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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Race, its subtleties still color Isle elections

By David Shapiro

I was catching grief a few months ago for writing that Sen. Daniel Akaka's age was a fair issue to consider in his Democratic U.S. Senate race against Rep. Ed Case, when a friend who supported the 82-year-old Akaka offered a measure of validation, saying, "That's your job, to talk about the elephant in the room."

I appreciated the sentiment, but thought my friend had the wrong pachyderm; age wasn't the elephant in the room in the Akaka-Case contest, race was.

I never figured out a way to discuss race while the campaign was on without inflaming emotions that already were overheated, but now that passions have cooled, it's worth examining the race factor that continues to color our elections no matter how much we wish it didn't.

That same column on Akaka's age drew an angry e-mail from another of the senator's supporters who accused me of discrimination for discussing age and then concluded by saying, "This election is about local-born Hawaiians versus Mainland-born Hawaiians."

Since Case was born and raised in Hilo to a family that has been in Hawai'i for four generations, I figured he must be talking about race rather than place of birth and asked how come I was guilty of discrimination, but he wasn't.

"You just don't understand," he said.

Another Akaka partisan tried to educate me more specifically later in the campaign with the opinion that "it is impossible to talk comprehensively about the Akaka-Case race without talking about Akaka's Hawaiianness and Ed Case's haoleness."

In case I didn't get what he meant by "haoleness," the writer a Caucasian himself and self-described "progressive" Democrat defined it as "loud, opinionated, self-righteous, demanding, individualistic and often socially graceless."

Some consider Case arrogant, but he's not particularly loud and has displayed reasonable grace in every social situation I've seen him in. I wondered how this peculiar definition applied to Case and not our other U.S. representative, Neil Abercrombie, who is an icon to progressive Democrats. For that matter, the late Rep. Patsy Mink had a lot of those qualities.

To the writer, it came down to Case's "old-line, prominent haole, Republican, managerial family ... Ed's every breath, every gesture and certainly every idea reeks of his social origins."

Reeks? So Case wasn't just dealing with the prejudice of old-line ethnic locals, but also with the intolerance of haole wannabe locals who resented the circumstances of his birth. In some ways, I found the latter kind of bigotry more offensive.

This tired thinking is a handicap for Democrats as they try to sustain their political dominance in a state that's becoming more pluralistic with every election.

The race card will make for a losing hand in the end. Democrats simply don't have the numbers that they can afford to exclude a growing chunk of voters who would like to vote Democratic, but are turned off by mindless prejudices.

Candidates like Frank Fasi, Jeremy Harris and Linda Lingle all scored big victories against challengers running on the "local values" issue, and even Case easily defeated Matt Matsunaga and Colleen Hanabusa in his initial run for Congress.

In the Senate contest, Case just ran against the wrong guy at the wrong time and from the wrong side on Iraq.

People of any race with local history want to preserve the special values that define Hawai'i, but most voters of all stripes have become too sophisticated to reduce it to racial and cultural stereotypes.

The descendants of plantation managers don't necessarily think like their forebears, and neither do the descendants of plantation laborers; in fact, as a result of intermarriage, in some cases they're one and the same.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net. Read his daily blog at blogs.honoluluadvertiser.com.