WASHINGTON — Does having kids make someone a better public servant?

It’s a complicated question with a complicated answer, but it’s not just an idle thought experiment. Former Congressman Charles Djou, running for his old job as the U.S. representative for urban Honolulu, has made it part of his pitch to voters.

The Republican nominee for the 1st Congressional District said in a recent interview that his fiscally conservative position on the country’s debt is rooted in his desire to leave a better world for his keiki, and noted he’s the “the only major candidate running for major office in Hawaii this year who has children.”

Later in the same interview, Djou said he’s the only major candidate with kids who are in school, something he considers “an unfortunate tragedy” because “we’re missing that perspective in our government.”

A spokesman for his opponent, Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, termed the comments “demeaning and sexist.”

Though Djou didn’t name names, he’s correct that most of the candidates in Hawaii’s three federal contests have no children. That includes:

  • Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, 61, a Democrat who represents the 1st Congressional District
  • Rep. Mazie Hirono, 64, who’s running for U.S. Senate as a Democrat
  • Former Gov. Linda Lingle, 59, the Republican nominee for Senate
  • Tulsi Gabbard, 31, the Democratic nominee for the vacant 2nd Congressional District seat
  • Mufi Hannemann, 58, who lost to Gabbard in last month’s Democratic primary

Of the “major” candidates, only Ed Case, who lost to Hirono last month, has children (two now-adult sons from his first marriage). Kawika Crowley, Gabbard’s Republican opponent in the general election, raised three children as a single parent. Djou has three children.

Djou’s comments came during an appearance on Republican State Sen. Sam Slom’s public-access television show, called “A Better Day.” Here’s the full 27-minute video:

Around the 12-minute mark, Djou says this:

A lot of people say, ‘Well, you only care about the numbers. You’re just a wonk here.’ And that’s actually not the case for myself. I’m the only major candidate running for major office in Hawaii this year who has children. I care very much about my children, my children’s future. I care about their education. I care about making sure they have a wonderful environment to grow up in. I want them to have the same things that I’ve had growing up. But if we don’t take care of this national debt, if we cannot control this out-of-control spending that’s going on right now in Washington, D.C., we will never be able to take care of my children’s education. We will completely waste away.

Around the 24-minute mark, he adds this:

It’s tough to be in elective office with kids who are in school. Right now, I’m the only major candidate for public office with kids who are in school. And I think that’s an unfortunate tragedy. We’re missing that perspective in our government.

That assertion offended Richard Rapoza, communications director for Hanabusa’s campaign.

“For him to hold himself out as somehow superior because he has children when comparing himself to a group of women who have devoted a significant part of their adult lives to public service is demeaning and sexist,” Rapoza said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Rapoza said every candidate is unique in his or her own way.

“Colleen is the only one born in Hawaii, Mazie is the only naturalized citizen, Linda Lingle is the only one who moved to Hawaii as an adult, and Tulsi will become the first Hindu in Congress,” Rapoza said. “Every public official has unique experiences, but every elected official also learns how important it is to talk to a lot of different people. … It would be no more accurate to say that Charles Djou is the only man, so how can he understand women’s issues?”

The other candidates Djou was referencing steered clear of this article. Gabbard’s campaign said she was in military training and unavailable. Hannemann declined through a spokesman. Lingle’s camp said she was particularly busy because Yom Kippur, a high Jewish holiday, began Tuesday at sundown.

Asked if Hirono believes she’s missing an important perspective as a major candidate for major office without children, spokesman Kinsey Kiriakos provided this quasi-answer via email: “Mazie believes a candidate’s commitment to Hawaii’s children is measured by their record, their leadership and their priorities.”

Part Of A Trend

That this year’s crop of federal office candidates features many who have no children is at least partly a coincidence, but it might be part of a trend.

A spokesman with Project Vote Smart, a nonpartisan database of voting records, backgrounds, issue positions, campaign contributions, interest group ratings, and public statements of more than 40,000 candidates and elected officials, told Civil Beat 478 of the 535 members of Congress have children.

That’s true today, but it might not be true in a generation. A 2011 White House report titled “Women In America” explores the depths of the societal shift.

  • Eight out of 10 women now have children, compared to nine out of 10 women in the mid-1970s.
  • About 18 percent of American women between 40 and 44 years old had never had a child in 2008. That’s nearly double the rate in 1976 (10 percent).
  • Of women between 25 and 29 years old in 2008, only 19 percent of high school drop-outs had not had a child, versus 31 percent of high school grads and 72 percent of college-degree-holders. Many members of Congress, presumably, are college-educated.
  • In 2007, the average age at which women first gave birth was 25, compared to 21 in 1970.

