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State Rep. Kaniela Ing has gained some national attention as an insurgent Democratic candidate trying to build off the successes of celebrated progressives Sen. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Bronx, who last month upended a powerful 10-term incumbent House member.
But Ing, who bills himself as a democratic socialist, has seemingly found little traction among local voters in the race to fill the open seat for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District.
Instead, voters in the district, which encompasses the most heavily populated areas of Oahu, seem poised to send a more moderate, establishment candidate to Congress to fill the seat being vacated by Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.
The frontrunner, according to a Star-Advertiser poll taken in mid-July, is former U.S. Rep. Ed Case, who has preached a middle-of-the-road message. He’s followed by Lt. Gov. Doug Chin and veteran state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, who each have strong mainstream Democratic credentials.
Ing lagged far behind the leaders among likely Democratic voters in the poll. Another candidate trying to appeal to progressive voters on the left wing of the party, Republican-turned-Democrat Beth Fukumoto, gathered little backing in the poll. The other candidate in the Democratic field, Honolulu City Council Chairman Ernie Martin, also trailed the top group.
A Civil Beat Poll in May, just before Case joined the race, had Kim and Chin as the front-runners.
Whoever wins the Democratic primary is widely expected to win the general election.
Colin Moore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Hawaii Manoa and the director of the school’s Public Policy Center, says he doesn’t see progressive candidates catching fire in Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District.
“Hawaii politics, generally, are very Democratic, but they’re not necessarily progressive,” Moore said. “Just look at the people who run the Hawaii State Legislature. They’re hardly radical.”
On the other hand, Hawaii’s federal delegation — in particular Sens. Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz — tend to fall on the more liberal part of the political spectrum when compared to the rest of their colleagues. U.S Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who is favored to win re-election in Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, has aligned herself with the Bernie Sanders wing of the party.
Case is a former congressman who caucused with the so-called Blue Dog Democrats, a conservative faction of the House Democrats, and expressed support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He now works as a tourism industry executive, and, if elected, says he wants to make reducing the deficit a focal point of his tenure.
In an age of hyper-partisanship, Case says his middle-of-the road mentality might be what’s needed in Washington, even in the era of Trump.
He said that while the district is progressive on equal rights, labor and social safety nets — it has one of the best health care systems in the country — it’s more conservative on economic and foreign policy issues.
For instance, he said he doesn’t think voters here would support abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an idea backed by Ing, Fukumoto and many progressives around the country — or opening up U.S. borders for anyone to cross.
“One of my motivations for going back to Washington is that I think our system is broken and that our government is not working,” Case said.
“You need to have your great debates and fights, sometimes within your own caucus. But then you need to look at where you can actually find agreement both in your caucus and within the other party.”
Chin, meanwhile, made a name for himself suing the Trump administration as Hawaii’s attorney general. He’s now lieutenant governor, but was previously a prosecutor and a lobbyist, a job in which he once represented the private prison industry.
Chin takes a measured approach when discussing his own ideology, which he said now leans more progressive. Chin, who came under criticism in the campaign for a 1995 anti-gay speech he gave at his church, said many of his positions have evolved.
His campaign has focused on his legal challenges to the Trump administration’s discriminatory policies, particularly the president’s travel ban that targeted Muslim-majority countries.
But while resistance is needed, he said, it can’t be absolute. Voters in the district, Chin says, tell him they want someone in Congress who does more than lob ideological bombs at those who disagree with them.
Kim, the fundraising leader in the race, has held office for more than 30 years on the Honolulu City Council and in the Legislature, where she rose to the position of Senate president. She’s known as a tough watchdog over certain government agencies. She’s also taken some conservative social stances such as voting against civil unions and same-sex marriage. Kim did not respond to a request for an interview for this article.
Martin spent much of his career in city government as a bureaucrat and politician. But he’s perhaps best known as Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s primary antagonist, in particular on matters involving how best to pay for the city’s over-budget rail project, which officials now estimate at $9 billion. Martin also didn’t respond to requests for an interview.
Fukumoto, on the other hand, bills herself as one of the most progressive voices in the race, despite having been a member of the Republican Party until 2017. Fukumoto has tried to strike a similar tone to Ing on issues, with both supporting abolishing ICE and creation of a single-payer healthcare system.
She said it’s hard for young candidates like her and Ing to stand out when the odds are stacked so heavily against them, particularly when it comes to fundraising.
“The majority of the big donors in the state are not progressive. They’re the same people who would donate to Republicans if the Republicans were in power,” Fukumoto said.
“Only in Hawaii is one of the frontrunners (Kim) somebody who took Monsanto money.”
Hawaii campaign spending records show Kim has received thousands of dollars from Monsanto Company in recent years, as has Martin.
Fukumoto said the urgency voters hear in her and Ing’s voices comes from the fact that it’s hard for young people to stay here without family support.
“We’re the ones who are going to get pushed out,” she said. “We’re in the process of losing an entire generation of local residents who just can’t afford to live here anymore.”
Ing is backed by Justice Democrats, a national group that’s recruited candidates such as Ocasio-Cortez throughout the U.S. to challenge the establishment and shift the party farther to the left.
Ing’s campaign shuns corporate donors and also calls for the abolishment of ICE and recently announced a “housing for all” plan that he hopes will build 10 million new housing units nationwide.
He says workers in Hawaii are struggling to get by, and he blames the Democratic Party establishment that has controlled the state for decades.
“Our party has extremely leftist radical roots,” Ing said, evoking the Democratic revolution of 1954 in Hawaii, when the party ended long-standing Republican control of the Legislature. “I’m just restoring the heart and soul to the party.”
Ing was fined $15,000 by the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission for numerous violations, including spending donor money on his personal rent and his partner’s credit card bill. Despite repeated apologies and promises to clean up his finances, Ing continues to make mistakes, including by over-reporting how much money his campaign earned in the latest quarter and understating how much he’s spent.
He’s also come under fire for misrepresenting that he had a master’s degree when, in fact, he did not.
Moore said that while it’s “refreshing” to have candidates like Ing pushing ideas from the left and many of those views have gotten outside attention on social media nationally, it’s still an uphill climb in this race.
“There’s an expectation that our federal representatives will be cautious and do what they can to work with everyone for the benefit of Hawaii,” Moore said. “In other words, I don’t think being a rabble rouser at that level is always that attractive.”
National experts view the race in a similar light.
While Ocasio-Cortez and other members of the democratic socialist movement are gaining traction in moving the party left in some blue districts, moderate Democrats are making strides, too, particularly in districts that can help flip the Republican-held House, according to David Wasserman, an editor at The Cook Political Report, where he handicaps House races.
He also said the 2018 midterms have been about the rise of women candidates more so than ideology.
“This race doesn’t seem to be conforming to the patterns we’ve seen in other Democratic primaries,” Wasserman said. “At this point it’s a question of past versus future.”
Ing, meanwhile, said he doesn’t put much faith in the polls, and points to Ocasio-Cortez’s race — in which her opponent, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley, believed he was up by 36 percentage points — for inspiration.
“The polls ask people who are most likely to vote what they think,” Ing said. “All you need to do is change who votes.”
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