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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Democrats showing weakness in Case affair

By David Shapiro

The rancorous response of top Democrats to news that U.S. Rep. Ed Case will challenge fellow Democrat Daniel Akaka for the U.S. Senate illustrates the stale thinking that has left Hawai'i's dominant political party scrounging for a credible candidate for governor.

Democratic leaders such as Sen. Daniel Inouye and Rep. Neil Abercrombie vilify Case as disloyal, disrespectful, unwilling to wait his turn and downright un-Hawaiian.

The problem is that these values are defined entirely by the entrenched politicians who feed off the status quo and jealously guard their jobs as if they own them for life.

It's created a sick culture that thwarts the democratic ideal of letting the best and brightest rise to the top through open competition.

Democrats have long admonished promising newcomers to wait in line behind elders who never yield the floor, discouraging challenges to even the most tired Democratic incumbents.

Young elected officials who question the party's bosses are banished to political Siberia.

This "no make waves" ethos breeds sycophants, not leaders, and for a generation now, Democrats have reared litter after litter of political runts.

It's evident in the party's feeble search for a candidate to run against Republican Gov. Linda Lingle in November.

Democrats have flirted with a retired banker, a retired Army general, a retired police chief, a labor lawyer, a TV executive, a former state senator and even a Republican mayor.

Despite dominating Hawai'i politics for more than 40 years, the party can't come up with a single plausible name from the rank-and-file of some 90 Democrats who hold state and local elected office.

Case, 53, makes the point that Democrats will be in the same bind when it comes to replacing Sens. Inouye and Akaka, both 81, if they don't start thinking about succession now.

He warns that Democrats can either decide for themselves this year who will succeed Akaka, or risk leaving the appointment to a Republican governor if failing health forces Akaka to leave office before his term ends.

In a broader sense, Case argues that Democrats must embark on a more independent course and be willing to take more risks if they hope to connect with a new generation of voters.

Whether you like Case or not, these are fair points worthy of more thoughtful consideration than cries that he's a traitor intent on committing political suicide.

Case certainly faces an uphill battle; Akaka is an upstanding gentleman and honorable politician who has made many friends and few enemies during his 30 years in Congress.

But it's way too early to write the obituary of a congressman who has built a career on unconventional moves that have mostly paid off for him in the end.

Case twice challenged popular Democratic incumbents and lost in legislative races before finally winning a seat in the state House.

He rose to majority leader, only to walk away two years later to champion a more bipartisan agenda.

He fell short in a quixotic 2002 campaign for governor, but impressed voters enough to later win the late Patsy Mink's seat in Congress despite the opposition of party leadership and labor unions.

What stands out about Case is that he's not so attached to his little slice of power that he clings to office for dear life like so many of his peers.

"Some people, they get into politics and they can never get back out, and it causes great problems in the system," he told Advertiser reporter Derrick DePledge.

"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."

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net.