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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, September 3, 2002

Ed Case: Smart, blunt, impatient for change

Today, the first of three profiles of the Democratic candidates for governor. Next week, the Republicans.

By Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

Ed Case is wearing a white hairnet, booties and a lab jacket, obliviously stepping in puddles of sweet, sticky pineapple juice as he takes a tour through the Del Monte plant in Honolulu. He talks to workers, shaking their hands when he can, and greets them with a relaxed smile and a friendly "Hi, aloha. I'm Ed Case."

He takes every opportunity to make conversation, asking workers questions about their jobs and themselves. He talks about how he remembers a train that used to run near the plant when he was growing up.

Rep. Ed Case of Manoa, who was elected to the House in 1994, speaks about changes he would seek as governor of Hawai'i.

Advertiser library photo • Aug. 8, 2002

This side of the Democratic candidate for governor, who jokes and chats with anyone about topics from business and government to surfing and plate lunches, is one that few see at the Legislature. As a House member representing Manoa, Case has built a reputation as a brutally honest, independent reformer who is not afraid of challenging fellow Democrats and powerful interests like the unions that represent public employees.

"At the Legislature, you often saw another side of him, which was very serious, very deliberate and thoughtful," said House Majority Leader Marcus Oshiro. "When he's in a relaxed informal setting and when he lets his hair down, he has a sense of humor. ... Then you see a local boy."

To some of his colleagues in the House, the 49-year-old Case is passionate, intelligent and courageous. What you see is what you get, they say. He's also described as occasionally overbearing and bossy. Some say he argues his point in an aggressive, legalistic way, at times raising his voice and offending those who feel he is pushing too hard, coming off like he's the only one in the room making sense.

He's gotten into his share of scrapes in the House, working successfully to unseat a speaker and later challenging the new leadership on government reform and other issues.

But some also say he is getting better at collaborating with people, and that it's largely his bluntness that makes people uneasy.

The Case plan

Education: Create an "emergency team" to help the state Department of Accounting and General Services push ahead with stalled repair and maintenance projects; abolish the state board of education and replace it with seven elected regional boards; repeal all the laws that require the school system to do specific things.

Economy: Help local businesses by containing taxes and fees and reducing government regulation; create an emergency economic public-private team representing business, unions, nonprofits and community groups; create tax incentives and provide building and infrastructure improvements for industries like technology, agriculture and healthcare; give the University of Hawai'i full autonomy. He opposes a tax credit for an aquarium, ocean science research center and other development at Ko Olina.

Taxes: No increases in the general excise tax or the personal income tax to balance the budget; continue to reduce the "pyramid effect" of the general excise tax. Rule out any big tax breaks for individual businesses for at least two years, as well as any other "unrealistic" tax reductions in order to stabilize revenue.

One big idea: "We all know what we have to do. Let's just do it!"

"I think he struck the right balance between being a maverick and a collaborator," House Majority Whip Brian Schatz said. "You can't fault him for always speaking his mind and always telling it straight. One of the things that makes people uncomfortable about him is that he will always tell you the truth and sometimes the truth hurts. ... I think that he speaks very directly and never equivocates and doesn't lie and that's a rare gem in a politician."

Case emphasizes his local values and his Hawai'i roots that go back four generations on Maui, Kaua'i and the Big Island. Case was born in Hilo in 1952, the oldest of six children of Jim and Suzanne Case. Jim Case has been a lawyer for the Honolulu law firm Carlsmith Ball, where Ed Case is a partner now, and Suzanne Case worked as a children's librarian and school administrator.

Case spent his elementary school years at Waiakea Kai and Keaukaha elementary schools in Hilo, where he was usually the only haole in the class. Growing up, he and his siblings and friends would pile in his parents' station wagon late at night to watch the volcano eruptions, and the family routinely evacuated the house because of tsunami alerts. The Cases often spent time in the ocean, and Jim Case taught his children how to hunt fish with a Hawaiian sling.

Case went to Hawaii Preparatory Academy in Kamuela in the seventh grade and boarded there until he graduated from high school in 1970 in a class of fewer than 50 students. He was the features editor of the school paper, played football and was on the swim team, reaching the state swimming championships every year in high school.

According to his friends and family, Case was a popular, friendly student with a rascal sense of humor and a love of the outdoors. He also liked to travel, taking a year off after high school to work as a cowboy in a sheep station in Australia.

Case received a psychology degree from Williams College in Massachusetts in 1975, and toyed with ideas of either moving to Colorado to become "a ski bum/waiter" for the winter or work on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

Then he saw a flier on summer internships in Washington, D.C. He had little interest in politics — he took just one political science course in college — but applied with Hawai'i's congressional delegation anyway. He wound up working three years for the late congressman and senator Spark Matsunaga, one of the major influences on his life. It was there that Case decided he wanted to run for office.

