For once, a race too competitive to sit out
There is far more at stake in next month's special election than choosing a short-term replacement for Neil Abercrombie in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The election will be a referendum on contentious national issues facing the most politically polarized Congress in years — health care, financial regulation, energy policy, job creation.
It's also the first large-scale test of an election done almost completely by mail. Half of Hawai'i's population lives in U.S. House District 1, so strong participation can make the case for using mail-in voting in other elections as a way to improve the state's dismal voter turnout.
And even though the winner will have to seek reelection in November, he or she could be with us for years to come. Local voters tend to stick with incumbents, especially those in Congress.
For the record, there are 14 candidates: C. Kaui Jochanan Amsterdam, Jim Brewer, Vinny Browne, Ed Case, Charles "Googie" Collins, Douglas Crum, Rafael Del Castillo, Charles Djou, John "Raghu" Giuffre, Colleen Hanabusa, Philmund "Phil" Lee, Karl F. Moseley, Kalaeloa Strode and Steve Tataii.
Of these, only three — Case, Djou and Hanabusa — have the credentials, political experience and track record of public service to have a credible claim to national political office.
They also have fundamental disagreements on issues critical to Hawai'i's future, including the Akaka bill, the Jones Act and civil unions. It's the first high-stakes, competitive horserace for this congressional seat in nearly 20 years.
Hanabusa, a Democrat who is the state Senate president, supports President Obama's initiatives, including his Afghanistan policies and his crackdown on financial institutions. She also backs the Hawai'i delegation's position on health care reform, supports the Akaka bill as currently written and defends the Jones Act. Question: Is Hanabusa a lackey of the Democratic Party and labor establishment, which have endorsed her? Or is she a strong, independent advocate for her constituents?
Case casts himself as a moderate independent Democrat, who was willing to challenge Sen. Daniel Akaka in 2006 and supports Republican health care goals of tort reform and the ability to buy and sell insurance across state lines. Along with Djou, he opposes the current version of the Akaka bill, which would grant Hawaiians self-governing powers immediately, rather than through a negotiating process. Question: Is Case an effective team player who can advance Hawai'i's interests? Or is he an outspoken outlier who alienates rather than unites?
Djou, the Republican on the Honolulu City Council, says the $800 billion federal stimulus package was far too expensive, and wants a moratorium on earmarks. Nonetheless, he vows he will always put Hawai'i's interests above party orthodoxy. Question: Does Djou's fiscal conservatism provide needed balance to Hawai'i's liberal delegation? Or should voters worry that he will be co-opted by the uncompromising House minority leader John Boehner and the anti-Obama Republicans?
The three leading candidates were invited to make their best case for election in essays they wrote for today's Focus section. Next week, we'll be posting videos and publishing transcripts of the candidates answering five questions about their positions.
It's hard to imagine better reasons to follow this election closely and for casting that mail-in ballot when it arrives at the end of April. But here are three more.
First, it's convenient: A walk to and from the mailbox. Second, this vote really matters: it's winner take all. Third, it's a vote that will, really and truly, make a difference.
What more could a conscientious citizen ask for?