WASHINGTON — Some might say Ed Case is a remnant of a species on the brink.

The former U.S. representative is running for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District as a moderate Democrat against Republican Cam Cavasso, a perennial candidate with little shot at winning.

When Case served in Congress from 2002 to 2007 he was a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a caucus of fiscally conservative Democrats cut from the same centrist cloth.

But Washington is far more polarized now, which means there’s not much room left in the middle.

Ed Case and wife Audrey Nakamura smils at headquarters Saturday night, August 11, 2018. (Civilbeat photo by Ronen Zilberman)
Ed Case, center, celebrates winning the Democratic primary for Congress with his wife, Audrey Nakamura, in August. Case is heavily favored to win a return trip to Congress in November. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2018

Case sees that as an opportunity.

“I don’t think I’ve changed significantly in terms of my beliefs,” he told Civil Beat. “I remain optimistic and I believe in our country, but I also believe our government is not functioning as it should be. Clearly, I think our government has taken a turn for the worse since I was there last.”

During the Democratic primary, Case and others displaying centrist tendencies were targeted by the younger, more activist wing of the party for not supporting their more extreme stands, such as abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Case won the primary handily, however, beating out the second-place finisher, Lt. Gov. Doug Chin, 38.7 percent to 24.7 percent. State Rep. Kaniela Ing, who was a darling of the national democratic socialist movement, earned only 6.1 percent.

Case looks to his primary victory as an endorsement of his views, as well as an indication Hawaii voters have forgiven him for his 2006 challenge to U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka, a political gamble that nearly destroyed Case’s political career.

Whether Case’s moderation will be rewarded by national party leadership if he returns to Congress remains to be seen.

“The Blue Dogs are kind of an endangered species,” said James Thurber, a professor at American University and co-editor of “American Gridlock: The Sources, Character, and Impact of Political Polarization.”

“Moderate to liberal Democrats are endangered,” Thurber said. “You have people on the left and on the right.”

In 2008, shortly after Case left Congress, the Blue Dog Coalition counted more than 50 Democrats among its ranks. Today there are fewer than 20.

“I think it’s absolutely necessary to have more moderates, but that’s different from what the reality is.” — James Thurber

Moderates haven’t garnered the same level of enthusiasm as progressives on the far left of the political spectrum, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders.

But that doesn’t mean they haven’t taken hold in districts that lean more conservative.

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat who’s challenging U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, is an example. So too is U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania who’s said publicly he won’t support Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House should Democrats win the majority in November.

Thurber said bipartisanship isn’t dead — there are certain congressional committees in which Democrats and Republicans can still work together. 

But once legislation gets to the floor, he said, the parties tend to split along ideological lines, and those who don’t toe the line tend to get pushed to the sidelines.

“I think it’s absolutely necessary to have more moderates, but that’s different from what the reality is,” Thurber said. “My value judgment is that I’m glad Case is running, and I hope that he has success. But it’s going to be hard.”

‘There Is So Much Rancor’

If Case beats Cavasso in November, he said he’ll come to Washington with eyes wide open.

When he was first elected to Congress in 2002, George W. Bush was president, the country was at war and the partisan divide, while growing, wasn’t nearly as wide as today.

“There is so much rancor, there is so much tribalism and there is so much division straight down party lines,” Case said. “I believe we have to change that. There has to be a coalition of some sort that is willing to take chances and challenge the way it’s supposed to be, at least by today’s standards.”

President Donald J Trump waves to media after arrival to Joint Base Hickam Pearl Harbor.
President Donald Trump, seen here at Joint Base Hickam Pearl Harbor, has ramped up the divisiveness in Washington. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

He says it’s easy to get pigeonholed in Washington, and he doesn’t necessarily accept the moderate Democrat label.

He said that while it’s true that he supports some fiscally conservative measures, and those that would reduce government spending and the deficit, he considers himself socially liberal and a strong advocate for the environment.

