Which Way Will Ed Case Run?

By Dan Boylan

Hawaii Congressman Ed Case
Ed Case lost his first two campaigns, and when he announced in 2001 he was running for governor, people yawned. Today it seems everyone is hanging on his next move

In October 2001, state Rep. Ed Case announced for governor. Hawaii’s political community yawned. Few gave him even an outside chance of winning.

The reasons were several. First, Case would have to get by the well-financed candidacy of Mayor Jeremy Harris and his base in Honolulu Hale.

Or he would meet the better-connected effort of Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono and her strong party support.

Case had also created some problems all his own. As a legislator, he had alienated organized labor, many in the Hawaiian community and a goodly number of his fellow Democrats in the state House.

But things began to go Case’s way. Beset by campaign fund-raising violations, Harris pulled out of the governor’s race. Hirono proved an inept campaigner. On primary election day 2002, Case came within 2,600 votes of winning the Democratic Party nomination.

Case had scarcely taken down his campaign signs when Patsy Mink’s death left the Second District congressional seat open. He immediately announced for the vacancy and easily won the late November special election.

A month later Case triumphed over former law partner Matt Matsunaga, state Sen. Colleen Hanabusa and state Rep. Barbara Marumoto for Mink’s full two-year term. Last fall, he easily beat back a challenge from Republican Mike Gabbard to win a second term.

Ed Case speaks with constituents
Case speaks with Leeward constituents at Kaleiopuu Elementary

“It was pretty lonely out there,” Case admits of the early months of his yearlong campaign for two different offices. “I’d sign-wave alone, with (wife) Audrey, or with a small group of supporters.

“My campaign was very grass-roots, from the ground up. We were outside the Hawaii beltway. We trusted the voters and didn’t listen to the conventional wisdom. It required a lot of hard, hard, hard work. Every day, every minute. And you have to do it yourself. I couldn’t just depend on others.

“Someone’s compared it to planting a yard. You put in tufts of grass, here and there; and then they grow together.”

Case continues his planting. During his first term in Congress, he held 80 “talk story” sessions with his Second District constituents. Three weeks ago, with the beginning of his second term in Congress, Case began another cycle of meetings with the people he represents.

ED Case needs an umbrella. It’s raining heavily as he gets out of his Honda Accord and walks across the parking lot of the Waianae Neighborhood Center on a recent Saturday. His Waianae Coast constituents, many of whom have brought their umbrellas, have begun to gather for this, his first “Talk Story” session of his second term.

Case enters the meeting room and immediately begins shaking hands. Members of his staff have preceded him with doughnuts and a cooler of drinks. In the corner, Case press secretary Randy Obata sets up a video camera. The day’s talks will eventually appear on community access television.

Looking out at the gathering of 35 or so, Case sees a couple in orange T-shirts. “I see the AARP is well-represented,” he says. A gray-haired lady, shaking her umbrella, replies, “All the ducks are out.”

Congressman Ed Case
Ed Case comes from privilege, but lives modestly, right down to the cheap wrist watch

The chattering ceases. “When everyone gets quiet, I guess it’s time for me to start talking,” says Case. He begins by describing a congressman’s roles: to make decisions on foreign and domestic policy, to see “that the federal government is working for us,” and “case work” — individual problems Second District residents may have with the federal government. Case mentions Social Security, veterans’ benefits and housing.

“The federal government,” he points out, “is big and often unresponsive.”

Case will take these talk story sessions to 200,000 of his constituents on Oahu and 450,000 more on the Neighbor Islands.

“I need to let you know what I’m doing,” he explains. “I need to bridge the gap between Washington and you. And I also need to listen. By political osmosis I need a sense of how you feel about the issues.”

Working from two-and-a-half legal pad pages of notes, Case himself speaks to three issues.

“I see the federal budget as our biggest problem,” he says. “How can we afford to do all these things? The federal budget is in the worst shape it’s been in a generation. We have the largest debt in the nation’s history, and it’s going up at the fastest rate in our history.”

Then he turns to foreign policy. Case mentions two young Hawaii servicemen recently killed in Iraq, one of whom graduated from Waianae High School.

“How do we finish in Iraq and leave?” Case asks. “I don’t want to debate whether we should have gone into Iraq or not. That debate’s worthwhile, but we have to deal with the problem we helped create.

