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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Why the U.S. House race is so intense

By Jerry Burris

Unlike most states, Hawai'i treats its members of Congress as political demigods.

That is, once elected they tend to remain in office as long as they choose. And unlike other states, say California, where you cannot hardly open a car door without hitting a member of Congress, Hawai'i members are relatively rare and are treated with great deference.

That helps explain why the vacancy created by the resignation of Neil Abercrombie, who is running for governor, has attracted such intense interest.

There are plenty of folks running for the Abercrombie House seat, but attention has focused on three well-established political figures competing for the spot: state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, former U.S. Rep. Ed Case both Democrats and Republican Honolulu Councilman Charles Djou.

If you think this election does not matter, then just get yourself on any of the mailing lists of the various political action groups or the DNC or the RNC themselves. They will daily tell you how terrible (or wonderful) Djou is or why one or the other of the candidates is not entitled to Abercrombie's seat.

Why should they care? It's because the balance of power in Washington is so delicate that every vote counts. Several commentators have already remarked that Abercrombie's absence from Congress could tilt the balance in the health care fight.

The battle lines are clearly drawn. Djou worries that throwing money at problems will not resolve anything. Hanabusa, who has strong labor backing, sees things almost precisely the opposite; that is, that an active, engaged government can make things happen and improve peoples' lives. Case strikes a middle ground, tilting conservative on spending but unwilling to give up on the role of government to make change and influence public policy.

The differences between three began to crystallize during a debate sponsored by Hawaii Public Radio this week. There will be many more such opportunities in the weeks to come.

Intriguingly, there are two political campaigns on the table. The first is to fill the remaining months of Abercrombie's current term. The second is for the next two-year term. The candidates are treating the special election as the make-or-break event. The winner has the inside track for the full term.

But wait. The last time this situation occurred, when Cec Heftel resigned to run for governor in 1986, Neil Abercrombie won the special election for Congress. But in the regular election, Abercrombie lost the primary to Mufi Hannemann (who then lost to Republican Pat Saiki in the general).

So take the battle for Abercrombie's remaining months in office with a grain of salt. There are many miles to go before this drama is settled.