With 39.5 percent of the vote, Djou, a Honolulu City Council Member and US Army Reserves JAG officer, beat out two prominent Democratic candidates including Congressman Ed Case (2002-2007) who had 27.5 percent and Senate President Colleen Hanabusa who had just over 30.8 percent of the all mail election ballots.
Sunday, Djou called to thank contributors, met with media about his plans for the next 7 months in congress, and packed for his trip to Washington D.C.
Monday, at 4 p.m., Djou leaves for the nation’s capitol.
If all goes on schedule and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gives her approval, by Tuesday at 5 p.m., Djou should be sworn in as Hawaii’s next Congressman.
Djou won’t be traveling to his new second home alone. Wife Stacey, his 17-year-old son, and his daughters, 7, and 3, will be making the trip. His family is “excited, tired and overwhelmed,” but “looking forward to an amazing opportunity.” Wife and kids will remain with Djou for a few weeks in Washington D.C. before returning to Hawaii; Djou will commute back and forth. When asked how his kids are taking the news, he says jokingly that his 17 year old is “too cool to admit interest”; his 7 year old is “excited about seeing Washington D.C.” and his 3 year old “has no idea yet that she is going on a plane.”
Getting Down to Business
Congress will go back into session on Tuesday, May 25. In the first few days in his new job, Djou says he will first have to “find his office and the bathroom,” and then work to hire his staff and get his office organized.
Once he gets to work, he says the major focus will be on passing a budget between now and October; and there will be a battle over the president’s plan for immigration and cap and trade.
Specific to Hawaii, Djou will focus on loosening up a visa waiver program from South Korea to boost local tourism and establishing a free trade agreement with South Korea.
He will also tackle a contentious issue impacting Hawaii that most people in the country know little about – the Compact of Free Association between the Federated States of Micronesia and the United States – which encompasses the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Republic of Palau. The agreement gives the federation’s residents the right to unregulated travel within the United States and the ability to move to any state including Hawaii without permission from the state or federal governments.
Several thousand people from Micronesia have migrated to Hawaii since the compact went into effect. However, social workers and government agency workers say many of the Micronesians don’t speak English and they do not have essential work skills or financial and economic literacy. So when they arrive in Hawaii, they are overwhelmed by the high cost of living and housing, resulting a high rate of homeless. That leads some to turn to a life of gangs and crime, and many others to seek help through Hawaii’s already overburdened and underfunded social and low income government networks. In addition, Hawaii’s public schools are overwhelmed with children who speak little or no English, are homeless or who live in extreme poverty.
Hawaii receives just $10 million from the federal government to accommodate the influx, but the governor’s office estimates that the agreement costs Hawaii taxpayers an additional $100 million a year.
Djou, the son of immigrants from Thailand and China, proposes that instead of allowing the Micronesians “universal access,” which burdens Hawaii with additional social problems, there should be more controls including visa requirements. He says rather than Hawaii taking on such a huge financial burden, the federation should receive straight foreign aid.
Like his predecessor Congressman Neil Abercrombie, who resigned in February to run for Hawaii governor, Djou hopes serve on the Armed Services Committee and Committee on Natural Resources.
Democrats Say They Plan to Take Back Their Seat
Djou stressed throughout the campaign and on election night that the congressional seat does not belong to any party, union, special interest or person.
However, Democrats don’t seem to believe or accept that.
Both nationally and locally, Democrats are downplaying the fact that Djou is Hawaii’s first GOP member of Congress since Pat Saiki represented Hawaii in the US House from 1987 to 1991.
They are dismissing Djou’s win as a consequence of two popular Democrats running against one another in a three-way race.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Chris Van Hollen says the Democratic Party will recapture the seat in the fall elections when Djou and the winning Democrat primary candidate will go head to head.
Democrats’ Infighting Divided Party, Vote
The Hawaii Democrats got into trouble when Hanabusa opted to join the race with the blessing and strong endorsement of U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, even though it was widely believed she would be a candidate for governor in 2010. Her campaign further divided the party and incited those Democrats who dislike Case for previously challenging the party’s highest powers.
Inouye, Hawaii’s godfather of politics and self-declared “pork king” openly attacked Case, saying he’d betrayed the Hawaii congressional delegation when Case ran against incumbent U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka in 2006.
Inouye also campaigned heavily for Hanabusa, using his national connections as the powerful Senate Appropriations committee chair to fundraise for Hanabusa. Inouye even took up a Hawaii tradition standing on the street corner with Hanabusa campaign signs to wave with Hanabusa at passersby. “I think she is a better candidate. Her word is good, I can trust her,” Inouye told the media. All the major unions, seeing Case and Djou as a threat to their power, endorsed and helped Hanabusa with her campaign.
