WASHINGTON — Ed Case was feeling loose last week when the words slipped out.

The newly elected congressman from Hawaii was giving a speech at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., as part of a celebration of the November victories of his Asian American and Pacific Islander colleagues.

Case is white, but he represents a majority-minority congressional district.

It felt like he was speaking to a comfortable crowd, one that looked a lot like those he might address back home. That’s when he said it.

“I’m an Asian trapped in a white body.”

Hawaii Congressman Ed Case came back to Washington in January and has already found himself bearing the brunt of a backlash for his comment about being “an Asian trapped in a white body.”

Nick Grube/Civil Beat

Within minutes the quote was typed in a tweet and darting around the internet. It didn’t take long for news organizations from Fox News to The Washington Post to pick up the story and run with it, even as Case tried to explain himself.

As the headline in The Post read: “Rep. Ed Case said he’s ‘an Asian trapped in a white body.’ His apology didn’t help.”

John Yang, of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, heard the words firsthand. He later issued a statement expressing surprise and disappointment.

“Rep. Case has been supportive of the Asian American Pacific Islander community and its issues,” Yang said. “(But) this misstep clearly shows the need to engage more closely with Rep. Case on diversity issues and whitewashing sensitivities facing the AAPI community.”

For Case, the gaffe turned into a sobering reminder of the new reality he’s finding in Washington as he returns to Congress more than a decade after he last served here.

He’s now part of the most diverse freshman class in history, and re-entering politics in an age defined by rancor, outrage and frustration, much of it driven by the divisive words and actions of President Donald Trump.

The technology is new, too. Case was first elected in 2002 before the advent of Facebook. By the end of his last term — in January 2007 — Twitter was less than a year old.

Case told Civil Beat his comment at the Asian and Pacific Islander Vote celebration was an impromptu remark based on something his wife, Audrey Nakamura, often said about him.

“It was a spur of the moment attempt to explain the multicultural world I was born and raised in, that I live in, and that I represent,” Case said. “It was the wrong choice of words. Some people were shocked. Some were offended. Some weren’t. But it doesn’t matter. It was a mistake.”

And while he admits there’s a good discussion to be had about the new ways in which information is shared, analyzed and — in some cases — weaponized in 2019, he said he won’t participate, particularly as it relates to his recent comments.

He said that while there are “painful lessons” to be learned, he’s not oblivious to the pitfalls of the modern political world and the speed with which words can travel.

“I said what I’ve said, I’ve put it up on a shelf and I’ve moved on,” Case said. “If people want to talk about it that’s fine. I think it’s a very fascinating discussion. But I’m not going to be a part of it. I’ve got plenty of work to do here.”

Case pointed to his recent assignment to the House Appropriations Committee, a major feat for an incoming freshman.

He’ll now have outsized say on how the federal government spends its money, which could be a boon for Hawaii, especially considering U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz is also on the Appropriations Committee in the Senate.

Case’s main focus right now is working with his colleagues to reopen the U.S. government so that federal workers affected by the partial shutdown can again collect their paychecks and funding for critical services, such as food stamps, doesn’t lapse.

“I don’t think anybody expected to start this Congress this way,” Case said. “It’s just tragic.”

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