Lynne Van Luven, editor of Nobody’s Mother: Life Without Kids, told Civil Beat that having career ambitions can delay or eliminate child-bearing as an option. She raised the example of lawyers who work long hours their first years out of school.

“When would you even have time to have sex, let alone raise a child?” Van Luven said Tuesday. “If fewer women are having children or they’re delaying having children, then it stands to reason that fewer people are going to be in the houses of government with children.”

Laura Scott, author of Two Is Enough: A Couple’s Guide To Living Childless By Choice and the force behind the Childless By Choice Project, says politics in particular can be a tough place for parents because raising children for two decades makes some accomplishments unattainable.

“If the goal is public service, that’s a long time to wait to jump in when we know it takes a long time to build the trust and experience to ask for votes and get them,” she told Civil Beat Tuesday.

The Long Flights

Congress might still overwhelmingly be home to parents and grandparents, but none of the members have to face the same challenges as Hawaii’s delegation.

That’s because Hawaii is about twice as far from Washington, D.C., as even states on the West Coast. So when other representatives and senators head home for the weekend to spend time with their families, that’s not as easy for Hawaii’s lawmakers.

“Getting back to Hawaii from Washington is a real challenge. And none of them get to come back as often as they’d like,” Rapoza said. “So whether it’s to see family or friends or just to eat local food, it’s a real challenge and takes a real commitment to do it. I give Charles credit for going up there and serving in Congress when his kids were back here, but everybody who serves in Congress from Hawaii has that same challenge.”

Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka both have children, and Akaka has cited the distance from his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren as part of the reason he’s retiring at year’s end. Sen. Spark Matsunaga’s was survived by five children noted he had three daughters and two sons. Rep. Patsy Mink had a daughter. Rep. Cec Heftel had seven kids.

“It’s an inherent part,” Rapoza said. “It’s a sacrifice that everybody who serves in Congress from Hawaii makes, and the fact that Charles has to do it doesn’t make him special.”

On Being ‘Representative’

Similar questions about parenthood as a qualification were raised in recent years as first Sonia Sotomayor and then Elena Kagan, both single and without children, were nominated and confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A Washington Post columnist worried after Kagan’s nomination that mothers could become an underrepresented constituency on the court.

If Hanabusa wins re-election and Gabbard is victorious in CD2, then three-fourths of Hawaii’s delegation would be child-free, regardless of who wins the Hirono-Lingle matchup. That’s in sharp contrast to the 80 percent of Americans who become parents at some point in their lives.

It’s not uncommon for politicians to share photos of themselves with their families, to humanize and soften them as real human beings.

“One of the big myths is that men and women who don’t have children are cold or heartless or not concerned about children or families,” said Scott, who said she devoted a whole chapter in her book to the assumptions people make about those without children. “You don’t have to be a parent to be concerned about the welfare of others.”

That’s the crux of the issue and the heart of Djou’s comments on Slom’s show. Slom responds to Djou’s first mention of parenthood — during the discussion of the nation’s debt — by saying, “It’s not that we’re any better than anyone else, it’s just that our experiences are different. We will react differently.”

Djou’s campaign declined to make him available for an interview Tuesday, as he was preparing for his debate with Hanabusa scheduled for Tuesday evening on Hawaii Public Radio. Instead, a campaign staffer, A.T. Ball, said in an email that running for office with young children adds a unique perspective for Djou.

“He often has to juggle soccer practices and ballet classes with campaign events,” Ball wrote. “But, it’s his children that are the reason he’s running for office. He wants to make sure we are not the first generation in American history to leave the next worse off.”

The response, from Hanabusa spokesman Rapoza: “She’s not worrying about her own kids, but she is worrying about every kid. He doesn’t have a better perspective because he’s worried about his own children.”

Van Luven said Djou’s argument “makes the flesh on the back of my neck creep a bit” because “there seems to be a blame attached” — the suggestion that other candidates were unwilling or unable to handle both a family and a career in public service.

“It does sound like sort of a family values argument to me veiled in something else,” she said.

Scott flips the question on its head, saying a politician without children would have more time and energy to fight for his or her constituents.

“I would probably be inclined to vote for someone who is not encumbered by family responsibilities,” she said.

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