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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 22, 2006

Case defies political status quo

By Jerry Burris
Advertiser Columnist

When former Hawai'i Lt. Gov. Tom Gill decided he would challenge his boss Gov. Jack Burns for the top job, he dropped by the governor's office to ask whether it would give Burns "hives" if he ran.

Hives? Are you kidding? The Burns forces were furious that anyone would challenge the Old Man. There were political differences between the two, to be sure, but the gut feeling in the Burns camp was outrage that Gill would have the audacity to upset the established order of things.

As it turned out, Gill was unsuccessful, and Burns eventually turned the office over to a chosen successor, George Ariyoshi.

Ariyoshi had a similar experience when his lieutenant governor, Jean King, challenged him unsuccessfully in a primary.

This is just by way of illustrating that, for years, there was a way "things were done" in Island politics. One waited his or her turn, respected one's political elders and played by the rules.

This was not unique to Hawai'i, of course. Any boss-controlled political system has similar rules.

But the game may be changing here, thanks to the stunning announcement by U.S. Rep. Ed Case that he will challenge incumbent Dan Akaka for his U.S. Senate seat. Both are Democrats.

The immediate reaction among the chattering political class was astonishment: How in the world could Case dare to challenge the established political order?

In truth, Case is not challenging Akaka. Rather, he is challenging conventional wisdom that says the smart thing to do is wait your turn.

Case's argument is that now is the time to get fresh blood in the Senate. Since Akaka and Sen. Daniel Inouye are the same age, there is a strong possibility that they could both retire around the same time.

That would leave Hawai'i without an iota of seniority in the Senate, where seniority means a lot. In other words, Case is making a strategic argument for Hawai'i's interests.

It is hardly clear whether the argument will work. It might have appeal in a general election, where independents and others participate.

But will it work in a primary, where old loyalties and Democratic Party alliances still matter? Case knows the challenge: He ran and lost against "establishment" candidate Mazie Hirono in the Democratic primary for governor in 2002.

Are today's circumstances different enough, or have the demographics of the electorate changed enough to make this statewide primary race substantially different from the one against Hirono?

Case, clearly, believes they have. He will have to walk a delicate line, creating political and even generational distance between himself and Akaka without alienating the senator's many admirers.

And he must deal with this fact, as well: No incumbent member of Congress from Hawai'i ever has been defeated for re-election.

Jerry Burris is The Advertiser's editorial page editor.

Reach Jerry Burris at jburris@honoluluadvertiser.com.