saiki in the special election crossed over and voted for various Democrats in the primaries, skewing the results. In the primary, Abercrombie finished 1,162 votes behind winner Mufi Hannemann, whom he beat by 2,231 votes in the special election.

On election night Abercrombie went to bed knowing he had lost the primary and assuming he had lost the general election, too. When the phone call came at 7:30 in the morning informing him he would be a congressman for about two weeks, his reaction was, "Oh, no!"

But now he says there is "no question" in his mind that he will leave his mark on Congress.

Not only have congressional stationery and business cards already been printed, but Abercrombie also has drawn up a bill he plans to introduce on programs for sexually abused children, even though there is no time to debate and pass it. He's asked for a seat on the Armed Services Committee, a request that may be voted on by the Democratic Caucus today.

Competing for committee slots is a blood sport on the Hill. But the Steering Committee, which presides over the process, unanimously recommended that the caucus create a special slot for Abercrombie on Armed Services, so he can attend some committee field hearings that have been scheduled for December in Hawaii, dealing with the proposed sale of military lands in Abercrombie's Honolulu district. Technically, Abercrombie's term of office runs through Jan. 3, but the lawmakers do not expect to convene again in Washington until the new Congress is sworn in. Abercrombie's career plans when he returns to Hawaii are uncertain.

Abercrombie's efforts will not only make him a conversation piece for years to come, they will also earn him more than $18,000 (with the $75,100 yearly salary being prorated). The House historian does not know who served the shortest term ever, but Abercrombie's predicament is unique in the memories of present Hill watchers.

With Skeleton Staff

A former teacher and member of the Hawaii Senate, Abercrombie, 48, has hired a skeleton staff of six people, four from Heftel's staff and two brought from Hawaii. One of the Hawaiian imports, press secretary Mike Slackman, is sleeping on a futon on the floor of a friend's home here. Abercrombie and his wife, Nancie, are staying in Heftel's apartment.

Abercrombie has shown unusual dedication in such ordinary chores as presiding over the House during "special orders," a time when members read speeches to an almost empty chamber and the C-SPAN television cameras.

In fulfilling that duty, one assumes the deceivingly lofty title of Speaker pro tempore.

"Willingness to serve is the principal criteria" for being selected Speaker pro tempore, he said, so Abercrombie drew the dubious honor three days in a row.

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