By Jonathan E. Kaplan - 04/04/06 12:00 AM EDT
On the morning of Jan. 19, just hours before Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii) announced that he would challenge elder statesman Sen. Daniel Akaka (D) in the Democratic primary, Case called Akaka from Hawaii.
In Washington, it was 3:30 in the afternoon when Akaka returned Case’s call, according to both lawmakers. Case told Akaka that he had the “deepest aloha” for him but that he planned to run against him because Hawaii needed to begin an inevitable transition of power from Akaka and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) — both 81-year-old veterans of World War II — to a new generation of Hawaii politicians.
“I appreciated his call to me that he was going to run. Not that I liked it, but I appreciated it,” Akaka told The Hill. “He was hoping that I was thinking of retiring.”
Case warned Akaka that if he and Inouye retired at the same time it would take years to reclaim Hawaii’s lost seniority in the Senate. Case then asked Akaka if he planned to run for reelection. If he did, Case wanted to announce his candidacy that day. But, Case said, if Akaka planned to retire and needed time to evaluate that decision, Case would wait.
He then asked Akaka for his answer.
“I thanked him and I told him I am running for reelection,” Akaka said.
The conversation encapsulates the wide gulfs in personality, generation and ideology between each lawmaker. Every move that each has made over the past few months is now viewed through the prism of what is shaping up to be a complicated intraparty battle between the ambitious, if brash, Case, a former Senate aide-turned-corporate lawyer and cousin of AOL founder Steve Case, and Akaka, a beloved grandfatherly figure in Hawaii who worked as a high school principal before winning a House seat in 1976.
Top Hawaii Democrats felt Case acted “too precipitously,” said Dan Boylan, a history professor at the University of Hawaii and a political pundit. “He entered in a way that was insulting” because he had been telling people he planned to run for reelection in the House.
Others suggested that Case challenged Akaka only because running against Inouye — a revered figure in Hawaii — would have ended his political career.
“I was under the impression that Case would run for reelection in the House and I would help Akaka in his campaign. It’s as simple as that,” said Inouye, who has endorsed Akaka.
Case’s decision disappointed senior Hawaii Democrats in the old-school political machine where potential candidates are expected to pay their dues.
His decision was not without consequences. Three donors asked for refunds, said Case, adding that he complied. Still, he remains upbeat and defiant.
“Clearly the bunker mentality of the shrinking Democratic status quo in Hawaii has been resistant to my candidacy,” Case said. “Can you micromanage voters and spoon-feed them on who should represent them in the Senate? This campaign will be a referendum on what is a broken political culture.”
Case fortified his reputation as a renegade Democrat in part by capitalizing on Hawaii’s changing demographics — an influx of white, wealthier voters, some of whom are Republicans — to win three congressional elections since Rep. Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii) died in 2002. Japanese-Americans, reliable Democratic voters who once dominated Hawaii, now make up just 20 percent of the population.
“Hawaii voters are increasingly moderate and independent and will not vote for a traditional party-line liberal Democrat in statewide office as was reflected in the 2002 governor’s race,” Case said. “I am a moderate, independent Democrat.”
Hawaii elected a Republican governor in 2002, but the Democratic Party still rules Hawaii. Hawaii is so liberal that in the 2004 presidential Democratic caucuses Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) won but liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) finished a close second.
But the general election was closer than many expected, and a poll in the closing days showed the race tied. Vice President Dick Cheney even made an 11th-hour campaign stop there. Nevertheless, Kerry won with 54 percent of the vote.
In his race against Akaka, Case will depend on Republicans to vote for him in the open Democratic primary and try to split the Democratic vote with Akaka. “That’s Ed’s way in,” Boylan said.
Case has catered to Republican voters, often crossing party lines on economic issues and supporting the Bush administration’s approach to the war in Iraq. According to National Journal, which assigns rankings to lawmakers based on a series of votes, Akaka ranked 78.8 percent liberal while Case scored a 58.7 percent.
In the 109th Congress, Case has voted for and Akaka voted against class-action and bankruptcy reform and the USA Patriot Act. Case opposed and Akaka supported a measure to increase fuel efficiency. On a budget vote that included a measure permitting drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge of Alaska, Akaka supported the bill while Case rejected it.
In the Democratic primary, however, the war in Iraq could prove to be a decisive issue. When Congress voted in 2003 to authorize the president to use force against Iraq, Akaka opposed the bill. Case was not in Congress at the time but is quick to note that he opposes a quick withdrawal of U.S. troops.
“Regardless of the circumstances in which we went into Iraq, we cannot unilaterally withdraw,” Case said. “I believe I speak for the moderate to middle of Hawaii in reflecting deep concerns over Iraq while believing serious consequences to an immediate withdrawal.”
Akaka’s position is less clear. He said he wants a “reassessment” of the strategy in Iraq and, based on the findings, would “not mind setting” a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Beyond the ideological differences, Case and Akaka have vastly different legislative styles. Akaka is not one to make speeches or take to the Senate floor; he’s a behind-the-scenes operator. Case, however, is more likely to make waves and, at times, has irritated his fellow Hawaiians.
Inouye, Akaka and Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), for example, have worked to press the Department of Commerce to create a sanctuary to protect the islands northwest of Hawaii. But Abercrombie, a senior Democrat on the House Resources Committee, said that without any real consultation Case introduced legislation to create a refuge, which seeks to protect the islands by act of Congress, not the executive branch, and that by acting alone his bill will not go anywhere.
Case said, “I asked them to work with me and co-sponsor that bill. I’ve been a fully consultative and cooperative member. I do not feel that on all occasions that I need to essentially pre-clear everything I am doing … nor do I expect them to.”
Despite the differences over approach, Case and Abercrombie work together on many issues and often co-sponsor bills the other introduces.
Hawaii’s primary is Sept. 23, and the winner will most likely waltz into the Senate. For now, Case must overcome the perception that his ambition to be a senator has come at the expense of the grandfatherly Akaka and the overall legislative goals of the state of Hawaii.
“The question is not a generation gap,” Abercrombie said, adding that it is not one of ideology either. “The question for Ed is ‘Are you a member of the team?’ Will Ed be rewarded for not being a member of the team?”