Mufi’s Rock ‘n Rollman
Keith Rollman has been a shadowy figure in local politics for much of the last 25 years, a behind-the-scenes operator whose job is to draw attention to his candidate, not himself.
He worked mostly for Republican candidates before hooking up with Mufi Hannemann’s mayoral campaign in 2004, and when he’s surfaced publicly in the political arena, it’s usually been to be accused of negative campaigning.
His flair for the negative has now made Rollman a highly visible issue in the increasingly bitter governor’s race between Hannemann and Neil Abercrombie after the Hannemann campaign admitted that Rollman was responsible for the Atomic Monkey website that made crude anonymous attacks on Abercrombie.
The attention that has forced Rollman out from behind the dark glasses he favors is feeding much online speculation about him, some of it fair and some not. Here’s a profile intended to help answer the question buzzing around the Hawaii political world: Whodaguy?
Rollman currently works as a high-level information technology adviser in the city administration and is a self-described “volunteer” in Hannemann’s campaign for governor.
He insists he created his Abercrombie parody website on his own time, used no city equipment and that Atomic Monkey had no official connection to the Hannemann campaign, which asked him to take it down.
Rollman’s assertion in a KITV interview that “the campaign didn’t know anything about it” raised eyebrows since Dean Okimoto, Hannemann campaign chairman, was a “fan” of Atomic Monkey on its now-defunct Facebook page, as were other officials in the campaign and city administration.
Arguments over what’s city time and what’s personal time can get to be hair-splitting when it involves a salaried city employee and mayoral confidant like Rollman, who was a paid consultant to the 2004 Hannemann campaign before taking an $85,000 city job after Hannemann defeated Duke Bainum.
He claims a close personal and professional relationship with Hannemann that extends beyond what you would expect between a chief executive and the No. 2 guy in the IT department. Rollman said in a post on Ian Lind’s blog: “Mayor Hannemann is not just my boss he’s my friend. That relationship is based on 8 years of working closely on a near daily basis.”
Critics argue that between his job and personal relationship, everything he does in the political arena reflects on the mayor.
The Atomic Monkey website was registered under the fictitious name of “Bob Wiesel.” By acknowledging that it was Rollman, the Hannemann campaign potentially linked Rollman to further online attacks on Abercrombie and other Hannemann rivals.
A multitude of aliases tied to “Bob Wiesel” or variants such as “Robert Wiesel,” “Bob W” or “rwiesel” have been active in numerous online forums advancing the administration’s views or bashing the mayor’s critics.
On the Volcanic Ash blog, at least a half-dozen aliases registered to a “Wiesel” e-mail address have been used to post comments.
At one time, they came mostly from the city hall IP address, honolulu.gov, and were often posted during normal working hours. More recently, they have avoided work hours and have come from non-city IPs.
“Bob Wiesel” addressed this in a post on the Hawaii Free Press: “Blog participation at City Hall tapered off after Dave Shapiro started publishing IP addresses in an attempt to suppress his critics. Several individuals at City Hall asked Charles Totto (ethics commission) for a reading on whether it was ‘against the rules’ to participate during our lunch hour, breaks etc. He recommended that we play it safe and just not do it at all from the city network and it pretty much stopped at that point.”
Rollman has defended Atomic Monkey as an expression of his sense of humor, and the few examples that are still around after the website was taken down depict some pretty nasty bite, such as a picture of Abercrombie’s face transposed on the head of a pig.
“Bob Wiesel” said in the Hawaii Free Press post that Atomic Monkey proudly calls Abercrombie a “flailing gasbag,” and conceded applying a description of a “witch” to Abercrombie’s wife, Nancie Caraway, because she’s a feminist.
Abercrombie isn’t the only Hannemann rival who’s been a target of the “Wiesel” venom in online forums.
In one noteworthy example, the Twitter account @Polystalker registered to “Robert Wiesel” had this to say shortly after the tragic death of Duke Bainum: “Now that the phony, over-blown eulogies are dying down…wasn’t Duke Bainum sort of a carpetbagging dilettante?”
The concern is that such anonymous character assassinations reduce political campaigns to the intellectual level of the locker room interviews on professional wrestling shows. Partisans of other campaigns are guilty of the same thing, but when the Hannemann camp is seen as giving more than it gets, it runs the risk of enhancing a reputation for bullying.
In a post on the Hawaii Reporter website, Rollman once described himself as “a marginal Republican working for the moderate Democrat (and fiscally conservative) Mayor Mufi Hannemann, and loving every minute of it.”
A professional colleague described Rollman this way: “In social settings, a nice guy … pleasant and personable … but when it comes to politics, he turns Dr. Hyde, with a very, very nasty streak. Takes great delight in embarrassing opposing politicians … almost nothing out-of-bounds.”
Rollman defends his rough-and-tumble style with a quote that originated with Lenin and was passed to him by his Hawaii political mentor, saying “Frank Fasi taught me that an unchallenged lie becomes the truth.”
The persistent criticism has been that the Hannemann group regards any honest disagreement with its own views as a “lie.”
Rollman came to Hawaii with his military family in 1968 and stayed to attend the University of Hawaii when the family redeployed.
