Editor’s note: This is one in a series of articles examining contested Big Island primary election races.
By PETER SUR
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The last time Hawaii voters faced an open seat in the U.S. Senate was 1976, when Congressman Spark Matsunaga defeated Congresswoman Patsy Mink in the Democratic primary.
Matsunaga died in office in 1990 and U.S. Rep. Daniel Akaka was appointed to fill out the remainder of Matsunaga’s term.
Akaka’s retirement means that for the first time since Gerald Ford was president, voters will pick, and not re-elect, a U.S. senator. Eleven candidates are on the ballot, and three of them are getting the most attention — Democrats Ed Case and Mazie Hirono, and Republican Linda Lingle.
Both Hirono and Case, the current and former 2nd District congressional representatives, are vying for the chance to face Lingle, the likely Republican nominee and former governor. In a state dominated by Democrats, this should be no contest, but the polls show a tightening race with no clear frontrunner.
Hirono and Case have their differences, but they agree that party unity is much preferable to sending Lingle to the Senate.
Hirono said that if she wins, Case voters should rally around her to stop Lingle and the Republican Party’s push for “huge tax breaks for the richest people in our country and big tax breaks to Big Oil … and I will be very busy making sure that the people of Hawaii know what’s at stake in this election and why they should vote for me,” Hirono said.
Case said that if he wins, “voters who vote for Mazie will clearly conclude that my candidacy offers them the far better choice for both Hawaii and our country than Linda’s, so I think the voters who vote for Mazie will completely understand the stakes for our country of which of us is successful in the general election.”
Hirono, 64, was born in Japan. When she was 7 years old, she left for Hawaii her mother and brother, leaving a father who was an alcoholic and a chronic gambler. (Hirono has made her early upbringing a staple of her campaign speeches). Despite growing up poor, she worked her way through the University of Hawaii and pursued a law degree at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
In 1980 Hirono was elected to the state House of Representatives, where she represented an Oahu district until 1994, when Lt. Gov. Ben Cayetano, who was running for governor, tapped her as his running mate. Hirono served for eight years as lieutenant governor, but fell short in her own gubernatorial bid in 2002 to Lingle.
When Case left his seat in Congress to run for the U.S. Senate against Akaka in 2006, a crowd of ambitious Democrats threw their hats in the ring to replace him, and Hirono emerged with the most votes in the primary election. She has served Hawaii’s 2nd District since 2007.
Hirono’s accomplishments include securing a $2 million earmark to clean up a World War II munitions dump in Waimanalo, Oahu, $500,000 for the Tutu and Me early child education program and a bipartisan amendment to restore funding for a Native Hawaiian and Alaska Native educational grant program.
“This bipartisan effort working with Don Young (R-Alaska) allowed $33 million to come to the state of Hawaii for Native Hawaiian education programs that meant a lot to the young people here,” she said. Hirono also cited her work in getting federal funds to repair the lower Hamakua Ditch, funding for the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, agricultural research, rural bus service and upgrades for the Hilo International Airport.
“I bring the collaborative leadership style to get things done for the people of Hawaii, and we need a senator who does that,” Hirono said.
On the other hand, a bipartisan approach is the only way a Democrat can be effective in the House of Representatives. “It’s a lot more challenging to get things done on such things as job creation, because the Republicans are not interested in job creation,” Hirono said. “What they’re interested in is making sure that the richest in our country continue to get their tax breaks. And I support ending those tax breaks.” She also cited Republicans’ support in repealing health care reform and changing Medicare and Social Security “in ways that would be very harmful to our seniors.”
To help the island’s economy, Hirono touts a bill she introduced with Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., making it easier for visitors from China to overcome visa hurdles and come to Hawaii.
“We get maybe 100,000 visitors (from China) to the state of Hawaii, and with the VISIT USA bill to make some commonsense changes to how we deal with visa applications for (the) Chinese, we could increase the visitors from China to 300,000.”
Hirono is a member of the liberal Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Case was a member of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition. Hirono says Case supports raising the retirement age for Social Security and opposes both the Medicare Part D program and President Obama’s jobs plan.
