WASHINGTON — Ed Case appears well on his way to winning his third consecutive term as a U.S. representative for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District.

Not too long ago, such a prospect seemed nearly impossible.

Case was a political outcast among Hawaii’s prevailing Democratic Party establishment after challenging U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka in the 2006 primary, a move that was seen as a brazen act of ambition and insubordination by a politician who at the time was representing Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District.

U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, then the de facto head of the party, worked hard to snuff out Case’s campaign, infusing $250,000 into the race by donating it to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which turned around and spent big on Akaka’s defense.

The bad blood carried over into 2010 when Case ran against Inouye’s preferred candidate, Colleen Hanabusa, in a special election to replace U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie who resigned to run for governor. Although Case was the preferred candidate of national Democrats, Inouye threw his weight behind Hanabusa, who eventually won the seat.

Two years later, Case lost another try for Congress, when he was defeated by then U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono for the Senate seat being vacated by Akaka.

Case reentered the political fray in 2018 when he beat a crowded field of Democrats to take the August primary and went on to handily defeat his Republican opponent in the November general election that year.

Since then he’s all but cruised to reelection.

Ed Case and wife Audrey Nakamura smils at headquarters Saturday night, August 11, 2018. (Civilbeat photo by Ronen Zilberman)
Ed Case returned to Congress in 2018 after the political establishment in Hawaii, led by late U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, fought to keep him out of office. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2018

In 2020, Case didn’t even draw a primary opponent, and his top GOP competition in the general election was a QAnon conspiracy theorist, who he thumped by nearly 40 percentage points.

This year Case, 69, drew a Democratic challenger in Sergio Alcubilla — a first-time candidate and former lawyer for the Legal Aid Society — but polls suggest the race won’t be that close. A Civil Beat/Hawaii News Now poll of likely Democratic voters in June found that 65% said they were voting for Case while 8% backed Alcubilla.

“The sum total of my experience, my knowledge, my relationships and what I have accomplished in Congress make me the best candidate for the job,” Case said. “I’m better at my job today than I was yesterday, and I think tomorrow I’ll be even better than I was today.”

Most political observers don’t see a path to victory for Alcubilla, who so far has failed to gain much traction in the race.

Neal Milner, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii, said any upstart candidate is going to struggle when taking on a well-known incumbent with high name recognition.

The people who complain about Case the most, Milner said, tend to come from the left flank of the party that backed U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In Hawaii, he said the progressives have struggled to build a winning coalition, especially in major races.

“In many ways Case, I think, reflects public opinion in Hawaii,” Milner said. “He represents the district. He’s a smart guy, but he doesn’t covet the press very much. He puts his nose down and does the work. And in a safe Democratic district that counts for a lot.”

Alcubilla, 43, said he understands the challenge he faces when taking on an incumbent with a long career in public service. But he also said the reason he’s running is to give voters a choice.

“I don’t come from big money,” Alcubilla said. “My candidacy has really been about my willingness to stand up for normal people.”

Covid-19, Red Hill and Island Diplomacy

Case described his past two years in Washington as “intense,” whether it was grappling with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, fighting with his fellow Democrats over a $3.5 trillion spending plan that was part of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda or considering the long-term ramifications of the Jan. 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol and American democracy by supporters of former President Donald Trump.

An image of fuel leaking from pipes at the Navy’s Red Hill bulk fuel storage facility. Provided to Civil Beat

Some of his greatest accomplishments, he said, entail his ability to bring money back to the islands and help residents access those funds.

He pointed to the fact that Hawaii was able to secure billions of dollars in federal relief aid when the economy was suffering more than most from stay-at-home requirements and travel restrictions that responded to Covid-19, and that the state outperformed almost all others when it came to securing its share of Paycheck Protection Program loans meant to keep small businesses and their employees afloat.

His office also worked closely with numerous people who struggled to access unemployment benefits as state officials scrambled to respond to the pandemic.

Case pointed to his seat on the House Appropriations Committee, which is a coveted position in Congress given that it provides him with more sway than most in how federal dollars are spent.

For example, Case and other members of Hawaii’s federal delegation — in particular U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, who is also an appropriator — secured $1.1 billion in fiscal year 2022 for the Navy’s bulk fuel storage facility at Red Hill that last year leaked jet fuel into the aquifer, sickening thousands who consumed or came into contact with the contaminated water.

The House Appropriations Committee has included another $1.1 billion in fiscal year 2023 to continue addressing the crisis, which will eventually result in draining the WWII-era tanks and moving the fuel.

