Editor’s Note: Civil Beat sat down with Mark Takai, Charles Djou’s Democratic opponent, in September. Read the story from that interview here.
Charles Djou is so close to possibly winning a seat in Congress that he can almost smell the cherry blossoms that will be blooming next spring in Washington, D.C.
With less than a month until Election Day, he and his supporters have the campaign running at full tilt — from candidate forums and coffee hours to phone banking and sign waving.
Djou, a Republican running against Democratic state Rep. Mark Takai, arrived at Civil Beat’s office Tuesday afternoon for an hourlong editorial board meeting confident and prepared to share his thoughts on Hawaii’s high cost of living, the military, Micronesians and political partisanship.
It’s the third time Djou, 44, has tried to return to the 1st Congressional District seat he held for seven months after winning a special election in 2010. But it could prove to be the charm.
Djou had a 4 percentage point lead over his opponent in Civil Beat’s September poll. And he’s maintained a huge fundraising advantage since Takai plowed through his campaign funds to win a hotly contested primary.
While the candidates have a lot in common — middle-aged family men who grew up in Hawaii, served in the military and have years of experience in elected office — Djou endeavored to point out key differences.
When it comes to driving up the cost of living in Hawaii, which regularly ranks among the most expensive states, Djou did not hesitate to blame the Jones Act.
“There’s a lot of drivers to why the cost of living is so high in Hawaii. Some of those you can’t change … we live on an island and real estate prices are driven by land,” he said. “However, some of it is also driven by our government.”
If elected Nov. 4 to represent urban Oahu for the next two years, Djou said he would fight to exempt Hawaii from the Jones Act, beginning by carving out an exception from its requirement that ships be built in the U.S.
“A lot of the arguments against exempting Hawaii from the Jones Act were the arguments similarly made back in the 1970s when it came to deregulation of aviation,” he said.
“Today, just as you can take a Hawaiian Airlines flight from Honolulu to Los Angeles on a European-built Airbus — and it hasn’t devastated the aviation industry in Hawaii — I believe similarly being allowed to transport goods to and from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland on a foreign-built vessel will not devastate shipping.”
“It’s a classic piece of protectionist legislation.” — Charles Djou on the Jones Act
Takai, 47, has said he would have to study the Jones Act more before concluding it’s to blame for the high cost of living. He said the law — which requires goods to be shipped between states by U.S.-built, U.S.-flagged and U.S.-crewed ships — protects jobs and is important to national security.
The law is named after the late Republican Sen. Wesley Jones, who pushed it through in 1920 — almost 40 years before Hawaii became a state.
Calling it “anachronistic,” Djou said the Jones Act was introduced at a time when Congress did not contemplate a noncontiguous American state. As such, he said it’s fair to exempt Hawaii as the only state without the ability to transport goods via trucking or rail, which helps force monopolistic shipping companies elsewhere to keep prices competitive.
“It’s a classic piece of protectionist legislation,” he said. “It’s a piece of legislation where everyone in the community is harmed by it by a little bit and a very select few are benefitted by it by an enormous amount. And those who benefit from it by an enormous amount, of course, play in politics by an enormous amount and thus far have been very successful in thwarting any reform.”
Improving government efficiency, simplifying the tax code and reforming the Affordable Care Act would also drive down the cost of living in Hawaii, Djou said.
He faulted Honolulu’s inordinately long permitting process — for big and small development projects alike — as a major factor in driving up the cost of real estate on Oahu, where the median home price is expected to top $700,000 next year.
Djou, who served on the Honolulu City Council from 2002 to 2010, grew familiar with the problem when he chaired its Zoning Committee. He wouldn’t have as much direct involvement in trying to unravel that “tangled web of regulations” at the federal level, but said it’s something that needs attention.
Where he could have more direct say is fighting for funding to build military housing so more military personnel live on base instead of using their large spending allowances to live off base, inadvertently driving up rental and housing prices for local residents.
Djou, a major in the U.S. Army Reserve, and Takai, a lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii Army National Guard, both support this idea. Much as they both support the president’s concept of a “pivot to the Pacific,” which stands to benefit Hawaii as the military shifts its focus to Asia and the U.S. explores greater economic opportunities in the region.
