WASHINGTON, D.C. — Picture Chuck Schumer chowing down on a Spam musubi and you get an idea of the appeal of Hawaii on the Hill, the islands’ annual presentation of products and services in the nation’s capital.
The New York senator blames his taste for musubi on his colleague from Hawaii.
“Mazie bribes me,” the Democrat told business leaders, educators and politicians from Hawaii visiting Washington this week. “She has made me fall in love with Spam musubi.”
“Mazie” is Sen. Mazie Hirono. Hawaii on the Hill, now in its third year, is her creation along with the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii.
True to his word, Schumer — he’d be the next majority leader if Democrats take back the Senate this fall — went right for the plate of mini-musubis (not the hand-size variety found in the islands’ 7-Elevens) upon entering the Taste of Hawaii showcase Wednesday night.
It was held in the Kennedy Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building, a short stroll from the U.S. Capitol. And it was a party, Hawaii-style.
As the Hawaiian music trio Aloha Boys belted out tunes like Olomana’s “Kuu Home O Kahaluu,” and about 1,500 people roamed from table to table beneath ornamental chandeliers, Schumer wolfed down the treat as photographers captured the moment.
The senator then moved on to find other “grinds,” as we say in the Hawaii vernacular. There were plenty to chose from: Uncle Louie’s Portuguese bean soup, Maui Crisps Artisanal Beef Chips, Kona Coast Shellfish and Hamakua Wasabi macadamia nuts, to name several.
Schumer was just one of many DC VIPs on hand to sample Hawaiian delights and meet and greet the people who produced them.
Others included Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb.; Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich.; Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo.; national business association executives and even the U.S. ambassador from the Philippines, Jose Lampe Cuisia Jr.
The line to get into the Kennedy Caucus Room extended around the corner and down a hallway.
Why did Brown, reported to be on Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential short list, attend Taste of Hawaii?
“Because Sen. Hirono is my friend and I show up where she tells me to,” he said, clearly delighted with the island diversions.
To illustrate Hirono’s influence, Schumer told attendees at a panel summit organized by Hirono and the Chamber earlier Wednesday that there are only three photographs on his office desk: President Obama arriving by helicopter in Prospect Park, part of Schumer’s home in Brooklyn; North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and her sisters; and Hirono and Schumer with Spam musubi.
Sure, Schumer may have been making nice for his friend in front of her constituents. He is a politician, after all. And he no doubt wishes to curry favor with his colleagues.
But close relationships with colleagues are essential in order to get anything passed in polarized Washington.
It is especially important now because, with the passing of Sen. Dan Inouye in December 2012 and the retirement of Sen. Dan Akaka a few weeks later, Hawaii lost decades of seniority.
Both men were in their late 80s. Inouye was powerful, famous for bringing home the pork. Akaka was widely acclaimed to be the nicest man in the Senate.
Today, in the age of sequestration, budget tightening and very few earmarks, federal largesse for any state is no guarantee.
Enter Hirono, 68, who served in the House from 2007 to 2013, when she assumed Akaka’s Senate seat.
Though Brian Schatz, 43, is technically the “senior” senator from Hawaii (he was sworn in several days before her, having been appointed to replace Inouye) and is fast making his own mark in national politics, Hirono is the acknowledged leader of Hawaii’s congressional delegation.
“She has a huge influence on our caucus, and she represents your state so well.”— Sen. Chuck Schumer referring to Hirono
U.S. Reps. Tulsi Gabbard, 35, and Mark Takai, 48, are carving our their own pathways, though cancer has forced Takai to step down once his term expires. Schatz and Gabbard each attended Hawaii on the Hill events this week.
Hirono does not pretend to be as influential as the legendary Inouye. But she has the respect of many of her colleagues.
“Inouye always stood up for Hawaii” and left “very large shoes to fill,” Schumer said.
But Hirono, he added, “is always thinking of Hawaii” on issues such as immigration reform (she favors it) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal (she opposes it). Schumer described her as kind and sweet on the outside but with an inner firmness and power of persuasion.
“She has a huge influence on our caucus, and she represents your state so well,” said Schumer. ‘She has made all of us a fan of Hawaii.”
Making people in D.C. fans of Hawaii is a precisely the point of Hawaii on the Hill — the state’s way to keep the islands on the map, as Hawaii Senate President Ron Kouchi put it.
“Others state have events like this with the ‘taste of,’” said Kouchi, the event’s honorary chair this year. “So Hirono sent Sen. Schumer Spam musubi, we started talking with Sherry (Menor-McNamara, Chamber CEO), and that was the genesis.”
Kouchi said this year’s Hill events tie in nicely with the National Conference of State Legislatures leadership conference occurring simultaneously. State Senate Majority Leader Kalani English and Kauai state Rep. Jimmy Tokioka were also in town for the meetings.
In addition to the tasting event, Hawaii on the Hill involves one-on-one meetings of Hawaii folks with not only senators and representatives but members of the Cabinet and other government representatives.
With Hawaii 5,000 miles away, and with 49 other states competing for federal attention and dollars, the state needs to keep itself in the Washington eye.
“Exposure is critical,” said Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa, his county’s honorary co-chair of the Hill event this year. “You can’t do anything without those contacts at the top.”
Maui and Kauai are the most well represented at Hawaii on the Hill, with Garden Island Mayor Bernard Carvalho his county’s co-chair this year.
For Maui, the interest is based in part on economic concerns for the county.
“Maui’s going to take a big hit this year, because we have not only the 675 sugar worker jobs that are going to be disappearing — we are expecting a ripple effect,” said Teena Rasmussen, director of Maui’s Office of Economic Development. “For every job that is lost in a factory or company, you typically are going to lose a job in the private sector as well because of the companies they support.”
Not wanting his county to sound too downtrodden, Arakawa noted that Maui still had the lowest unemployment rate in the state. And, like Rasmussen, he said displaced resort workers would likely be re-employed soon elsewhere in the island.
The desire to help Maui diversify into manufacturing other goods drew Garrett Marrero, president and founder of Maui Brewing. He said that his company is demonstrating that wineries, breweries and distillers represent new business opportunities.
More than food and drink were represented in D.C.
There were Kapiolani Community College’s Culinology Program (“the blending of Culniary Arts and the Science of Food”), Navatek (“world leader in designing and analyzing ship hull forms, ocean structures, underwater lifting bodies, and coupled hydrodynamic systems”) and Kamakura Corp. (“the world’s leading provider of risk management information”).
Taste of Hawaii also had a down-home feel unmistakable to anyone familiar with the islands.
Carvalho, the Kauai mayor, for example, grabbed a ukulele and joined the band to perform songs like “Ke Aloha.” And audience members joined in unison — the ones who knew the tune, anyway — to sing “Hawaii Aloha.”
But for Kouchi, the Senate president, the personal touch might have impressed attendees the most.
“There is a couple here that has a floral lei business, and for the past two years everyone who walks in gets a fresh orchid lei,” he said. “As you look at the reaction on their faces, there is nothing like getting a fresh orchid lei.”