“The Navy thought they had it under control, and I wasn’t sure that they did have it under control.” — U.S. Rep. Ed Case

Case said he didn’t anticipate he would be supportive of shutting down the fuel tanks given their importance to national security in the Indo-Pacific. But as more details were revealed about the state of the facility and the true circumstances behind what happened, despite the Navy’s efforts to obfuscate, it became clear what needed to be done.

“The Navy thought they had it under control, and I wasn’t sure that they did have it under control,” Case said. “The explanations the Navy was giving for the leak were just increasingly implausible to me and eventually I lost any trust and faith in what I was hearing.”

Another priority, Case said, is bolstering diplomatic ties in the Indo-Pacific region.

In 2019, Case co-founded the Pacific Islands Caucus to help bring more attention to the Indo-Pacific, both to address the growing influence of China as well as other concerns, such as climate change, which is already threatening island residents with displacements.

Case said those efforts are starting to pay off.

Components of the caucus’s marquee bill — the BLUE Pacific Act, which seeks to expand diplomatic relations in the Pacific while also addressing security concerns, such as illegal fishing — have been incorporated into other legislation working through the Congress meant to bolster U.S. competitiveness with China.

The Biden administration has also taken notice of the importance of the region, he said, highlighting Vice President Kamala Harris’ recent remarks at the Pacific Island Forum in Fiji where she outlined plans to open more embassies and bring back the Peace Corps, both of which were proposals included in the BLUE Pacific Act.

“When I read her speech, I thought, ‘Wow, I think I wrote that speech,’ because it came straight out of the BLUE Pacific Act,” Case said.

‘Not The Time For Molotovs’

Case is considered a moderate Democrat, and he has a fiscal conservative streak that has irked some within the progressive wing of the party.

Those concerns came to a head last year when Case teamed up with other centrist Democrats, including Josh Gottheimer, Kurt Schrader and Jim Costa to pump the brakes on Build Back Better, which included trillions of dollars for some of the party’s top priorities, including climate change, affordable housing and extending the child tax credit. Case made it clear he was not opposed to those priorities, but he wanted to make sure another Democratic initiative — the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act — was put in place first.

Alcubilla has made Case’s opposition to Build Back Better a focal point of his campaign. So too has Our Hawaii Action, a Hawaii-based super PAC that supports candidates who refuse to take corporate donations.

Sergio Alcubilla.
Sergio Alcubilla is a first-time candidate taking on a well-known incumbent for Congress. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Our Hawaii Action launched a six-figure ad campaign last year criticizing Case for his stance on Build Back Better and has since begun airing new ads on behalf of Alcubilla.

Evan Weber, a co-founder of Our Hawaii Action, says Case’s refusal to vote on the spending deal until Congress passed a separate $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill continues to reverberate today, especially when it came to passing climate legislation.

He said linking the infrastructure deal to Build Back Better was the only hope Democrats had of convincing U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia to support a deal that would help the nation fight back against rising global temperatures.

“I don’t see how you can look back honestly at the legislative discourse for the past couple years and not recognize that the infrastructure bill being linked to the Build Back Better reconciliation package was the only leverage Democrats had over Joe Manchin to pass climate legislation,” Weber said.

Esther Kiaaina is the vice chair of the Honolulu City Council and a former chief of staff to Case when he represented Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District.

Kiaaina said Case’s temperament is as important as ever right now with the GOP poised to retake the House and possibly the Senate while the country faces deepening partisan divides, over everything from abortion rights to guns.

“What we are going through is unlike any point in our nation’s history and it’s scary so we need people in Congress who are stable,” Kiaaina said. “This is not the time to be throwing molotovs.”

Case has served in the minority before, she said, which means he knows how to work across the aisle. Like her former boss, she values his seat on the Appropriations Committee.

For his part, Case says he has no regrets when it comes to Build Back Better. If anything, he said, he was proved right when the $1 trillion infrastructure bill was signed into law.

He said he’s also at peace with his constituents questioning his decisions because that’s part of the job.

“I’d love to sit here and be a politician that gets 100% support and favorable approval ratings from everybody,” Case said. “But if you set out in politics or anything else in life to be totally supported and totally liked, I don’t think that you’re going to be a leader, which is what I’m expected to be here. I need to make decisions. I need to make tough calls, I need to try to determine what is right for most of the people most of the time in the country. Some people are gonna disagree with that and I can’t let that drive me.”

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