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It’s an overused word in the internet world, but it is accurate to say that Monday’s news of Charles Djou leaving the Republican Party went viral.
Djou, the longtime Hawaii Republican, penned his reasons for leaving in an opinion piece in Civil Beat that went live at 12:01 a.m.
Within a few hours it was already the No. 1 story on our site, attracting far more clicks and eyeballs than the lead story on Tulsi Gabbard’s shifting record on gun control — no small feat, given Gabbard’s popularity and the topicality of guns.
The Djou story was soon picked up by a variety of news outlets, from Hawaii News Now and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser locally, to mainstream media in the nation’s capitol like The Hill, and by outlets on opposite ends of the political spectrum like Newsmax and Salon.
The Associated Press spread the news, and even Wikipedia updated its entry for Djou.
Why all the fuss?
It certainly had to do with the frankness of Djou’s rationale for leaving the GOP.
“I can no longer stand with a Republican Party that is led by a man I firmly believe is taking the party of Lincoln in a direction I fundamentally disagree with, and a party that is unwilling to stand up to him,” Djou wrote.
The media and reader interests strongly suggest that Djou has a political future. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first, this news: Djou has “no plans” to run for office in 2018.
That comes from Jonathan Kunimura, a Djou spokesperson, who explained that Djou is traveling overseas and was unavailable for comment.
But Kunimura (who is also vice chairman for communications for the Hawaii Republican Party) did have this to say on behalf of Djou regarding the reaction to the fare-thee-well:
We think the reaction speaks volumes about Trump’s unpopularity here in Hawaii and we’re receiving an outpouring of positive feedback from the local community — from both Democrats and Republicans — who overwhelmingly support Charles’ decision to leave the GOP.
Shirlene Ostrov, chairwoman of the Hawaii Republican Party, said her telephone had been ringing nonstop since Djou’s announcement.
Ostrov’s party later released a statement expressing disappointment in Djou’s departure. It reads in part:
We respect his right to make such a decision and thank him for his many years of service to our party, for standing against a one-party system of government and fighting for the conservative values we so desperately need here in Hawaii. The Republican Party of Hawaii remains steadfastly supportive of President Trump’s agenda, and are optimistic that the many victories our president has accomplished — tax reform, conservative judicial appointments, supporting small businesses and individual liberty, to name a few — will translate to 2018 electoral victories here at home.
We respect his right to make such a decision and thank him for his many years of service to our party, for standing against a one-party system of government and fighting for the conservative values we so desperately need here in Hawaii.
The Republican Party of Hawaii remains steadfastly supportive of President Trump’s agenda, and are optimistic that the many victories our president has accomplished — tax reform, conservative judicial appointments, supporting small businesses and individual liberty, to name a few — will translate to 2018 electoral victories here at home.
I called Pat Saiki, the last Hawaii Republican to serve in Congress before Djou’s seven-month stint, and a former GOP party chair.
“I am very sorry to see him leave the party,” Saiki said. “I know he has his own personal reasons as to why he is leaving. But, you know, the party can be grateful for all the years he spent dedicated to Republican principles. He served us well. I hate to see him go.”
Saiki said the local GOP has been hurt by Djou’s exit, which has left a “kind of vacuum.” Other party sentiments, however, were more like “don’t let the door whack you in the okole on the way out.”
That cames from Eric Ryan, president of the Hawaii Republican Assembly known as HIRA, a local GOP faction that is to the right of the right.
“HIRA has warned everyone for years about fake Republican and self-aggrandizing opportunist Charles RINO Djou,” Ryan said in a statement. “Today, the official founder of HART and the champion of wasting tens of billions of your dollars on the heavy rail boondoggle penned an op-ed for the liberal website Civil Beat explaining why he now joins Beth Fukumoto Chang, Aaron ‘Ling’ Johanson and Kym Pine Ryglowski as a (skid mark) on the side of the RINO highway.”