While Takai primarily targeted Hawaii’s reliance on imported food and oil to lower the cost of living, Djou turned to Obamacare and the tax code.
President Obama should be complimented for identifying the need to reform the nation’s health care system, Djou said, but the solution has been almost as bad as the problem.
“It was a nice idea but it’s not working,” he said. “What has been going on in the four years since Obamacare passed has been what I believe is an immature ping-pong battle between (Republican House Speaker) John Boehner and (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid.”
Still, Djou said he is not cynical enough to believe cooler heads can’t prevail.
“We can reach a reasonable compromise to fix this,” he said.
Specifically, Djou wants to focus on medical malpractice reform; the interstate sale of health insurance; and medical savings accounts.
Increasing competition in the marketplace is critical, he said, especially in Hawaii where only two insurance companies — HMSA and Kaiser — provide almost all the coverage options.
When it comes to taxes, Djou said he would work to reduce the overall number of tax brackets and rip out loopholes and deductions that litter the federal tax code.
“Ultimately, I consider myself a pragmatist, not an ideologue,” he said. “It’s much more important to me to get things done for our community.”
Among the only reasons Djou said he would ever consider increasing taxes is if it was part of a “grand bargain” with Democrats to eliminate the deficit. Extreme circumstances, something on the magnitude of a third world war, might be another reason, he said.
One of the first things Djou would work on if elected to Congress is the Compact of Free Association, or COFA, an issue he looked at when he was there in 2010 too.
The U.S. treaty with Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau has cost Hawaii millions of dollars in education and health care services to migrants from the three nations, who are allowed to travel and work freely in the U.S. as part of the deal.
While Takai and Djou agree the federal government has failed to adequately reimburse Hawaii for the disproportionate burden it bears because the vast majority of Micronesian immigrants come to the Aloha State, Djou believes the best solution is changing the treaty.
“If all they want to do is come to accept government benefits, that has got to stop.” — Charles Djou on Micronesian immigrants
“Within the first 30 days of getting elected to office, I am going to make it a point to engage the U.S. state departments and the Micronesian government to rework the Compact of Free Association,” Djou said.
“I’m sympathetic,” he said. “I understand there’s a humanitarian aspect and I don’t want to necessarily cut the citizens of Micronesia off completely.”
But Djou said the U.S. needs to enter a more “normal relationship” with the Federated States of Micronesia, require visas and give their governments a foreign aid package, which would cost taxpayers far less.
“If they want to come for education, if they want to come to accept a full-time job, by all means they should be allowed,” he said. “But if all they want to do is come to accept government benefits, that has got to stop.”
Takai has said he wants to “plug the COFA drain,” and believes federal impact aid money might be able to help offset the cost to Hawaii.
Djou sees himself as the candidate most able to effectuate change in D.C. because as a Republican he would more than likely be going to work with the House majority.
And as a centrist, he thinks he could work well with colleagues across the aisle, including Hawaii’s otherwise all-Democratic delegation. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and Sen. Brian Schatz are expected to easily win re-election; Sen. Mazie Hirono is in the middle of her term.
Like Takai, Djou said he puts the people of Hawaii ahead of party allegiance, pointing at two examples.
Djou won a special election in May 2010 to fill the seat long held by Neil Abercrombie, who stepped down to run for governor. Djou came out on top thanks to Hanabusa and Ed Case splitting the Democratic vote. He lost to Hanabusa in the regular election that November and again in 2012.
But when Djou was in Congress, he said he put his name on “an overwhelming majority” of the bills that Abercrombie had introduced or co-sponsored to keep them alive.
In another example, Djou explained the controversial debate over whether Congress should support a second engine for the F-35 fighter jet program. Lobbied hard by members of Congress and defense contractors, he chose to seek the late Sen. Daniel Inouye’s guidance.
Djou described Inouye, who brought untold federal dollars to the Aloha State over his decades-long career, as the “dean” directing Hawaii’s delegation at the time, which also included Sen. Daniel Akaka and then-Rep. Hirono. Given Inouye’s position as chairman of the defense subcommittee for appropriations, Djou said he chose to follow Inouye’s lead on that issue.
“For me, it’s not about ideology, it’s about serving the people of Hawaii,” he said. “And if it’s in the best interests of the people of Hawaii, there will be no problem.”