“Iraq has to be stabilized. The Iraqis must have a government of their choosing. And the Iraqi people must provide their own security. It’s impossible to have a timetable for that. There’s no perfect choice in Iraq.”

Social Security also concerns Case:

Hawaii's Ed Case

“We’re polarized on the issue. President Bush says Social Security is in crisis. His critics say there’s no problem with Social Security at all. I don’t believe either President Bush or his critics.

“I have concerns. The president wants people to keep part of their Social Security tax money to invest. But Social Security was created to assure a risk-free basic safety net, not as an at-risk investment fund. And there’s the problem of the costs of privatizing. Estimates run between $1 trillion and $2 trillion.”

Case stops.

“I’ve probably talked too long,” he says. He entertains questions.

They run the gamut. Someone asks about the condition of Waianae’s streets and parks and shrinking beach access along the coast. Case points out that issues are mostly the province of the state and county.

A lady, in tears, asks why Waianae High School is the only one in the state without a high school band. Case says, “I’ll write. My job is to cut through these things.” But again Case points out that education is a state issue and the woman should call her state legislators.

Case listens carefully to all, whether they’re asking a question or making a speech. He shows no sign of impatience. He stands quietly, with a look that resembles stoicism on his face, hands behind his back. His only movement is one thumb circling the other.

He wears tan slacks and a brown, pineapple print aloha shirt — nothing flashy or particularly fashionable. He wears an inexpensive rubberized Casio watch. His sideburns are cut unstylishly short. He looks younger than his 52 years, but not a lot younger. He has begun to thicken in the middle.

Case looks at his watch; he’s run over the allotted hour. “I obviously didn’t leave enough time for questions,” Case says, “but I have to get down the road to Nanakuli.”

As Case moves toward the door, he shakes more hands, talks briefly to lingerers, refers a questioner to one of his aides.

CASE talks with a reporter as he navigates rainy, busy Farrington Highway en route to his 11 a.m. session at Nanikapono Elementary School.

“What’s the worst part of being a congressman? Being away from family and Hawaii. My wife, Audrey, is at home and so are two of my four children. My heart is here.

The Case blended family
The blended family, from left, David and Megan Ansdell, Ed, Audrey, James and David Case

“What part of the job didn’t I expect? The degree of partisanship. Too many decisions in Congress are made on partisan grounds rather than on the merits.”

Case fancies himself a centrist.

“My passion,” he says, “is to operate in the moderate middle, under the radar. But the administration is made up of conservative Republicans and the leadership in Congress is made up of conservative Republicans. It is the intent of both the administration and the congressional leadership that moderate Democrats like myself and moderate Republicans don’t do much business together.”

According to Case, such was particularly the intent prior to the 2004 election.

“The Republicans put aside their differences in order to get George W. Bush re-elected. That may change during his second term, particularly on budget issues. For many congressional Republicans, fiscal responsibility is their mantra and they are unhappy with the instability Bush has brought to the budget.”

Case doesn’t like being branded the most conservative of Hawaii’s four-person Washington delegation.

“If you look at the National Journal ratings, Sen. Inouye and I have centrist ratings. Rep. Abercrombie and Sen. Akaka are more liberal,” says Case. “We’re all close on social issues. On foreign policy, Sen. Inouye and I are what were once called Scoop Jackson Democrats. On business and economic issues, I’m probably the most conservative.”

Getting out of his car, in the rain, at the new Nanaikapono Elementary School, Case apologizes to the reporter: “You’re going to have to sit through the same talk again.”

Hawaii congressman Ed Case

THE congressman does indeed give the same talk, but 32 different constituents hear it. Audrey has also driven out from their home in Kaneohe to be with him. At the Nanakuli stop, the local member of the state House of Representatives, Mike Kahikina, also attends.

Case invites state legislators, county councilpeople, even the governor to all of his talk story sessions. Sometimes they show, more often they don’t. As with Kahikina, Case always gives the legislator an opportunity to speak to the assembled.

The number of assembled varied greatly during Case’s first term: “From four once in Kapolei, to 200 in Waikoloa on the Big Island. I think that was the first time Waikoloa had ever seen a congressman.”

Lots of folks come out to hear a congressman: many to ask questions, others to make speeches. One or two appear unbalanced. Again, Case listens attentively to all.

