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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Next vote will show if change was key

By Jerry Burris

Former Honolulu Councilman Charles Djou yesterday took a bigger stage, representing Hawai'i's interests in the U.S. Congress.

This is no small deal. To have a Republican seated in a spot that has been reliably held by Democrats for most of the time since Hawai'i has been a state and entitled to two members of Congress is groundbreaking. The only other time the GOP held the seat was when popular and politically moderate Pat Saiki won the seat in 1986, only to give it up in an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S Senate in 1990.

There are striking differences between Saiki and Djou, which must be recognized when considering whether the 1st District (urban Honolulu) has gone "red" or Republican. The electoral map would suggest that Djou won most of the district (chopped up into state House districts), including some traditionally Democratic strongholds west of downtown Honolulu. Senate President Colleen Hanabusa captured a few, and third-place finisher Ed Case won only his former state House district, Mānoa.

Djou campaigned as a classic Republican fiscal conservative. Saiki was far more moderate in her campaign rhetoric and, indeed, was held in kind regard by many liberals for her work on such issues as the Equal Rights Amendment for women. So, aside from the "R" next to her name, Saiki was the kind of person a district such as this might handily elect.

National political commentators, particularly of the conservative stripe, have declared Djou's victory as a sea change in the political thinking of the congressional district that the president himself was born in. You have to expect that.

But even Djou knows that it is not that simple. He, sensibly, is already characterizing himself as the underdog in the general election for a full two-year congressional term to come. And well he might. Because a substantial majority voted for a Democrat in this election just not the same Democrat. Hanabusa, supported by much of the Democratic Party establishment, came in a strong second, while a maverick Democrat, the relatively conservative Case, came in third.

So the conventional wisdom is that nearly two-thirds of those voting preferred a Democrat of one stripe or another. That should make November look good for the Demo--crats, other than for the fact that Hanabusa and Case represent two very different wings of the local Democratic Party. Would the unions and old-timers go out for Case should he win the regular nomination this fall? Would Case's more moderate and independent-minded voters punch a "D" or might they decide to give Djou a full two years to show his colors?

The general theory is that the majority of voters in the district are Demo--crats of one kind or another. But another theory, this advanced by Honolulu consultant Peter Kay and others, is that this election was about "change" and throwing out the established political order. Under this thesis, more than two-thirds of the voters went for "change." Either Djou's rather obvious change message or the subtler change theme represented by the anti-establishment Case.

This theory posits that a big majority of voters wants something different from what they have had for the past many decades. That suggests that if Hanabusa prevails in the red-hot partisan Democratic primary in the fall, she will have trouble with the "change" wave surfed by Djou in the general.

The only problem with this theory is the enduring and remarkable ability of Hawai'i Democrats to take care of their own, and their own interests, first, last and always.