Hawaii vs. Illinois: Battling over a Favorite Son

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Marco Garcia / AP

A woman admires a pro-Obama shirt at a celebration party in Honolulu

Almost immediately after Barack Obama's election-night victory, Kohono Mossman's voice mail began filling up with requests for tickets. Born and raised on Maui and now a Pentagon consultant, Mossman, 26, suddenly finds himself in charge of the hottest ticket in town as chairman of the Hawaii Inaugural ball, put on by the 400-member Hawaii State Society of Washington, D.C. He sold out the 900 tickets (at $200 each) three days after Obama's victory. It is the very first Inaugural ball thrown by the state, which proudly holds the title of the place where Obama was born. The ticket requests, some desperate, keep coming in. "My father [is] in heart failure," one person wrote to Mossman, hoping to get tickets to the ball. "He has had a lifetime love of politics, lived in Hawaii ... Can I get two tickets?" Mossman has had to decline offers of $10,000 sponsorships because he cannot provide the eight-seat tables for the would-be donors. "It kills me when I have to turn people away because we don't have any more tickets." (Read about the 2001 Inaugural balls.)

In spite of the excitement over the Inaugural ball, Hawaii has a bit of a chip on its shoulder. Obama, after all, is a Senator from Illinois, and the incoming President comes off as more a Land of Lincolner than a son of the Aloha State. It's been that way throughout his political career. For example, it took more than a year of watching Obama play poker in "the Committee Meeting" — the nickname that Illinois state senators gave their regular, after-hours poker games — for legislator Denny Jacobs to notice Obama's occasional offhand references to Hawaii's nearly year-round 85-degree weather. "When we were down there in January and it was a blistering 2 degrees below zero, he would sit there and say, 'You know, if we were in Hawaii, we wouldn't have this problem,' " Jacobs says. (See pictures of Barack Obama's family tree.)

Some Hawaiians have a ready explanation for Obama's reticence about the state where he was born. They say local people were raised to be humble, a tradition that dates back to the 19th-century beginnings of Hawaii's plantation era, when everyone came from someplace else and pineapple and sugarcane workers needed to get along in order to survive in their new home. So it would be uncharacteristic, they say, for a true son of Hawaii to go to a big city like Chicago and brag about the sun-drenched beaches, tight family ways and tasty food of his home state. Instead, they say, someone like Obama would most likely try to fit in while sticking to the values of his birthplace. Hawaii state senator Clayton Hee, an early Obama supporter, is hardly surprised that Obama doesn't go around telling people on the mainland about his roots. Says Hee, a Democrat and the former chairman of the state office of Hawaiian affairs: "When you look at Barack Obama, Illinois may be his home, but he belongs to Hawaii."

Obama becomes an island boy immediately upon touching down on Hawaiian soil. In August, when he returned for a family vacation in Honolulu, Obama was quick to mention the local restaurants where he ate when he was growing up and the food he had been craving on the campaign trail. He even used the common island greeting "Howzit," a Pidgin English version of "How's it going?" "How's everybody doing today?" Obama asked the crowd that turned out to greet him. "Howzit?" Then he talked about going to lunch: "I might go to Zippy's. I might go to Rainbow Drive-In. I haven't decided yet. Get some Zip Min. I'm going to go get some shave ice. I'm going to go bodysurfing at an undisclosed location." He was later seen bodysurfing the sometimes treacherous waves at Sandy Beach, which have killed and crippled professional bodyboarders and surfers. Obama caught five waves in 30 minutes, says Honolulu lifeguard Peter Erwin, who was asked by Secret Service agents to accompany the Senator. "Obviously knew what he was doing," says Erwin. "He was handling himself well."

Michelle Obama frequently tells the rest of the country, "You can't really understand Barack until you understand Hawaii." But all of that won't deter Illinois. Democratic state senator Terry Link, Obama's Chicago poker- and golf-playing buddy, says that while Obama was born and raised in Honolulu, "we consider him ours. He's very much an Illinoisan as far as we're concerned. We embrace him as our favorite son. He's Illinois true and blue." Addressing Hawaii's claims on him, Link says, "We're going to steal him from you in every which way we can."

See pictures of Michelle Obama meeting Hillary Clinton.