He’s pro-choice, believes same-sex marriage should be legal and supports the decriminalization of recreational marijuana use.

The former congressman is also an advocate for getting big money out of politics, and has been a supporter of public financing of campaigns.

Still, Case has displayed conservative tendencies over the years that have put him at odds with the Democratic establishment.

As a state legislator, he didn’t rubber stamp pay raises for public employees and when running for governor suggested that layoffs might be necessary to help balance the budget, although he made it clear reducing the workforce was not his first option.

Case questioned the practice of incorporating overtime pay when calculating pension benefits and believed unions had too much power when it came to how the government dealt with problem employees.

While in Congress, he supported the Iraq War and advocated for stricter enforcement of immigration laws, including increased spending on border security and provisions that would have allowed local law enforcement to track, catch and detain immigrants who might be in the country illegally.

He’s been criticized for voting in 2005 for a Republican-sponsored budget amendment that could have slashed funding for the Public Broadcasting Service, National Public Radio and Planned Parenthood.

Case says that vote has been taken out of context by his opponents throughout his various campaigns to undermine his record. He said he’s a supporter of both public broadcasting and Planned Parenthood, the latter of which is exemplified by his 100 percent rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America.

He said he voted for the amendment because he agreed with a Republican colleague on an obscure budget principle addressed by the measure. Case said it was also clear there was no way the bill would pass, which meant it was safe for him to cast the vote that he did.

“To me that’s such distant history and meaningless in the big picture,” Case said. “But that was my record then, and if I’m elected I’ll have a new record that people can scrutinize.”

Too Much Tourism, Not Enough Coral

Case said his top issues for Hawaii are the tourism economy, sustaining the military presence and ensuring the state has a prominent role in the U.S. turn toward the Asia-Pacific, although he said he’s not sure which committees he’d like to sit on.

When he represented Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes rural Oahu and the neighbor islands, he was on the Budget, Education and Agriculture committees.

Case is the senior vice president for Outrigger Hotels Hawaii, and he says it’s clear the state has reached a breaking point when it comes to the number of tourists coming in to the state.

“I do believe that we are at or in excess of a reasonable carrying capacity for tourism in Hawaii,” Case said. “Our natural resources, our infrastructure and our fabric are being overstretched. I believe there is a growing sense among Hawaii residents that we’ve gone over the edge.”

Waikiki is Hawaii’s tourism epicenter. Even though he works in the hospitality industry, Case is worried that too many people are coming to the islands. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

He said he’s not sure what a congressman can do from Washington to address the concern, but that he would work with state and local officials on whatever measures they felt were appropriate.

Case said he also wants to focus on protecting the global marine environment, and in particular coral, which is seeing massive bleaching and die-off as a result of rising ocean temperatures.

“We’ve just lost huge amounts of coral across the world since I was last in Congress,” Case said. “It’s very scary.”

Case said he would consider reintroducing legislation he sponsored the last time he was in the Congress that sought to prohibit the collection and sale of coral.

And he’s not sure if he’d rejoin the Blue Dog Coalition, but that he would definitely join the Congressional Reformers Caucus, a new bipartisan group seeking to overhaul campaign finance and ethics rules. The caucus also has the goal of bringing some semblance of civility back to Washington.

Case traveled to Philadelphia in March to take part in an event called “Renewing the Founders’ Promise.” Nearly 200 former members of Congress, governors and cabinet officials were in attendance.

The Reformers Caucus today is made up of 10 Democrats and nine Republicans.

“I think that what it’s going to take is the creation of a very small, but growing critical mass inside the House that wants to go in a different direction,” Case said.

A History With His Colleagues

Another question for Case, if he’s elected, is how he’ll get along with the rest of Hawaii’s congressional delegation.

He served with both of Hawaii’s senators, Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono, in the Hawaii Legislature. But that history, especially between Case and Hirono, is complicated by their political ambitions.

In 2002, they ran against each other in the Democratic primary for Hawaii governor. Case lost by fewer than 3,000 votes to Hirono while he was pushing a reformist message.