“He says that the private sector should be creating those jobs and they certainly are not,” Hirono said. “These are major differences between me and Ed that people are becoming aware of … the people of Hawaii want somebody who’s on their side, their issues and who shares their values.”
But Hirono reserves her strongest comments for Lingle.
Lingle, said Hirono, will vote for the “elimination and repeal of Obamacare, the repeal of Wall Street reform, the changing of Medicare and Medicaid, the probable privatization of both that are very harmful to our seniors, and in fact they are vehemently opposed to our efforts.
“That’s what a Republican-controlled Senate (will do) … They have every intention of continuing the huge tax breaks for the richest people in our country and big tax breaks to big oil that would be continued. That’s what Republicans want. They want these kinds of unfair tax policies to be made permanent.”
Case, 59, was born in Hilo to a prominent kamaaina family whose father Jim worked as a well-known attorney for Carlsmith Ball. A graduate of Hilo-area public grade schools, and later, Hawaii Preparatory Academy, Case studied at Williams College in Massachusetts and earned his law degree from the University of California Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. A former legislative aide for Matsunaga, Case was an attorney for Carlsmith Ball from 1983 until 2002.
Case was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1994, representing an Oahu district, until his unsuccessful run for governor in 2002. Later that year, however, Case prevailed in a special election to succeed Mink. After leaving Congress in 2007 Case returned to private practice in a Honolulu law firm.
When then-U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie resigned from the 1st Congressional District to run for governor in 2010, Case split the Democratic vote in a special election with state Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, allowing Honolulu Councilman Charles Djou, a Republican, to win. Hanabusa took back the seat in November.
Case lists among his major accomplishments as congressman his “dozens” of talk story sessions he’s held on Hawaii Island over his six years in Congress, and 172 statewide.
He said he was able to secure funds for improving the Saddle Road and the Queen Kaahumanu Highway expansion, and worked on securing the Kahuku section of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, preservation of the Ka‘u coast, and developing UH-Hilo.
If elected senator, Case plans to help with critical infrastructure improvements in Puna, expanding UH campuses on the Big Island and growing the economy. On this island, he says he would focus on tourism and agriculture.
Case said he worked on an earlier version of the VISIT USA bill, which he describes as “a part of the answer.”
“We have a major opportunity now because we just passed for the first time a comprehensive federal marketing approach for tourism in the U.S. Travel Act that again I worked on when I was in Congress, and that is going to be implemented in the coming years,” Case said. He says he can make Hawaii part of the overall marketing effort.
Case says he would be the best candidate to fix the economy, paralysis in Washington, D.C., and America’s growing debt.
“I think it’s important to send someone to D.C. who knows what it takes to grow an economy,” he said. “I’ve served in the private sector for 30 years. I’ve run both of the businesses that I’ve worked for, and that’s a direct contrast with Mazie, who has none of that experience. If you want somebody to fix an economy, send somebody who understands an economy.”
On fixing Washington, Case says sometimes you have to work across the aisle to solve problems. He said Hirono “represents the far left 1 to 2 percent of Hawaii and our country” and isn’t what’s needed to solve the country’s problems.
Case also believes the debate on fixing the debt problem should be more balanced than the current practice of “lob(bing) mortars from the partisan extremes across a reasoned middle ground solution.” He favors leveling out the growth in government spending and the expiration of the Bush tax cuts for the upper income levels.
He favors raising the cap on Social Security income taxes and a phased increase of the Social Security retirement age to 68 or 69.
“Hirono’s solution is solely on the cap side and what she forgets is that the Social Security tax is a tax on businesses, which costs jobs,” Case said, and suggested the loss of jobs would “hurt Social Security far more in the long run than a phased increase in the retirement age for those in their 20s and their 30s today … “I really think Mazie has her head in the sand about this. I don’t think she appreciated the need for some honest and fair decision-making to save Social Security over the long run, and her solution is just ‘let’s not acknowledge the full problem and take the easy way out,’ and the easy way isn’t going to work.”
“I think my overall political philosophy is progressive on social issues, moderate on economic and budget issues,” Case said, which “is completely in line with both the Democratic Party of Hawaii and the voters all over Hawaii, and so I believe that I represent the mainstream of voters and that my opponent does not.”