He first made a name for himself as a political consultant working in Fasi’s mayoral campaigns; Hawaii Business credited Rollman for the “negative campaigning” in 1984 that helped Fasi make a comeback as a Republican convert and regain the city’s top job from Eileen Anderson, who had taken it from him four years earlier.
In 1994, Rollman stuck with the Republicans and their candidate for governor Pat Saiki as media adviser when Fasi left the GOP and ran a third-party campaign against Saiki and Democrat Ben Cayetano.
In that race, Hawaii Business said Rollman’s negative style that had helped Fasi may have backfired when employed on Saiki’s behalf.
The magazine’s analysis said, “The (negative) strategy resurfaced this year, with Saiki commercials portraying Fasi as a shakedown artist. In this year’s race, though, the result by early September was that Saiki had engaged Fasi in a mudslinging battle, with Ben Cayetano above the fray.” Saiki, who started the campaign with a big lead in the polls, ended up finishing third.
Rollman backed Republican Orson Swindle’s campaign to unseat Abercrombie from Congress. Swindle ran campaign ads that featured unflattering images of a younger Abercrombie sporting longer hair and a bushier beard — a theme that would later reappear in Atomic Monkey.
Rollman was quoted as a media adviser for Peter Carlisle when he first won the city prosecutor’s job in 1996 and for Republican Gene Ward in his 1998 run against Abercrombie, of whom Rollman has said, “I have known and disliked Neil Abercrombie since before Mufi Hannemann was out of high school.”
In the late 1990s, Rollman relocated to Austin for several years, saying in a later interview that he went to Texas to “immerse” himself in technology.
Rollman re-emerged in Hawaii in 2000 when he established Hawaii Ventures Corp., which Pacific Business News described as “a new Web-based venture, showcasing Hawaii’s high-tech companies to potential investors and customers in the booming Houston area.”
The listing for Rollman and Hawaii Ventures on the online business network Spoke listed Mufi Hannemann as a vice president, but didn’t specify the role or whether it was a paid position.
Rollman initially commuted between Hawaii and Texas, but returned to Hawaii for good in 2001 to continue his online venture and take a job as vice president for technology services with McNeil Wilson Communications, which is the Hannemann campaign’s current public relations agency.
Technology was the rage in 2001 and Rollman landed with a splash upon his return. Honolulu Weekly described him as an “example of the kind of talent Hawai‘i needs to retain” and Hawaii Business featured him in an article called “Cyberspace Cowboy.”
The Weekly reported that while in Texas, Rollman helped launch an Internet startup called Living.com that “grew from one to 370 employees in less than a year.” The venture now appears defunct, with the domain name held by a food blog.
Hawaii Business said of Rollman’s local venture, “Although he wouldn’t reveal any revenue figures, Rollman does say that HawaiiVentures.com started turning a profit almost from the start, and he now earns more than he did as a high-level executive at a large Internet startup.” HawaiiVentures.com also appears currently defunct with its domain name being offered for sale.
Within a few years of his return to Hawaii, Rollman was shifting his attention back to politics. The Spoke listing said he did a stint as chief of staff for former state Sen. Melodie Aduja, and Rollman became a paid media consultant to Hannemann’s 2004 campaign for mayor. Ian Lind posted Campaign Spending Commission records indicating he received payments from the campaign of about $75,000.
After Hannemann narrowly beat Bainum, he hired Rollman to an $85,000-a-year job in February 2005 as director of the city Office of Economic Development, an appointment that was sharply criticized by Pacific Business News.
PBN said in an editorial: “Rollman has bounced around in a variety of tech jobs over the past decade and served as a media adviser to Hannemann’s campaign. Since he has no apparent experience in economic development, Rollman’s appointment to an $85,000 job seems to us a business-as-usual payback to a campaign worker. We expected better of Hannemann.”
The assignment didn’t last long; in May 2005, Hannemann shifted Rollman to the job he still holds as special adviser in the city’s Department of Information Technology.
Since joining the city, Rollman’s few appearances in the news have been more about politics than computers. He was accused in the 2008 mayoral campaign of posting a derogatory website about Hannemann opponent Panos Prevedouros. Rollman strongly denied any ties to the website.
This year, he was in the middle of a dispute over the Hannemann campaign’s allegedly high-handed behavior at the state Democratic convention, which caused party chairman Dante Carpenter to rebuke the mayor.
Rollman, who was a delegate to the convention, posted a stinging retort to Carpenter on this blog: “There is little tolerance for any ‘Democrat’ not willing to tow the liberal mantra of the Neil Abercrombie zealots who have taken over the party. What used to be the ‘big tent’ is now a rather ingrown clique with some very radical views. I don’t think they represent the more patriotic AJA Democrats I know, the typical union workers or a majority of the more moderate and independent individuals who still consider themselves Democrats. To quote an old adage…we didn’t leave the party, the party left us.”
More than a few Democrats found it cheeky for a guy who spent all those years working to elect Republicans to present himself as the voice of old-line Democrats.
Expect to hear more from Keith Rollman and “Bob Wiesel” as the campaign pushes on. Whether by design or happenstance, Rollman appears to have taken on the role in the Hannemann administration and campaign of trolling online forums to smack down “lies” — and to plant shots at the opposition along the way.