The Democratic Party was embroiled in a number of corruption scandals at the time and Case said he wanted to shake up the establishment, which included Hirono, who was then lieutenant governor.

Case again lost to Hirono in 2012 when running for U.S. Senate, this time by a much larger margin.

Another political wrinkle is Andy Winer, who is now Schatz’s chief of staff. Winer twice worked to sink Case’s campaigns for the U.S. Senate, once in 2006 when working for then-U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka and again in 2012 while working for Hirono.

Case’s 2006 challenge of Akaka was nearly ruinous for his political career. The Democratic establishment, led by Akaka’s close friend and colleague, U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, did not take kindly to Case seeking higher office before he was told it was OK to do so.

Inouye was the most powerful figure in Hawaii politics, and without his blessing it was hard for Case to compete. He lost every subsequent election he competed in until this year’s Democratic primary.

“The ostracism that arose out of that race hurt,” Case said of the 2006 campaign, pausing for a few moments before completing his thought. “But I don’t dwell on it. It falls into the category of being in the past. Frankly, the only people that bring it up are those opposed to my candidacy.”

Case says he’s not worried about his previous political rivalries. The same goes, he said, for his relationship with U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, whose father, Mike Gabbard, once challenged Case for his seat representing Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District.

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard said she would welcome Ed Case to the congressional delegation if he wins in November. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Mike Gabbard’s challenge came in 2004 when he was a Republican known for his impassioned opposition to same-sex marriage. During the campaign, Honolulu Magazine wrote a profile about Gabbard that included strong words from his daughter, Tulsi, who was upset that the publication was asking about his ties to Chris Butler, a leader of a fringe sect of the Krishna movement based in Hawaii.

“I smell a skunk,” Gabbard wrote. “It’s clear to me that you’re acting as a conduit for The Honolulu Weekly and other homosexual extremist supporters of Ed Case.”

Case, who went on to crush Mike Gabbard in the general election, now dismisses the spat, saying it was reasonable for a daughter to come to the defense of her father. He also pointed out that the election happened more than 14 years ago, saying it was “ancient history.”

“I’m expecting that I’m going to have a great relationship with all of them and I’m expecting my staff is going to have a great relationship with all of their staffs,” Case said.

In an emailed statement to Civil Beat, Gabbard expressed the same sentiment.

“There are so many serious challenges facing the people of Hawaii, as well as many opportunities for positive change,” she said. “I, and I’m confident the rest of Hawaii’s delegation in Washington, will welcome Congressman Ed Case to the team and continue to work together to best serve Hawaii.”

“It’s pretty clear that the relationships at the federal level are professional, but they all don’t go out and have coffee with each other.” — John Hart

How the delegation works together is a legitimate concern, said John Hart, chairman of the communication department at Hawaii Pacific University. Hawaii doesn’t have much political clout in Washington, especially now that Inouye is gone.

“Grandpa’s not here to give you the order at the table anymore,” Hart said. 

The fact that Case has a history with the rest of the delegation is not surprising, Hart said. Again, Hawaii is a small state with not that many well-known politicians to go around.

“Everyone has a history with everybody,” Hart said. “It’s pretty clear that the relationships at the federal level are professional, but they all don’t go out and have coffee with each other.”

One obvious place of disagreement among the delegation is the Jones Act, a federal law that requires ships carrying cargo between American ports to be U.S.-built, owned, crewed and flagged.

Some people contend that if Hawaii were exempted from the Jones Act it would reduce the cost of living in the islands. Defenders of the Jones Act, which include those in the politically influential shipping industry, say it protects American jobs and security.

Hawaii’s delegation has been loathe to suggest any changes to the Jones Act, but Case is open to reform.

He said that while the chance of any meaningful changes are remote, it’s worth having the discussion.

“I would be the junior member” of the congressional delegation, he said. “I’m there to help out as much as I can.”

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