Case began working for Matsunaga during a momentous time in Washington, D.C. President Nixon had resigned the year before during the Watergate scandal, and there was a strong call for government reform. Case was among the handful of young staffers who worked 12- to 15-hour days tracking legislation and answering letters, all the while soaking up the fast-paced political atmosphere on Capitol Hill and watching Matsunaga work.

Case with his family and supporters on the last day of the Hawai'i Democratic Convention in Waikiki.

Advertiser library photo • June 2, 2002

"I know that's affected Ed," said Honolulu attorney John McLaren, who worked with Case in Matsunaga's office. "He wanted to be in office since we were interns. And that's unique. There's not many people who come to Washington and leave with that desire. Most people come to Washington with that desire, but when they see what it really takes for that level of commitment, frankly, most people just say, 'Thank you, I've had my fun, and I'm going to have a life.'

"I think it was pretty clear that he had made up his mind that he would at least try to run for office at some point as a way to make a contribution back to Hawai'i."

Case monitored issues such as veterans' affairs and Hawaiian affairs and was involved in the political efforts that led to stopping the bombing of Kaho'olawe. Matsunaga would emphasize to his staff almost every day that the constituents were their bosses, a phrase Case still refers to.

After leaving Matsunaga's office, Case received a law degree from the University of California Hastings College of Law in 1981. He returned to Hawai'i and worked as a law clerk for then-Hawai'i Supreme Court Chief Justice William S. Richardson, another influential person in Case's life. He then began working for Carlsmith Ball, specializing in land and commercial law.

Ed Case

• Background: Born 1952 in Hilo, Hawai'i. Attended Waiakea Kai and Keaukaha Elementary Schools. Graduated from Hawaii Preparatory Academy, 1970. Received psychology degree from Williams College in Massachusetts, 1975. Received law degree from University of California Hastings College of Law, 1981.

• Work career: Legislative assistant to the late U.S. Congressman Spark Matsunaga, 1975-1978; law clerk for the state Department of Labor, 1979; law clerk for state Supreme Court Chief Justice William Richardson (1981-82); attorney for Carlsmith Ball since 1983 (partner since 1989).

• Political career: Manoa Neighborhood Board (1985-1989); state House of Representatives representing Manoa (1994 to present).

• Family: Married to Audrey Nakamura Case. Case has two sons, James, 13, and David, 11, from his first marriage. Audrey Case has two children, David, 18, and Megan, 15.

• Hobbies: Hiking, camping, bodysurfing, sailing, youth soccer, reading biography and history.

The road to the State Capitol did not come easy. Case, at the time a member of the Manoa Neighborhood Board, ran for the House in 1986 and lost to Democratic incumbent Brian Taniguchi by 36 votes. Two years later, he challenged Democratic incumbent Sen. Ann Kobayashi and lost by about 1 percent of the vote.

It wasn't until 1994, when Taniguchi left his House seat to run for the Senate, that Case ran again for the Legislature. He won the Democratic primary and went on to beat Green Party candidate Toni Worst in the general election.

Case was quickly noticed in the House as an intelligent, articulate lawmaker who could grasp complicated issues. In his first term in 1995, Case was deeply involved in a $600 million Department of Hawaiian Home Lands settlement with Native Hawaiians and other trust issues.

Case's footprints in the House reflect a man who is conservative about government spending and liberal on social issues. He has argued that the state needs to curb costs in areas like fringe benefits for unionized state workers and he has advocated privatizating and reforming the public employees' health fund. He also supported a minimum wage increase and physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients, and co-sponsored a bill that would grant gay and lesbian couples the legal rights of married couples.

He was an outspoken opponent of the process in which the state Supreme Court selected Bishop Estate trustees and in 1998 organized votes and forced the House leadership to accept a bill to cap the compensation for trustees of charitable trusts — including Bishop Estate — at a "reasonable" level.

He angered Native Hawaiians during his tenure as chairman of the House Hawaiian Affairs Committee when he proposed consolidating the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands into a quasi-public Native Hawaiian Trust Corporation. Many in the Hawaiian community were offended and upset, saying he had no right to tell them what should be done to achieve self-determination.

Case apologized recently at an O'ahu Council of Hawaiian Civic Clubs forum, saying he should have consulted the Native Hawaiian community in preparing the proposal. He pledged not to make the same mistake again.

"It was something that needed to be said," Case said later. "There hadn't been a really good opportunity to say it earlier. I felt that there was a rift that needed to be healed that only I could heal. It wasn't going to come from anywhere else, nor should it."

