Hawaii's political dynamic needs to change, says candidate Case
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
Ed Case said he believes that most voters think the same way he does about government and politics in Hawai'i and Washington, D.C.: too partisan, too dysfunctional, too out of touch with everyday concerns.
The former congressman has taken the middle path. He speaks for some moderate Democrats and Republicans and for a growing segment of voters who describe themselves as independents.
But rather than being a unifying figure, Case has angered many establishment Democrats and labor leaders who are the backbone of the state's dominant party.
His critics see him as arrogant, someone who has burned more bridges with the party faithful than he has built. In the special election for Congress in urban Honolulu's 1st Congressional District, where his experience and name recognition should have made him the party's first choice, many traditional Democrats have embraced state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa.
"This is a time when we need experience in Washington, and I've got that, and my opponents don't," Case, an attorney, said in an interview in his law office overlooking the state Capitol.
"I know the issues. I know the people. I know the rhythms. I know the procedures," he said. "And I have a very clear understanding of where we should be going.
"The voter does not have to guess at what kind of job I'm going to do, because I've already done it."
As in his unsuccessful primary challenge to U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i, in 2006, Case is framing this campaign as one of change, not in the Barack Obama mold of soaring rhetoric about transformation, but in the insistent tone of an independent who has fought the establishment before and lost.
"We have to find a different way of governing this country," Case said. "And I believe, strongly, that the partisan divisions have to end and that we have to solve our problems.
"And I would say to the voter, 'I'm sure that you believe that too.' And I do believe that 90 percent of the voters want the same thing."
With a real possibility that Case and Hanabusa could split the Democratic vote in the winner-take-all special election, and help hand a victory to Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou, a Republican, many Democrats are thinking about the race more pragmatically than they would a primary.
Case, according to private polls, has higher favorability ratings than both Hanabusa and Djou.
The Hawai'i Poll and other polls suggest that Case is more competitive with Djou than Hanabusa is.
Many national Democrats, concerned about losing in President Obama's birthplace, also believe Case has the best chance among Democrats.
LINGERING ILL WILL
Ben Cayetano, a former governor, said many local establishment Democrats do not like Case because he would not stand aside and let John Mink take the special election to fill out the remainder of his wife's term after U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink, D-Hawai'i, died in office in 2002.
The anger against him increased when he took on Akaka.
"Ed's strengths: intelligent, honest, has the political will to stand by his convictions, understands the workings of government and is a deep thinker," Cayetano said in an e-mail. "His greatest strength is his independence — he is not beholden to any special interests."
Cayetano said Case's weakness is that he can be impulsive.
Despite Case's stand in favor of civil unions and his strong record on protecting the environment, many progressive Democrats have the most animosity toward him. Case's position on Iraq — he likely would have authorized President George W. Bush to invade; he opposed a specific timetable for troop withdrawal — damaged him with progressives in the primary against Akaka.
"It's a clich thing to say, but it seems like Ed Case is all about Ed Case, not necessarily about doing what's right for Democrats, or doing what's right for a particular cause," said Rachel Orange, a progressive activist.
Case and many of his supporters believe anger against him for challenging Akaka is isolated or has passed for most voters. The Hawai'i Poll found him splitting the Democratic vote with Hanabusa.
But in the party's hierarchy — particularly for U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, the state's leading Democrat, and labor leaders — the animosity has snapped back into play.
Case, 57, says that among Democrats there is a "fundamental disagreement over the future of Hawai'i" that he believes has been an underlying theme with traditional Democrats in most of his political campaigns.
"Although this is about Congress and our national governance, it's also about changing the dynamic in Hawai'i, the political culture in Hawai'i," said Case, a former state House majority leader who ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary for governor in 2002.
"Colleen Hanabusa? She is like the poster child for that culture. And a victory by Charles is not going to change the culture. The culture will regard that as an anomaly and will go on about its business.
"If I am able to prevail, it will send a message that people want a different way right here in Hawai'i."
BLUE DOG DEMOCRAT
Case described Hanabusa and Djou as "creatures of their partisan worlds" who may talk of independence but would likely fall into the partisan traps of Washington.
Case was part of the Blue Dogs, a coalition of moderate and conservative Democrats who focus on fiscal issues such as deficit reduction, when he served in Congress. The National Journal, which publishes annual ratings on lawmakers to help gauge ideology, gave Case a 59.8 liberal rating in 2006, his last year in the House. Former congressman Neil Abercrombie, by comparison, had a 85.5 liberal rating that year.
Case rejects suggestions from Hanabusa and other Democrats that he would not be a collaborator with the state's congressional delegation, which usually functions as a team on Hawai'i issues to maximize influence.
While in Congress, Case was with the delegation on every significant local issue except the Jones Act, the federal maritime law that protects the domestic shipping industry. Case has supported an exemption for Hawai'i because he believes the law discourages competition and has led to higher consumer costs.
During this campaign, however, Case has broken with the delegation on the current version of a Native Hawaiian federal recognition bill. He believes that Hawaiians should not have sovereign authority before negotiations with the state and federal governments. He also thinks local hearings on the bill would be useful, because hearings have not been held on the issue in the Islands in a decade.
"I am not at all worried about getting along and working together with the delegation," Case said, noting that there have often been political tensions and rivalries within the delegation but that lawmakers have found ways to work in unison.
Case said he considers the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands his proudest accomplishment in Congress.
President Bush created the monument, one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world, and Djou and state Senate Minority Leader Fred Hemmings, R-25th (Kailua, Waimānalo, Hawai'i Kai), have questioned Case's claimed role.
Hemmings said that while Case introduced federal legislation, nothing happened in Congress, so he does not understand why Case "unabashedly took credit."
One source involved with the process, speaking privately because he did not want to appear to take sides in the special election, described it as the "ultimate ensemble effort" with as many as 50 key players. The source described Case's role as integral, however, and provided e-mail and letters from the time that showed Case and his staff were involved.
"My tracks were nowhere on that, but I was all over that. And that's leadership," Case said.
Case said his priorities if elected would be the economy, job creation and deficit reduction. He also said he would continue to support what he described as reasonable federal funding for Hawai'i, challenging Djou's argument that federal earmarks should be suspended until the deficit is smaller.
Case said earmarks — federal money set aside by individual lawmakers for local projects — should be transparent and that any links between lobbying and campaign donations should be severed.
The House Appropriations Committee has moved to restrict earmarks for for-profit companies, but Inouye, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and one of the most effective lawmakers in Washington at securing earmarks for his home state, has opposed the idea. Inouye has questioned why Congress would cede federal spending decisions on projects to the White House and why for-profit companies should be treated differently than non-profits when it comes to earmarks.
"I reject Charles' idea that we should simply go cold turkey and cut off earmarks," Case said. "That strikes me as incredibly naive and destructive. Earmarks do have to be reformed, but I don't believe they have to be ended."
Case described himself and fellow Blue Dogs as "voices in the wilderness" during his time in Congress, when the deficit increased under a Republican president.
"There were probably 50 of us that were carrying the flag for federal fiscal responsibility at a time when both Democrats and Republicans were busy trashing our federal budget," he said.
"One of the things you have to do in Congress is you have to find your fellow travelers. You have to decide, 'Who are the people that share your views?' And you can work with them.
"You're not a lone wolf. You cannot be."