WASHINGTON — Shortly after the U.S. Senate late last month passed an historic $2 trillion economic relief package to confront the coronavirus pandemic, Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono was faced with yet another weighty choice.
Stay in Washington or fly home to Hawaii.
For Hirono, it wasn’t a simple decision. At 72 with only one kidney, the other lost to cancer, Hirono is among the most at risk of having a serious reaction to COVID-19. Air travel is considered to significantly increase the chance of exposure and Hawaii is a 5,000-mile plane ride away.
Not only that, Hawaii had just implemented a 14-day quarantine for everyone arriving in the state, meaning Hirono would be forced to stay inside and telework the same as she would if she remained in the nation’s capital. Once her quarantine was lifted it would be about time for her to return to Washington anyway since Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has extended the Senate recess until May 4.
Unlike her colleague, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, Hirono didn’t have a young family to consider. Her mother is in an elder care facility that no longer allowed visitors and her husband, Leighton Kim Oshima, having been married to Hirono long before she was elected to Congress in 2007, was used to the distance.
They already had their routine, which involved him staying up late in Honolulu and her waking up early in D.C. so they could watch Morning Joe together on MSNBC.
Still, when she decided to stay it didn’t make the distance any easier. Sure, they talked several times a day, and she would send him pictures of her breakfast — including a recent batch of homemade Portuguese fried rice — but there was always a dose of uncertainty that lingered between them.
“The hard part now is I don’t know when I’ll be able to go home again,” Hirono said. “This is not unique to me, but we’re doing the best we can.”
All four of Hawaii’s federal lawmakers have adjusted to new political realities, where they stay home, communicate through Zoom, text and FaceTime, and take on one of the largest crises of their careers.
Apart from Hirono, the other three members of the delegation, including Schatz and U.S. Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and Ed Case, traveled back to Hawaii as Congress extended its recess out of an abundance of caution so as to not spread the virus within the country’s halls of power.
“This is a pandemic that requires national leadership and a national coordinated effort.” — U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono
While in Washington, Hirono has spent much of her time trying to hold President Donald Trump and his administration accountable for what she considers its bungling of the response to the global coronavirus pandemic that so far has infected more than 2.5 million people worldwide and killed more than 71,000, including at least 45,000 in the U.S.
She’s called for better protections for seniors from coronavirus-related scams, co-sponsored legislation to take on price gougers and pressed Vice President Mike Pence and other high ranking officials to explain the administration’s slow response to the COVID-19 epidemic and failures to produce and distribute tests.
“This is a pandemic that requires national leadership and a national coordinated effort,” Hirono said. “What’s happening is we have a president who says this is not my responsibility and is pushing it off on the governors.”
For Gabbard, the return home meant hitting the beach and reconnecting with a constituency she all but abandoned while running an unsuccessful Democratic campaign for president.
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) March 21, 2020
The congresswoman has held a number of telephone town halls to discuss the outbreak, how Hawaii is responding and what federal resources are available to residents who have lost their jobs and shuttered their businesses.
She’s also taken shots at Hawaii Gov. David Ige and his administration, calling on him to fire two of his top health officials or resign himself so that his lieutenant governor, Josh Green, a doctor, can take over the state’s response to the pandemic.
Gabbard’s office did not make her available for an interview with Civil Beat, but in a press release said she was headed back to Washington this week to participate in votes, including on a new $484 billion coronavirus aid package that was passed by unanimous consent Tuesday in the U.S. Senate.
Schatz, like Gabbard, has also tried to connect directly with constituents by developing an online resource guide to help them navigate the coronavirus aid package, known as the CARES Act, that was signed into law last month.
The Hawaii senator has said in press releases that that bill would bring billions of dollars to Hawaii through direct payments, loans to small businesses and grants to state and local government. Michael Inacay, Schatz’s communications director, did not set up an interview with the senator despite repeated requests.
Hawaii Congressman Ed Case often returns to the same word when describing his existence in the age of coronavirus — ”intense.”
Life is already more complicated for Hawaii’s federal delegation than it is for many other lawmakers who represent mainland states and congressional districts. The islands are 5,000 miles away from Washington, and the time difference — five or six hours depending on the season — can be brutal.
By the time people in Hawaii are waking up much of the day has already passed in Washington. That means connecting with staff and catching up with constituents can be a late night affair. The opposite is true when Hawaii’s members of Congress are back in the islands. That’s when the pre-dawn rituals begin.
Ever since Case flew back to Oahu in mid-March, he said he’s been working nearly nonstop.
“The importance of staying in touch with D.C. has never been greater,” he said.
He wakes up early so that he can participate in Democratic caucus meetings and connect with agency officials, some of whom are charged with doling out billions of dollars in stimulus money to the states. When he hosts an evening town hall, say at 6:30 p.m. Hawaii time, it’s his East Coast staffers who lose out on sleep.
As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Case is keeping a close eye on the federal dollars flowing to Hawaii and trying to be a resource for residents so that they can take advantage of funding.
His office’s constituent case load is growing as well, he said. Some people call when they have trouble accessing their Social Security or veterans benefits. Others needed help getting home after being stranded overseas.
“The needs are incredibly wide and deep,” Case said. “We’re trying to fulfill all of the functions that we normally fulfill, but they’re all just incredibly amplified in the middle of a worldwide pandemic.”
He worries about the state’s small businesses, many of which relied on a robust tourist economy that last year saw more than 10 million people visit the islands. Hawaii companies received more than $2 billion in loans through a new federal program — the Paycheck Protection Program — that was created as part of the $2.2 trillion relief package.
While Hawaii did well compared to other states, Case said, more money is needed to help smaller companies that weren’t prepared to take advantage of the program before the funding ran out because they didn’t have the infrastructure in place to quickly secure financing.
“They’re just as invaluable to the economy, and, certainly in Hawaii, where small business is king,” Case said. “We’ve got a ton of independent contractors and sole proprietors and gig economy workers, folks who work a variety of part-time jobs, and they’re the ones that are the most exposed right now.”
“If we have to go through this incredible crisis and tragedy that is so deeply impacting everybody, is there some silver lining where we can have some control over the Hawaii that we mold coming back out of it?” — U.S. Rep. Ed Case
A former executive with Outrigger Enterprises, Case is floored when he looks out on Hawaii and sees an archipelago without visitors.
“I think everybody in Hawaii is going through the same set of feelings and emotions and questions around this exact issue,” Case said.
“The question I ask is, ‘If we have to go through this incredible crisis and tragedy that is so deeply impacting everybody, is there some silver lining where we can have some control over the Hawaii that we mold coming back out of it?’ It’s a really important question that I don’t think we’ve spent enough time talking about.”
With so many immediate and existential questions facing his home state, Case said, he hasn’t had a lot of time for himself.
To stay grounded, he said, he takes a run outside several times a week or works in his yard. The one place he hasn’t been yet is the ocean, something that’s unusual for the congressman.
“It’s tragic that it’s taking a crisis,” Case said, “but in some ways it’s been my most productive and best work ever. And it’s frustrating because even with that I never feel like I’ve done enough or come to a resting place. I haven’t felt that at all.”
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