Case put issue of age onto the table
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
By Derrick DePledge
Ed Case had made up his mind by December that he could no longer wait for Democrats to talk gracefully about a transition. Hawai'i's senators, Daniel K. Inouye and Daniel Akaka, are both in their 80s, and the congressman felt the state could be in danger of losing its influence in Congress if one or both were to die in the next few years.
Case talked to his wife, Audrey. His parents. Three trusted advisers on his staff. He was going to go. He was going to upset tradition in Hawai'i politics and run against Akaka this year in the Democratic primary for the Senate. But he wanted to give Akaka an exit.
Their telephone conversation Thursday morning, less than five hours before Case was going to announce, was short and more than a little awkward.
"I called him and I said Senator Akaka, this is extremely difficult for me. I've known you and loved you for three decades now, but I'm going to be a candidate for the United States Senate, and these are the reasons why," Case said. "And if you have considered any thoughts of retirement, I would certainly not announce my candidacy and defer to your timing."
Akaka was not retiring.
"I told him I'm glad that he's telling it to me directly," Akaka said. "I appreciated that very much from him."
Democrats have long talked privately about what they would do without Inouye or Akaka, but Case's decision could make them act much sooner than many would have liked. The September primary will give voters a choice between a moderate with the potential to serve for a generation and a veteran liberal who has invaluable personal relationships in the Senate that benefit Hawai'i.
If Inouye is the power behind the state's congressional delegation, Akaka is the heart. Even Democrats who believe an honest discussion about transition is overdue have said over the past few days that it should not come at the cost of Akaka's reputation.
"I tell you, it was good for me, I look forward to the challenge," Akaka said. "Ever since he announced it, I've been inundated with calls from many friends sending their love, their best wishes, and offering support to me from all walks in Hawai'i."
Leadership tensions between generations are common in politics and can be just as cutthroat as in the business, sports and entertainment worlds. But primary election challenges between established politicians are rare and often expose larger wounds within a party.
"There's going to be a lot of people who will have serious thoughts about our aging delegation," said Jim Shon, a former state lawmaker and the executive director of the state's charter schools. "Ed has now put that forward."
Democrats have twice been forced to look inward over the past few years, after Linda Lingle in 2002 became the first Republican governor in four decades and when it appeared that President Bush in 2004 might be the first Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan to win in Hawai'i. On both occasions, the party responded with triumph, gaining seats in the Legislature and giving the Islands to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry over Bush.
Some Democrats said they respect Case as a maverick but question whether he might be overestimating voter trends toward independence.
Randall Iwase, a former state lawmaker expected to challenge Lingle for governor, said Case should reconsider.
"When you grow up over here, our Island culture is that you respect your elders, and Danny has been there for a very long time, and he has served us well," Iwase said.
"I know he wants to finish his Akaka bill, and out of respect for Danny Akaka and his dream for his people, to correct the wrong, he should be allowed to finish his mission," Iwase said of a Native Hawaiian federal recognition bill.
"The surprise is not just in the announcement, but, I guess, the surprise is that it happened in Hawai'i," Iwase said.
Others said Case had shown courage because it was inevitable the party establishment would line up behind Akaka.
"A lot of us became Republicans because of that old-boy network," said state Rep. Kymberly Pine, R-43rd ('Ewa Beach, Pu'uloa, Iroquois Point). "I'm proud of him for not being afraid to stand up. How can you not admire the guy for trying to change politics here?"
Case, in an interview yesterday over chili at Zippy's in Kapahulu, said he had not done any polling against Akaka and based his decision on conversations he has had with people since his unsuccessful campaign for governor four years ago.
After three years in the minority in the U.S. House of Representatives, he said, he feels comfortable on the national scene but thinks he would be a better fit in the Senate, where individual senators have more power, and he believes there is more opportunity for a moderate to have greater impact.
The congressman had told The Advertiser in November 2004 that he was interested in the Senate. If Case had passed this year, he would likely have had to wait until one of the senators died, or if Akaka were re-elected to another six-year term, until 2012. He said yesterday he did not contemplate running against Inouye, a Hawai'i institution who is third in seniority in the Senate. Inouye is not up for re-election again until 2010.
"I came to a comfort level within myself on this, because the comfort level is, 'Are you OK either way?' " Case said. "Some people, they get into politics and they can never get back out, and it causes great problems in the system.
"For me, I was perfectly happy with my life before I went into politics, and I'm going to have a very nice life if I get out of politics."
U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie's announcement in October that he would not run for governor was somewhat of a factor, Case said, because that would have opened up Abercrombie's seat in the House. It would have been tough on Democrats to have to defend both House seats in a year when there also is a governor's race.
Case said he considered talking with the delegation, especially Inouye, about his plans, but he knew word might leak out and he would face tremendous pressure not to run. "I did know that if I raised the issue, the answer would be 'no,' " he said.
The blue-and-white "Case for Senate" campaign signs were ready, and he picked Thursday, between opening day of the state Legislature and Lingle's State of the State address, as the right time to announce. The rumors had been circulating among insiders for months, but Case and Akaka had never spoken about them. The congressman said he did not know for sure if the senator wanted to run for re-election or retire until Thursday.
Case said he also tried to keep it secret from most of his congressional staff. Esther Kia'aina, his chief of staff, Jimmy Nakatani, his district director, and Crystal Rose, his campaign manager, all knew, but he said the rest of his staff was not officially told until two hours before his announcement. Case had reached Inouye shortly after speaking with Akaka in the morning — late afternoon in Washington — but he did not tell Abercrombie or state party chairman Brickwood Galuteria until minutes before his afternoon news conference.
"Right now, we're in denial and anger," Case said of the reaction within the party. "We need to get into acceptance and decision. And we've got plenty of time to do that."Staff writer Ken Kobayashi contributed to this report. Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge @honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.
Reach Derrick DePledge at email@example.com.