The moderator for the first forum between the 1st Congressional District candidates pointed out that the two candidates have a lot in common: Asian-American men in their 40s, married with young kids, military veterans and centrists in their respective parties.

How, then, to define the differences between Democrat Mark Takai and Republican Charles Djou? asked Hawaii Business magazine editor Steve Petranik.

Djou had an answer: He drives a Honda Civic while Takai drives a Nissan Leaf.

It was a funny line, indicative of the civil and informative exchange that followed between the two.

Charles Djou on left and Mark Takai during Chamber of Commerce debate at the Plaza Club on September 23, 2014

Charles Djou, left, and Mark Takai during a Chamber of Commerce forum at the Plaza Club on Tuesday night

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

But there are big differences between Djou and Takai, and their race is close, according to a Civil Beat Poll. Those differences could prove critical in who wins the necessary votes to represent Hawaii in the next Congress.

Exemption from the Jones Act?

One big difference: Djou wants an exemption for Hawaii from the Jones Act, a federal merchant marine law from the 1920s that governs shipping between Hawaii to the mainland. Vessels have to be built in America and crewed by Americans.

The law, said Djou, results in no competition for shipping to Hawaii and translates into inflated prices for basic goods. Djou said during his brief tenure in Congress in 2010 he managed to explain to many of his colleagues what the Jones Act was, saying many had never heard of it. He believes his fellow Republicans would be receptive to an exemption should Hawaii return him to Washington.

Takai opposes an exemption. He said the Jones Act protects jobs and helps the shipping industry in this country. Were container ships to come from Asia, the same standards of health and labor practices would not apply. Finally, Takai called the law important to national defense, saying that most of the cargo shipped by the U.S. to the Middle East is not on military ships but U.S.-flagged ships.

The Jones Act, said Djou, results in no competition for shipping to Hawaii and translates into inflated prices for basic goods.

A second major difference between the two candidates regards the U.S. role in the Middle East. Asked whether they would have voted to support President Obama’s call to train and arm Syrian rebels in Iraq and Syria in order to combat ISIS or the Islamic State, as Congress did last week, Djou said yes and Takai said no.

While he said the president took too long to act on ISIS, Djou said the right strategy is now in place and coalition-building is under way. He said politics should end at the water’s edge and that now is the time for the country to unite.

But Takai, while applauding U.S.-led efforts in forging a broad coalition, said the conflicts in the region are centuries old or longer. Having seen the uneven results of intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, Takai said the battle against ISIS was “not our war.”

The same issue splits Hawaii’s current congressional delegation, with Sens. Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz siding with the president’s plan and Reps. Colleen Hanabusa and Tulsi Gabbard opposing them.

(Djou slipped and said he would have voted with Hirono and Dan Inouye, apparently momentarily forgetting that Schatz succeeded Inouye. Takai, meanwhile, said he would have voted as Gabbard and Rep. Tammy Duckworth did, perhaps forgetting to name Hanabusa.)

Very Different Styles

Djou and Takai found common on ground on visa waivers to help tourism. They both support the nation’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region.

Takai looked to the example of Inouye as the kind of leader he aspires to, one who worked closely with Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska. Djou said the days of bringing slabs of bacon back to the state are gone and that Hawaii better get used to fighting over shrinking amounts of federal dollars.

Those major issues aside, here’s the essential pitch for sending Djou to Congress, according to Djou: He’s been there before, he’ll “hit the ground running on day one” and he’ll be a member of the majority party in the House (and maybe the Senate, too), so he’ll “be at the table” to find ways to help Hawaii.

The Jones Act, said Takai, protects jobs and helps the shipping industry in this country.

Here’s Takai’s pitch according to Takai: He’ll work smoothly with Schatz, Hirono and Gabbard. He has a record of working across the aisle. He learned from his family’s plantation roots. He’s a proud product of Pearl City-Aiea and the University of Hawaii.

One other observation, obvious to anyone who knows these men: They have very different styles.

Djou is animated, passionate, sometimes almost breathless in delivery. He gushes a bit. He uses his hands and arms to emphasize points. And he uses the word “personal” a lot, as in “This is personal to me,” whether it’s deciding to vote for war or opposing tax increases. When he talks about leaving his wife and kids to serve in a war zone, you can hear a pin drop in a large room.

Takai is relaxed and calm to the point of appearing bland. He answers questions carefully and patiently. And, despite his mild composure, he does not fold when attacks and tough questions come his way. For example, when Djou accused him of voting for multiple tax increases, Takai explained that there are multiple votes in the Legislature and it is the last ones that count. He said he did not vote for as many tax increases as Djou suggested. He also noted they were for good reasons, like supporting sustainable energy. 

More CD1 Appearances to Come?

This was the first time voters got to see Takai and Djou side by side, but it was before a finite audience at The Plaza Club before the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii. It only lasted 45 minutes. And, as of this writing, there are no firm dates set for other appearances, let alone televised debates to be broadcast statewide.

This is in sharp contrast to the three candidates for governor who were also on hand Tuesday (Libertarian Jeff Davis wasn’t there). They have more than a dozen joint appearances remaining. They are getting to the point where they are repeating the same remarks — although that can help voters make up their minds.

Let’s hope we get to hear more from Mark Takai and Charles Djou in lively forums and debates.

Speaking of the governor’s forum before the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, as noted, Mufi Hannemann, Duke Aiona and David Ige said a lot of the same things they said at previous forums. You can read about that in this Civil Beat story or this Civil Beat story.

What was different — and delicious — about the chamber forum came near the end of the night when each candidate was able to ask a question of the other two. 

Duke Aiona speaks at Chamber of Commerce at the Plaza Club debate with  Mufi Hannemann and David Ige on September 23, 2014

Duke Aiona, center, speaks at a Chamber of Commerce forum at the Plaza Club with Mufi Hannemann, left, and David Ige on Tuesday night.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Ige asked Aiona why he stood quiet when Gov. Linda Lingle let “furlough Fridays” happen. Aiona said that there was a budget crisis, a solution was needed and the parties involved agreed to the furloughs.

Aiona asked Hannemann whether he might run for higher office after only serving a short while as governor, as he did when he was Honolulu mayor and then ran for governor in 2010. Hannemann explained that he’s learned his lesson but that he was focused now on getting elected as the first step before he could talk about future campaigns.

It was a terrific exchange that loosened the candidates up and showed their fire — even mild-mannered Ige!

We should allow the candidates for high political office more opportunities to depart from the tired, expected questions (“How will you stimulate the economy and create jobs?”). Let them go at each other. It’s fun, it’s informative — and it’s civil.

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