WASHINGTON — With a single word, Ed Case launched his second voyage in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Case, who was elected in November, is back in Congress after more than a decade-long absence. The 66-year-old Hawaii Democrat is a member of the most diverse freshman class in history, one that rode to power atop a blue wave gushing with anti-Trump sentiment.
The first order of business for Case and his colleagues on Thursday — his first official day back in the office — was voting for a new speaker.
Nancy Pelosi, the venerable California congresswoman, won the position with ease despite grumblings from some in her party who wanted a change.
For Case, draped in lei for the opening session, the decision wasn’t automatic. Although he’s supported Pelosi in the past, the political winds had shifted. Case turned to his constituents for advice, and they eventually helped him make up his mind. Pelosi was the leader they wanted.
Case expected his first day back to be largely ceremonial. He’d get sworn in, elect a speaker and pose for a photo with Pelosi and his wife, Audrey Nakamura, his right hand raised in front of an American flag.
Instead, he was forced to take one of the most consequential first-day votes of his congressional career.
About the series: Civil Beat is following U.S. Rep. Ed Case as he readjusts to life in Congress after more than a decade away. With D.C. dramatically polarized after two years of President Donald Trump’s administration, Case returns as a member of one of the most diverse freshman House classes in U.S. history.
The House passed two measures almost entirely along party lines to reopen parts of the federal government that had been shut down due to President Donald Trump’s insistence that Congress include $5.7 billion in the Department of Homeland Security budget for a southern border wall.
The bills — which do not include the money the president demanded — now head to the Republican-controlled Senate where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he does not intend to pass legislation Trump doesn’t support.
“You usually don’t get a vote of that magnitude on Day 1,” Case said in an interview with Civil Beat. “I’m disgusted that we ever got here in the first place.”
Back To the Future
Case opened his congressional office Thursday morning with a traditional Hawaiian blessing, performed by one of his closest campaign advisors, Crystal Rose, a Honolulu lawyer who travelled 5,000 miles for the opportunity.
“He alii ka aina he, he kauwa ke kanaka,” she said. “The land is chief, man is his servant.”
Case left his job as a high-paid executive for Outrigger Enterprises in Hawaii to return to Congress, where he got his start in 1975 as a legislative aide to then-U.S. Rep. Spark Matsunaga.
He was first elected to represent Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District in a 2002 special election to replace Patsy Mink, who had died while in office. His stint ended in 2007 after an unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate in 2006 against then-incumbent Daniel Akaka.
On Thursday, as the sweet scent of puakenikeni wafted from the lei around his neck and into the stodgy hallways of the Rayburn House Office Building, Case spoke of the legacy of those who came before him to represent the 1st Congressional District — urban Oahu.
Among them, he said, was Daniel Inouye, who was the first to hold the office after statehood, Case’s former boss, Matsunaga, and several others, including his immediate predecessor Colleen Hanabusa.
“I feel the energy,” Case told the crowd of staffers, friends and neighbors gathered around his office door. “I feel the aloha.”
The congressman’s eyes welled with tears as he talked with Civil Beat about his return to Washington and his place in Hawaii’s political pantheon.
But the nostalgia was fleeting. Washington is a different place today than it was the last time Case was here, a time when George W. Bush was president and the country was at war.
And while there was partisan gridlock, the vitriol and animosity that’s so prevalent in the Trump era didn’t seem so harsh. Public institutions — from the Congress to the media to the courts — are losing credibility, and the threads of democracy, he said, are frayed.
Case’s wife, Audrey Nakamura, caught the first glimpse of his concern in March while taking part in a ReFormers Caucus event in Philadelphia that focused on why Washington was broken.
At the time, the bipartisan caucus was made up of 200 former members of Congress, government officials and other politicians — including Case — who felt that major overhauls were needed in the areas of ethics and campaign finance.
When Nakamura looked at her husband she saw a serious face with faraway eyes. That’s when she knew he wasn’t just reminiscing about the past in the presence of his friends and former colleagues — he was considering another run for office.
Now that they’re back in Washington, she said, there is a palpable sense of urgency that’s new not just to him, but to her as well.
“Things are familiar, but they’re different too. The tone is different,” Nakamura said. “I can’t speak for Ed, but I get the sense that there needs to be some balance politically, socially and emotionally.”
Can The New Congress Stick Together?
Case arrived in Washington on Tuesday, two days before he was sworn in and the first day he could unlock the door to his new office and unpack the reminders of a home more than 5,000 miles away.
The walls were bare, but not for long. A large map of the Hawaiian archipelago as well as a framed certificate from the Hawaii Office of Elections commemorating his November win over Republican Cam Cavasso were just waiting to be hung up.
“This class has an amazing ability to change things if we stick together. I’m anxious to see if we can turn the country back around.” — U.S. Rep. Ed Case
On a shelf, he displayed artifacts reflecting the varied cultures of the islands. A Hawaiian ipu made of dried gourd, a sculpture of opihi shells and a brass statue of a water dragon — his Chinese astrological sign.
As he explained the significance of each, Case paused to pick up a Japanese daruma doll with only one eye painted. The daruma doll is a good luck talisman that, when purchased, has two blank eye sockets.
The idea is that the owner will paint in a single eye while making a wish or setting a goal. Once that goal is achieved or that wish granted, the doll can be completed.
Case said he’s never finished a doll because there’s always more he can accomplish.
He sees related potential in the members of his new Democratic freshman class.
Despite differences in background, age and ideology, he said, they want to counteract the Trump administration and solve the many perils facing the country today, whether it’s addressing climate change or passing comprehensive immigration reform.
Leadership also appears to want to open up the debate to new members, and give them a bigger voice in the decision-making. Backsliding into the old way of doing business, he said, would be a “tragedy.”
“This class has an amazing ability to change things if we stick together,” Case said. “I’m anxious to see if we can turn the country back around.”
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