Case also made some fatal errors. He was widely considered a moderate and embraced by many independents and Republicans, but he began attacking “extreme right wing conservatives” who helped Djou and did not answer criticism that he’d voted for more than 70 tax hikes in his career.
Although the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee secretly endorsed Case, a former Blue Dog congressman, Inouye’s power kept the committee from openly backing Case. The DCCC, which sent out several press releases and launched $300,000 worth of negative television ads against Djou, eventually pulled its campaign out of Hawaii in frustration after too many conflicts within the party.
President Barack Obama even got involved in the race by calling on local residents to vote for one of the Democrats. Gov. Linda Lingle, who helped Djou, followed Obama’s calls with a plea directly from her.
Democrats say the fight is far from over. In a Sunday email to supporters thanking them and congratulating Djou, Ed Case says: “We didn’t lose the war. 61% of us voted for a different philosophy of government than offered by Charles, and 69% against the machine status quo of Colleen Hanabusa. That we weren’t able to achieve all this last night takes nothing away from our continued need for change that will work for us all.
Hanabusa sent a feisty email to her supporters after she came in second with 30 percent of the vote: “Some told us that we shouldn’t be in this race. They told us to sit on the sidelines. They insisted that we were going to fail. But momentum has been on our side, and continues to build to our advantage. The results are a clear statement that our votes are for Hawaii values and priorities, and Hawaii voters have voted for representation that they believe—that they know—that I am a viable candidate who will work across party lines and will work diligently with Hawaii’s best interest at heart and in mind. I have always had faith in the people of Hawaii, and am so very deeply encouraged by voters’ support and faith.”
Djou Fights Back
The National Journal addresses the challenge of undoing a special election victory: “GOPers are quick to remind Dems, though, that it’s rather difficult to win back seats lost in special elections. In ’08, GOPers won back just one of the three seats they lost during the cycle in special elections.”
Djou agrees it may be tougher for Democrats to counter his momentum than they claim. He reminds voters that this past January, he was rated in third place under Case and Hanabusa by media polls and political pundits who said he had no chance of victory.
Case, the only candidate with congressional experience, was widely considered the likely winner. Both Hawaii dailies newspapers endorsed Case and showed him ahead in the polls for name recognition and popularity.
But momentum swung toward Djou in January after Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown broke the last of the Kennedy dynasty when he won the seat formerly held by Democrat Ted Kennedy. Many national political analysts said if the Democrats could lose in Massachusetts, they could lose anywhere, including Hawaii. They deemed Djou the next possible “Scott Brown.” And while national Democrats helped Hanabusa and Case, national Republicans and conservative groups including the Americans for Tax Reform, coalitions for traditional marriage and the Independent Women’s Forum, among others, rallied around Djou.
The special election by mail, which began April 30 and wrapped up May 22, cost voters an estimated $1 million. Eleven other candidates ran for the seat, receiving a combined 2.1 percent of the vote.
Holding onto the seat in November will be a challenge, especially in Obama’s home district where the president received 72 percent of the vote. But Djou says he will work hard, campaign hard and stress a message of fiscal responsibility.
He has some luck on his side. Hawaii embraces incumbents – no Hawaii congressional or gubernatorial incumbent has ever lost in primary or general election. Although a heavily Blue state, Hawaii is not anti-Republican – George W. Bush received 47 percent of the vote in 2004 and Governor Linda Lingle has won two 4-year terms.
One national political columnist notes that a poll of supporters of Hanabusa and Case show backers of each hate each other. “When Case voters were asked who they would vote for if he wasn’t running, 40% said GOPer Djou, 40% said Hanabusa, and 20% said wouldn’t vote.”
In addition, Case and Hanabusa’s dislike for one another isn’t likely to dissipate soon and they will likely spend millions of dollars over the next four months battling for the primary victory.
Djou is putting all that behind him for now. Leaving the Honolulu City Council behind won’t be difficult. Djou is ready for bigger things.
But to tackle the nation’s budget crisis, he may need a better calculator. The City’s budget as proposed by Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann is $3 billion. The nation’s budget is $3.8 trillion.
“Same principles in dealing with the budget – we just add 6 more zeroes,” Djou says.
Malia Zimmerman is the editor of Hawaii Reporter. Reach her at Malia@hawaiireporter.com