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WASHINGTON — For Ed Case, the former Hawaii congressman who last week won his return to the U.S. House, there’s a lot that’s familiar here.
On Tuesday, his first day back in Washington for new member orientation, he traded in his aloha shirt for a suit and tie to work the hallways of the Cannon House Office Building.
The pace and rhythm felt the same, even though his last term ended more than a decade ago.
One of his first meetings was with U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa on the fourth floor where the two discussed, among other things, the military’s leaking fuel tanks at Red Hill.
It was a typical catch-up session for a new member. The heightened political tensions, however, are different.
Two floors below, incoming freshman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive Democrat from New York, was taking part in a sit-in outside of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office.
The purpose was to get Pelosi, who wants to be speaker now that Democrats have won control of the House, to create more green jobs and take meaningful action on climate change. Many of the activists were eventually arrested, and as Case left his meeting they were lined up on the sidewalk with their hands zip-tied behind their backs.
“It’s an exciting time to be here,” Case said. “The feel is the same, but of course it’s a different Congress.”
Case will represent Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District come January. He will be part of the most diverse class of freshmen in history, one that includes a record number of women.
Case, who is a 66-year-old white man, said that diversity is one of the greatest attributes of his incoming cohort, at least on the Democratic side. The Republican class of freshmen lawmakers is all white and predominantly male, with only one woman among the ranks.
Based on his preliminary meetings with his new colleagues, he said he expects them to bring a wide-range of ideas and a healthy dose of excitement to the legislative process.
The congressman-elect also reflected on how the diversity in his home state of Hawaii is so often taken for granted in daily life. He said he’s hoping the new Congress, himself included, will harness that power of the members’ varying life experiences to actually move the country forward.
“I am so used to diversity in my own life and own political career that I don’t consciously think about it very much, and yet everybody is thinking about it here,” Case said. “That’s a little bit of a transition for me. I have to put myself in other people’s shoes to see how they’re thinking about something I’m not consciously thinking about.”
One of the biggest questions facing the new Congress is what to do about Pelosi. Case said he’s yet to make a decision on whether he’ll support her candidacy for speaker.
He said he’s talked with the minority leader as well as nearly two dozen of his future and former colleagues to help assess whether she’s the right person to lead the party or if new blood is necessary.
Case noted that he previously supported Pelosi as speaker but acknowledged it’s a new day, both in Washington and in the party as a whole.
“We’re sitting here in a brand new congress and I’m in a caucus that all of a sudden is in the majority, so there are lots of discussions about who wants to step forward and lead,” Case said.
“I’m looking for an overall leadership team in the Democratic caucus that is truly representative, and I’m talking about representative of the diversity of the caucus, representative of the ideological breadth of the caucus and representative geographically.”
He refused to provide specific names of members who have piqued his interest, saying he’s still in the process of listening to viewpoints and evaluating what’s best for the party.
Any leadership team, he said, should be made up of people who are willing to listen to the many new voices in the Democratic caucus and not try to ramrod any particular perspective without debate and consensus from the other members, even those on the ideological fringes.
If anything, the midterms proved just how divergent the edges of the party can be, from the rise of Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described democratic socialist, to Case himself, who has long been described as a centrist Democrat, particularly on financial matters.
“Our caucus is a big caucus, it’s a big tent right now,” Case said. “If you look at the philosophical distance between the most liberal and the most conservative it’s a pretty big stretch. If you’re going to try to govern from the extremes of that caucus it’s not going to work. You need to find a way to get a majority of the caucus to support you and then the other side too.”
As for settling in, Case said he is not ready to announce any staffing decisions until he’s had an opportunity to formalize his offers and allow those individuals to tell their current employers.
He also doesn’t expect to have a full congressional roster until after he’s sworn in at the beginning of January.
His legislative agenda, too, is still taking shape, although he said he expects to resurrect some of his past efforts, including one that sought to protect Hawaii’s coral reefs.
One piece of legislation he said he’ll back is H.R.1, a comprehensive reform bill Democrats plan to introduce to curb the influence of dark money in politics, increase the voter base by implementing automatic registration and take redistricting out of the hands of politicians.
Another top priority for Case, at least in the interim, is finding a place to live, preferably within walking distance of his new job site.
“In some ways it’s going to be quite a wild ride with this new Congress,” Case said with a grin. “It’s going to be exciting. And I think if we do it right it can be incredibly good for the country.”
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