“He’s very patient,” says Audrey from her seat at the back of the room. “He very rarely gets upset. He believes everyone has a story and deserves to be heard. If they need help, he’ll try to find it for them.”

Audrey Case has been through scores of these sessions, but she willingly comes back for more. “I look at it as a partnership,” she says. “He likes me to be here with him. He says he feels more confident if I’m here. I understand; I feel the same. I like being with him.”

Before this rainy Saturday is over, the Cases will attend two more talk story sessions, one in Kapolei, the other on the ewa end of Waipahu.

JIM and Suzanne Case reared son Edward and his six siblings in a Republican household. Jim Case practiced law with the Hilo firm of Carlsmith and Carlsmith.

“If you practiced law with Carlsmith in the ’50s and ’60s, you were close to the business community — so mine was a moderate Republican family,” says Case. “We weren’t socially conservative. And both of my parents were totally involved in the community. My dad served on various civic boards, and my mom ran for the Big Island School Advisory Council.”

Case admits that he grew up amid privilege.

“But I didn’t know it growing up,” he says. “I had friends who definitely came from privilege backgrounds, but I had others who came from poverty. And they were diverse. From kindergarten through fifth grade I attended Waiakea Kai Elementary School. I would say the composition of the student body was 70 percent Japanese-American, 20 percent Filipino, 5 percent Hawaiian, 2-5 percent haole. Most were classic middle class kids; some leaned to lower class; some came from parents who were doing well — like me.

“In the sixth grade, I moved to Keaukaha Elementary School. That was Hawaiian homelands, its students were 97 percent Hawaiian.”

In 1964, Jim Case moved to Carlsmith’s Honolulu office. He offered his son the option of moving to Honolulu with his parents or boarding at Hawaii Preparatory Academy at Waimea. Ed chose to remain on the Big Island.

“HPA was unique,” Case remembers. “The atmosphere bred self-sufficiency and independence. Waimea was a cowboy town that happened to have a private school.”

The school was also very small. Case’s seventh-grade class numbered 16: 12 boys and four girls, one of whom was Audrey Nakamura, the day student daughter of the priest at Kamuela’s St. James Episcopal Church.

“The boys were like our 12 brothers,” Audrey remembers. “We were all together all the time.”

She remembers Ed Case as a “very shy” classmate. “We spoke maybe three times in all those years at HPA. I needed a lab partner in one of my classes, so I asked Ed. He said ‘No.’”

Ed may not have said much to her, but he remembers having a “definite, major-league crush” on the Nakamura girl.

Case characterizes himself as “an underachiever in school and in sports. I was not the student body president. I wasn’t the best student. I didn’t make the honor society. None of that. On occasion I was a troublemaker, and I gave some teachers grief — which I regret.

“I swam competitively from ages 7 to 18. I lettered in swimming, and won most of my events. But I could have been better.”

Says Audrey, an HPA cheerleader herself, “He’s being modest. He was one of the top swimmers there. He played football. All that. And he was a good student. He took Latin all the years he was there. Latin — what kind of guy is that?”

Case graduated from HPA in 1970. College beckoned, but so did adventure. He blames it on Suzanne Case:

“My mother is an adventurer at heart. She’d go anywhere, and I think she nurtured in me a feeling for the intrigue in travel. So I spent a year following high school as a jackaroo — a cowboy — on an Australian sheep station.”

In the fall of 1971, Case followed his destiny to prestigious Williams College in western Massachusetts, his father’s alma mater and the training ground of many of the nation’s blooded elite.

“I was a fish out of water, a kid from rural, multi-ethnic Hawaii,” says Case. “And I was homesicker than a dog.” The Hawaii Island boy found a school steeped in tradition and subtle discrimination, particularly against Jews. Some of his freshman classmates parked their Beemers in the dormitory parking lot.”

During Case’s years at Williams, the college was trying to become more diverse. But it was black and white, and black pride was in vogue. “I innocently tried to reach out to some black students in my dorm, but I was rebuffed,” Case remembers. “It was nothing like Hawaii.”

CASE graduated from Williams with a degree in psychology. Most of his classmates headed for professional schools to become doctors, lawyers, businessmen. Case was unsure of what he wanted to do with his life, so he bought some time as a congressional intern in Washington, D.C. He landed in the office of United States Sen. Spark Matsunaga. He’d stay for three years.