Unhappy with House Speaker Joe Souki's leadership, Case joined forces with Democratic Rep. Dwight Takamine in 1998 to lead the effort to unseat Souki and give Calvin Say the speakership. The extraordinary coup resulted in Case as majority leader and Takamine as chairman of the powerful finance committee.

But Case ran into some problems in his leadership post. Many House Democrats were uncomfortable with his crusade for government reforms, and some public worker unions, traditional Democratic allies, felt threatened.

Case graduated from Hawaii Preparatory Academy on the Big Island.

Hawaii Preparatory Academy • 1970

Case preached that the state was headed for a financial crisis if lawmakers didn't control spending. As an advocate for sweeping changes in the way the state collects and spends money, Case often found himself alone. He made the rare move of publicly complaining his fellow Democrats had not done enough to address the cost of government and humiliated them by calling their proposed government reform bill "an embarrassment."

"If you cannot make those choices, please get out of the way, because you are just making it harder for the rest of us," he told Democrats in a floor speech on the closing day of the 2000 Legislature.

The public worker unions targeted Case in his re-election bid for the House that year, with a union official pointing to the Case race as an example of the unions' political effectiveness. Case won the race by a wide margin, although he was already saying he wasn't sure he wanted to continue as majority leader.

Some members wanted to remove Case as majority leader, and he told fellow Democrats he would not continue to hold that position if Takamine kept his chairmanship of the finance committee.

Case blamed Takamine for killing some key proposals in Gov. Ben Cayetano's plan to cut the cost of state government and make it more efficient.

Ed Case's Web site
In the end, Takamine stayed put and Case was replaced.

Some in the House give Case credit for taking on controversial issues but also say he can be stubborn and uncooperative. Speaker Say said he sees some Cayetano in Case: "Hard-head sometimes, either my way or nobody's way.

"That's where I think Ed lost out on a lot of personal relationship development," Say said. "He never did get across that step or that obstacle of being much more open to his members.

"The connotation is when you're part of leadership, you got to go the way the committee chair and leadership feels. Ed, to me, I thought, was impatient: 'We gotta do it now.' Even over the objections of your own colleagues. And I've been saying ... that any controversial legislation is going to take six to seven years before it is adopted and the reason is that you gotta educate the members whereby they would feel comfortable."

Case has heard the words "overbearing" and "dictatorial" used to describe him in the House. It bothers him.

"It's certainly not how I feel," he said. "But I do get impatient sometimes when people do not even acknowledge there's a problem and basically try to shut down a process of decision-making that I believe in very deeply. ... I try to bring people together, I try to look for a win-win, try to look for a solution that gives everybody something. But one thing that I don't allow to happen, if I have anything to say about it, is that I don't let any one single minority prevent a solution to a problem."

Case has few regrets in his political career, but he recently talked about one.

"I don't think my colleagues in the Legislature — they've always known me as a legislator, but not particularly as a regular person," he said. "That's a regret of mine. I think I tended to keep my guard up a little bit more at the Legislature because I wanted to get things done. When you try to accomplish change, you're going to upset people and it's harder to upset people when you have very close personal relationships.

"But I think that in the process of trying to get things done over eight years, a lot of my legislative colleagues don't know me as well as a human being."

Oshiro, the majority leader, said he believes Case has learned over the past couple of years how important it is to work as part of a team. He said Case has been somewhat of a loner in the House but that he has seen him open up in more casual settings.

Oshiro recalled an end of session staff party in 2000 where Case had everyone laughing as he belted out Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl" at the top of his lungs at karaoke, all the while dancing perhaps a little like Elvis Presley. Most of the partygoers had only seen Case as a stoic legal scholar until then.

"It was just so good to see him like that," Oshiro said. "For people to see him like that."

Case is divorced from Patricia Kahele, to whom he was married from 1988 to 1998. He recently married Audrey Nakamura Case and highlights her presence in campaign literature and advertisements. He first met Nakamura in the seventh grade at HPA.

"I was in a definite, major-league crush with her for two years," Case said with a grin.

Decades later, they became reacquainted at HPA's 30th high school reunion as both of their marriages were ending. Now they share a family in Manoa that includes his two sons, James, 13, and David, 12, and her children, David, 18, and Megan, 16.

Case has stayed connected with his friends from high school and kept in touch with classmates by writing about them for the alumni newsletter three times a year.

"He was always a very special person in the class," said classmate Frank Hustace, now headmaster at Waimea Country School. "There was something about him, at least from my experience, that was focused, thoughtful and fun-loving. There was some sense of a commitment even then."

Tomorrow: Mazie Hirono

Reach Lynda Arakawa at larakawa@honoluluadvertiser.com or at 525-8070.