Hawaii Republicans are pinning big hopes on a Djou victory
• Photo gallery: Candidate Djou rallies supporters
By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer
Republicans here and on the Mainland are banking on Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou becoming their first Hawai'i representative to Congress since Pat Saiki nearly two decades ago.
Djou's message of fiscal conservatism and the need to push back at what he calls a wasteful federal government has struck a chord with many voters in the 1st Congressional District, which stretches from Hawai'i Kai to 'Ewa Beach.
The latest Honolulu Advertiser/Hawaii News Now poll shows Djou running ahead in the race against Democrats Ed Case and Colleen Hanabusa.
At age 39 and with nearly 10 years in the state Legislature and Honolulu City Council under his belt, Djou is one of the brightest stars in the Hawai'i Republican Party. Most Hawai'i political observers would agree that the former corporate attorney represents the best hope in years for local Republicans to join Hawai'i's four-person congressional delegation.
The race is also being closely monitored at the national level.
A number of political experts believe a Republican win in Hawai'i, where President Obama was born, could be politically devastating for Democrats, particularly after Scott Brown's successful campaign to replace the late Edward Kennedy in Massachusetts in January.
Yesterday, Obama joined the special election fray by releasing a recorded telephone message urging Hawai'i voters to elect a Democrat. He joins national Democratic and Republican groups who've descended on O'ahu and bombarded the airwaves with commercials seeking to influence the outcome of the election.
Dan Boylan, a University of Hawai'i-West O'ahu history professor and a longtime political analyst, said the winner-take-all nature of the May 22 special election and the splitting of Democratic-leaning voters between Case and Hanabusa gives Djou and the Republicans a solid shot at capturing the House seat.
"The majority is split in this election," Boylan said. "And I think that his message of fiscal absolutism plays very, very well in these Tea Party times, even in Hawai'i."
The Tea Party movement is focused on reducing taxes and the government's role in people's lives.
Likewise, Djou's major thrust has been on fiscal restraint.
"We're spending too much money on programs that don't work, and even worse than that, we're spending too much money on programs that don't work with no plans to pay this money back other than to hand an invoice off to our nation's children," he said recently.
Djou says that's the reason he supports both a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget and a temporary moratorium on congressional earmarks, commonly known as pork barrel spending.
CAN HE GET ALONG?
Despite his fiscally conservative stance, Djou said he would be able to work well with the other three members of the Hawai'i delegation, even if they are all Democrats.
Saiki, who is Djou's honorary campaign chairwoman, said it was beneficial for her not to be another Democrat in the delegation during her tenure in Washington.
Her presence in Congress meant Hawai'i finally had a representative in the Republican Caucus, Saiki said. That gave her access to Republican powerbrokers whom she was able to lobby successfully to see issues from a Hawai'i perspective, she said.
One example, she said, was legislation giving reparations to Japanese-American internees. Saiki said she was able to convince Republican lawmakers of the wisdom of granting the reparations.
Djou said Saiki also was able to explain to Republicans that the return of Kaho'olawe to Native Hawaiian interests was the right thing to do.
As proof that he can work in a bipartisan manner, Djou pointed out that more bills he's introduced during his nearly eight years on the City Council have been approved than any other council member with the exception of one his colleagues.
This is despite being the only card-carrying Republican on the nine-member panel, he said.
"For me, it's about problem-solving and getting things done."
Brian Schatz, former Democratic Party chairman and Obama campaign official and now a candidate for lieutenant governor, served with Djou during the latter's only term in the state House from 2000 to 2002.
Schatz said Djou has always been quick to criticize and has rarely come up with solutions. Most of the bills introduced by Djou that passed were not consequential, he said.
Djou says he's never voted in support of any city operating budget because they've all resulted in tax increases — but Schatz said he does not view this as a badge of honor.
"On the major issues that matter to people, Charles is always a "no" vote, and to be a member of the City Council and to never vote for the city budget is quite a thing," Schatz said.
