Editor’s note: Civil Beat spoke with each of the candidates for the 1st Congressional District seat to discuss how their careers outside of politics have shaped who they are and how they serve the public. This story is the result of an interview with Republican Congressman Charles Djou. Our profile of Democratic challenger Colleen Hanabusa can be read here.
Charles Djou certainly didn’t waste any time.
He was only two years out of law school when he took his first crack at public office, running unsuccessfully to represent Windward Oahu in the Hawaii House of Representatives in 1998 at age 28.
He was victorious in his run for District 47 two years later and has spent the bulk of his time since in politics, but Djou believes his brief time in the private sector as an attorney for one of Honolulu’s largest law firms gives him a unique perspective on the struggles and needs of businesses.
“I think a lot of elected officials don’t understand what business risk means,” Djou said. “Businesses take a chance when they go into the marketplace, and they’ll frequently lose money when they take a risk, but the objective of course is at the end of the year you have more plusses than minuses.”
Too many politicians “lack a breadth and depth of understanding of how business operates,” he said in a phone interview last week to discuss his professional experiences outside of politics. “I think that’s unfortunate and I think that leads to a lot of bad policy.”
Djou said he believes his experience will help him fight off a challenge from Democrat Colleen Hanabusa. If he’s able to convince voters to give him a full term in Congress, he’ll tighten his grasp on a seat that he first helped put into Republican hands more than 20 years ago.
Djou is the child of two immigrants. His father emigrated to the United States from Shanghai, China, and his mother from Bangkok, Thailand. And while neither of his parents were particularly political, their worldview shaped his.
“Both have an admiration for the greatness of our nation, a lot of immigrants do,” Djou said of his parents. Their patriotism translated into a young Djou “believing in American uniqueness and greatness,” which he said is “a natural extension” of Republican values.
He was motivated at an early age to contribute to the Republican cause. As a high school junior, he volunteered for GOP congressional candidate Pat Saiki’s run in 1986 after the bloody first round between Democrats Neil Abercrombie and Mufi Hannemann.
Djou told the story at the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii forum held last week.
“I went out there, I couldn’t even vote, and I was the junior of the most junior, lowest of the low volunteers. I actually was a stamp-licker back in the time when you had to lick stamps on a congressional campaign,” Djou told the assembled business community leaders.
In the interview with Civil Beat, Djou said Saiki “has been a mentor to me. I look up to her, I have a great deal of respect for her, and I think my ideology approaches her ideology.” He said he is, like Saiki was, fiscally conservative and socially moderate.
“She inspired me to get involved in politics,” Djou said at the Chamber debate. “And for me I think it is an amazing testimony to the greatness of the United States of America and the spirit of the American people that in the 24 years, when I went from stamp-licker, junior of the most junior, lowest of the low volunteers for Pat Saiki in 1986. I have gone from that position to today being the United States congressman for the very same seat that I volunteered for 24 years ago.”
Djou eventually volunteered for Saiki on subsequent campaigns for Congress, Senate and Hawaii governor, working on such tasks as sign-waving, knocking on doors, phone-banking, and, of course, stamp licking. He said he served as a general “gopher” volunteer and never held a paid position in any of her campaigns.
As Saiki was wrapping up her first term in Congress, Djou graduated from Punahou School in 1988. Like many other Hawaii youngsters, he had “itchy feet” and “wanted to get off the rock and see the world.”
He earned a dual degree in business management and political science four years later from the University of Pennsylvania.
“Because of my involvement in Pat Saiki’s campaigns, I had more than a passing interest in government and politics,” he said in the Civil Beat interview, noting that he did not think at the time that he’d one day be a politician himself.
A veteran of the high school debate team, Djou decided “law school was a good fit,” and graduated from the University of Southern California in 1996 with a law degree. He quickly latched on with the law firm of Cades, Schutte, Fleming and Wright — one of Honolulu’s largest law firms.
In his years at “Cades-Schutte,” Djou did not get a lot of courtroom work. He instead worked as a transactional attorney in the financial real estate department, focusing in particular on telecommunications law. The bulk of his work was on leasing land for cell phone towers after the Telecom Reform Act of 1996 that deregulated the industry and opened up new opportunities for many businesses.
“I was put there on the theory that I was young and I should understand this technology stuff,” Djou said, noting that it was coincidence and not any particular interest that made telecommunications his area of expertise. “A lot of times in life, it’s the surprises that are the most pleasant.”
Djou says his “claim to fame” is that all of the clients he worked for are no longer in existence. VoiceStream has since been purchased by T-Mobile; GTE Mobilnet has since merged with Bell Atlantic and become part of Verizon; and Nextel has since been acquired by Sprint.
“I think it shows you the dynamic nature of the telecommunications industry,” Djou said.
Djou eventually left the law firm, but didn’t leave everyone behind. His secretary at the firm has been with him since, moving with him to the City Council and even to Washington, D.C., to set up his congressional office. She’s now in his Honolulu district office, he said.
After his first failed run for public office, Djou became the vice chair of the Hawaii Republican Party in 1998. He succeeded in his second run for the state House in 2000, and was a representative when planes were flown into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
He told Civil Beat that he’d been considering joining the armed forces anyway, but 9/11 motivated him to take the plunge and accept his commission in October 2001.
“I felt then and continue to feel that as long as I am young enough and able-bodied enough, I should do my part in serving the country,” he said.
Civil Beat readers might remember that Djou appeared in Army fatigues in the first of his general election campaign commercials.
As an Army reservist, Djou serves one weekend each month and two weeks each year. All of his service time to date has been spent with the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps — meaning he’s an attorney. Like others in the Army, he’s rotated assignments every three years, flipping back and forth between prosecution and defense for military-related crime here in Hawaii.
But because many of the more serious crimes are handled by the county prosecuting attorneys, Djou said his office has been left to handle misdemeanor violations by other reservists — for example, “someone who’s stupid enough to bring a (marijuana) joint on the base” or, on rare occasions, “a soldier who refuses to do push-ups.”
Djou has held other positions during his time as a public official. While he worked part-time in the Hawaii Legislature, he also was the in-house general counsel for a mid-size construction company called KD Construction. He left that job in late 2003 or early 2004, he said, after he’d been elected to represent Hawaii Kai and Waikiki on the Honolulu City Council.
Because the council is also part-time, Djou was able to teach at the University of Hawaii and Hawaii Pacific University. He taught “appellate advocacy” — basically, he “taught first-year law students how to argue” he said. He also taught criminal law and state and municipal government to undergraduate students.
“The one thing I really enjoyed the most was being in front of the students.”