“Sparky taught me the very personal connection between congressman and constituents — the importance of case work. Some congressmen looked down on case work. Sparky didn’t. I don’t. He also taught me that there was a time to be partisan and a time not to be. Some go to Washington only to be partisan, but they’re not very effective.”

Case left Matsunaga’s office for Hastings Law School in San Francisco. Following his graduation in 1981, he returned to Hawaii to clerk for Chief Justice William Richardson at the state Supreme Court. He also put in a stint with the state Labor Department before joining his father’s law firm, Carlsmith Ball, in 1983.

He first tried for elected office in 1986 when he ran for state representative from his Manoa district. He lost in the primary by 36 votes. Two years later he tried for a seat in the state Senate. Case lost again.

“After that 1988 loss, my wife and I bought a house. We wanted to have children, so that was it for politics,” says Case. His wife was the former Patricia Kahele. Their marriage would last 10 years and produce two sons, James and David.

“So I got serious about law,” says Case. “I rose in the ranks at Carlsmith Ball. In 1992, I became the managing partner of the firm. I held that position for two difficult years. Hawaii’s economy was in trouble, and we were a law firm with 200 lawyers. I had to fire friends.”

In 1994 a state House seat opened up in Manoa. Case decided to go for it. “I was 42 years old and not unhappy in my work,” he says, “but I clearly had some unfinished business. I loved the practice of law, but it was then or never.”

Case won that 1994 race, and held the Manoa state House seat for the next eight — sometimes tumultuous — years.

“I was an outsider from the outset,” he remembers. “My Manoa constituents wanted change, and I found myself going out on a limb all the time. Some of my fellow Democrats saw me as a dissident in my own party.”

Case often found himself at odds with then House Speaker Joe Souki. And Souki got his revenge, appointing Case chair of the House Hawaiian Affairs Committee.

“My colleagues joked with me that the speaker wanted me to totally fail,” says Case. “Those were two difficult years: the PASH claims, the ceded lands issue. Hawaiian immersion programs were dying on the vines. I looked for a bigger picture solution.”

It was something called the Native Hawaiian Autonomy Act, and Case committed a cardinal legislative sin: He offered up a major bill without consulting all the parties involved. “I was hanged and burned in effigy on the grounds of Iolani Palace.”

In 1999 Case struck back, leading a group of fellow Democrats in ousting Souki as speaker and replacing him with Calvin Say. Case’s reward was the position of House Majority Leader.

In 2000, Ed Case, divorced father of two, took his sons to the 30th reunion of his Hawaii Preparatory Academy class. Audrey Nakamura, separated from her husband, also attended — without her two children.

“We hadn’t kept in touch,” says Audrey. “But we talked a lot that weekend.”

They married a year later.

He devoted the 2000 legislative session to the cause of civil service. He had the support of the governor and, he thought, the government employee unions.

“But on the final day of the conference committee, it was sabotaged,” he says. “I was angry. We got right up to the brink of meaningful change, and then we flinched.”

During the organization for the 2001 session, Case gave up the majority leadership. It had been a bad fit. Democrats who served with him in that period use words like stubborn, hard-headed, impatient, overbearing — even tyrannical — to describe Case.

Whatever the reason for his failure, Case admits: “I was better as an independent. I could say what I wanted — something I couldn’t do as majority leader.”

After the gavel fell on the 2001 legislative session, Case sat down with his family and decided that he could do even better as an independent Democrat in the governor’s office.

NO Democrat would have a better chance of thwarting Republican Gov. Linda Lingle’s 2006 re-election bid than Case. In his three election contests in 2002-2003, Case did well in exactly the same precincts as Lingle.

If he could run near even with her in those precincts and pick up the traditionally Democratic districts, the governorship would be his.

But Case has his gaze fixed on another office. “I will run if there’s an opening for a United States Senate seat from Hawaii,” says Case. That opening could come soon. In September, both of Hawaii’s U.S. senators will celebrate their 81st birthdays.

If history holds, Case would face a primary against First District Rep. Neil Abercrombie. Case is quick to point out that, should such a contest result, Hawaii would lose Abercrombie’s significant seniority in the House.

“I’m in this for the long run,” says Case. “I bring youth and moderation to Congress. It’s an easier milieu for someone with fluid political beliefs like myself.”

Perhaps. But in whatever direction Ed Case jumps — toward the Hawaii governorship or the United States Senate, no one will greet his decision with a yawn.


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