"Charles has made a career out of criticizing the actions of other leaders," he said. "And he's been consistent that way. He has a hard time building partnerships and the kind of consensus you need to be effective in Washington because he's too attracted to the cheap sound bite."
The only two Republicans to represent Hawai'i on Capitol Hill since statehood have been Saiki and the late U.S. Sen. Hiram Fong. Both were billed as moderates.
Djou said he considers himself a moderate, similar to both Saiki and Fong. When asked in a debate on Monday if he would vote for former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin if she were to run for president, Djou said, "Probably not."
Nonetheless, Djou is firmly conservative on a number of the key issues facing Washington today besides Obama's economic stimulus package.
HEALTH CARE REFORM
On health care reform, Djou said he agrees that health care reform is necessary "but I believe Congress has written a terrible prescription spending $1 trillion financed by about $600 billion in new taxes in the middle of an economic recession is in and of itself a bad idea."
Djou said he supports capping monetary awards to plaintiffs in medical malpractice suits and allowing more competition for health insurance.
He also believes individuals should be in charge of their own health insurance and get tax deductions for it, and make employer participation non-mandatory.
Boylan, the political analyst, said Djou clearly represents the "fiscal absolutism" that Republicans have championed since California's Proposition 13 movement against tax hikes in the 1970s.
"It's a big anti-government and anti-big deficit message that's responding to the bailout of the banks and the car companies, the stimulus package and President Obama," Boylan said.
Djou, however, said he is far from opposed to all Obama initiatives, and is actually in agreement with most of Obama's foreign policy.
"I believe the president has struck it right in Iraq and Afghanistan ... I think we are on the right path in both of those two major conflicts."
Djou said he believes Obama has reached a balanced approach to handling the issue of offshore drilling — a position not all Republicans would agree with.
Djou said he is generally in favor of Obama's education policy, also a policy not generally favored by a majority of national Republicans.
Born in Los Angeles in 1970, Djou came to Hawai'i as a 3-year-old when his father's employer transferred him to the 50th state.
S.K. Djou is an engineer originally from Shanghai. Charles Djou says that nearly all the other males on his father's side chose engineering as a profession.
"I am a little bit of the black sheep of the family," Djou said, with a laugh.
Sue Djou, his mother, is also ethnic Chinese but is originally from Bangkok. Like her future husband, Sue Djou also went to the U.S. Mainland for college. Djou said it was his mother's adopted family on the Mainland that first brought Republican values into the Djou household.
As a junior at Punahou, Djou joined his first political campaign — Saiki's successful 1988 bid for the 1st Congressional District seat. He supported a number of Republican campaigns, including all those undertaken by Saiki, but did not consider running for office until his longtime mentor convinced him that the only way for Republicans to be more successful in Hawai'i was for more of them to seek election, Djou said.
Saiki said Hawai'i voters fall largely along the Asian ethic of "you don't take chances, you believe in education, you believe in hard work, you believe in saving money, you believe in supporting people who need help," Saiki said. "It's very conservative and the people of Hawai'i are like that."
Meanwhile, Saiki said, Djou is far from an ultra-conservative politician.
"When you talk to him, he listens to your point of view," she said. "He's like I am. We think logically, and we take things issue by issue, and we weight it according to its merit. And if you want to call that moderate, than that's what it is."
Djou said the political attitudes of Hawai'i voters haven't changed so much as their willingness to break away from the norm when it makes sense to do so.
"I do think Hawai'i today is less partisan than it was, say, 25 years ago," Djou said.
Citing Linda Lingle's gubernatorial victories in 2002 and 2006, Djou said "I think Hawai'i voters are more willing to give a Republican a consideration."
He also noted that the Republican candidate for governor has won the 1st Congressional District the past four gubernatorial elections: Saiki in a failed bid in 1994, Lingle in her loss in 1998, and Lingle's 2002 and 2006 wins.