Ryan has long been critical in what he views as Djou’s role in creating the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, which manages the oft-plagued rail venture. Fukumoto and Johanson are former House minority leaders who left the GOP to become Democrats, while Pine is a former Republican legislator now sitting on the nonpartisan City Council.
Other party stalwarts dismissed Djou’s chances if he runs for office again.
“Djou is so sounding like an Obama supporter and a liberal,” Kimo Sutton posted on our Hawaii News Facebook page. “His big (donor) base evaporates with his childish response to his losses and this action. He will never be able to run in Hawaii as most of us hate turncoats. He rambles on about his background but still is an attorney looking for a job.”
Sutton, who spearheaded the Trump campaign locally in 2016, also said this about Djou: “Shame on you but keep on (losing).”
Djou has lost his last four tries at elective office: the mayor’s race and three consecutive runs for the 1st Congressional District seat.
And here’s the take of Fukumoto, who now serves as a Democrat in the Legislature.
“My first reaction is that I am not terribly surprised,” she said. “Charles was never part of the Trump movement. He expressed concerns from the beginning. I think he falls more into the camp of the Jeff Flakes of the world who believe strongly in conservative values and don’t believe Trump does.”
Fukumoto was referring to the Republican senator from Arizona who has been among the president’s chief critics.
Fukumoto also had this to say about Djou:
The mistake people might make is to say that we left the party for similar reasons. I think we are both disgusted with Trump, but my concern was that I was never a conservative and that my values always fit better with the Democratic party. That’s not something that Charles could say, because it’s not believable.”
Fukumoto added, “I don’t think he should attempt to join the Democratic Party.”
Since losing the Honolulu mayoral contest in 2016 to incumbent Kirk Caldwell, Djou has gone back to work as an attorney for the U.S. Army at Fort Shafter. He is a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve who has served not only in Congress (albeit briefly) but also in the Hawaii Legislature and on the Honolulu City Council.
His public criticism of Trump makes it difficult for him to land a federal job such as a judgeship. And he’s also lost his last four tries at elective office: the mayor’s race two years ago and three consecutive runs for the 1st Congressional District seat (2010, 2012 and 2014).
Which is not to say that Djou does not have a talent for attracting votes.
He picked up on average 45 percent of the CD1 vote, or about 88,000 votes on average. Against Caldwell, he lost 50.8 percent to 46.6 percent but still received almost 136,000 votes to Caldwell’s 148,000.
I’d say Djou might still have another run in him, either for the U.S. House (he’d probably have to run as a Democrat, which could prove unpalatable to both Djou and the party) or more likely the nonpartisan mayor’s office. All three seats are up in 2020, and there is a lot of talk in certain political circles that Caldwell might leave office early.
Potential future mayoral candidates include Pine and council members Ikaika Anderson and Ernie Martin (if he doesn’t get elected to Congress). I hear Mufi Hannemann’s name mentioned, too, although his election track (like Djou’s) includes plenty of losses.
— The Hill (@thehill) March 19, 2018
Charles Djou calling it quits. Last one out please turn off the lights. https://t.co/wCFyOrlscr
— O‘ahu Democrats (@OahuDemocrats) March 19, 2018
But, as in 2016, the next race for mayor will almost certainly again be a referendum on Honolulu rail. Djou has been a consistent critic of the project’s rising costs and delays.
Djou, 47, cited as inspiration for leaving the GOP to Winston Churchill’s decision to leave Britain’s Conservative Party in 1904.
“Today I humbly follow in Churchill’s footsteps,” he wrote, stating that he, like Churchill, had left their parties for principled reasons.
Churchill crossed the aisle to join the Liberal Party and went on to serve in a variety of positions in the British government. He also later rejoined the Conservative Party and would not become prime minister until 1940. It came after a long period of being out of office, a time Churchill called “the wilderness years.”
Charles Djou is no Winston Churchill. But he is young, smart, informed and ambitious. By leaving the Trump-trolled GOP, he also demonstrates political courage. But he may also be entering his own wilderness.
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