In the 51 years since Hawaii gained statehood, Democrats have ridden the wave of union endorsements into Congress.
Here in the state’s 1st District, where Barack Obama grew up and enterprising tourism purveyors take visitors to the president’s old haunts, the backing of organized labor and the area’s ties to the man in the White House are regarded by Democratic Party stalwarts as pluses that should propel challenger Colleen Hanabusa to victory in November.
The state’s Republican leaders smile at their opponents’ confidence and point to the recent fate of another once solidly blue seat, the post held by the late Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy for decades before Scott Brown came out of nowhere to scoop it up for the GOP.
Republican Charles Djou won the 1st District seat in a late May special election to replace Neil Abercrombie, the long-serving Democrat who resigned from Congress to run for governor.
Djou won only 39 percent of the vote, but that was enough to defeat the two Democrats who ran, splitting the 58 percent blue vote between them.
But neither Hanabusa nor state Democratic Party Chairman Dante Carpenter express much regret at the loss that has given Djou the power of incumbency and an opportunity, albeit brief, to show he means business about slashing federal spending.
"We play our politics differently here in Hawaii. We don’t disallow anyone to run," Carpenter said of the party’s failure to get Hanabusa or fiscal conservative Ed Case to drop out of the open, winner-takes-all race to finish Abercrombie’s term.
"That’s Hawaii," Hanabusa said with a shrug as she arranged tiny stems and leaves in a foil-covered plastic bottle. She practices the Japanese floral art of ikebana that she sees as an allegory for her political philosophy of balancing strength and respect.
Djou and Hanabusa are expected to coast to primary election victories tomorrow over challengers who have staged low-profile campaigns.
Djou and the youthful new leaders reshaping the Hawaii Republican Party suggest that their opponents are living in the past and counting on tradition to overcome voter dismay with deficit spending, rising taxes and protracted economic crisis.
Traditional pro-union sentiments, kindled by brutal labor conditions that prevailed on big plantations before statehood, will have little influence on voters in November, Djou said.
"This particular congressional district voted Republican for the last four gubernatorial elections in a row," Djou, 40, said of voters in the greater Honolulu area. He calls it a myth that the district — one of only two in Hawaii — is entrenched Democratic turf.
Although Obama won 70 percent of his home district vote in 2008, the margin for Sen. John F. Kerry over President George W. Bush in 2004 was "hardly overwhelming," Djou argued. The Massachusetts Democrat won 52 percent to Bush’s 48 percent.
As the newest member of the House Budget Committee, Djou has a platform for denouncing the huge debts being run up by the Obama administration. A captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, he is also on the House Armed Services Committee, a strategic position for a state where the military is second only to tourism in economic importance. He has also lobbied to revive the Free Trade Agreement with South Korea, a pact that portends an economic boost for Hawaii.
"I’ve only been in office 90 days, but I’ve still been able to do a lot," said Djou, a USC law school graduate of Chinese and Thai descent.
Even though Hawaii is a net beneficiary of federal tax dollars, Djou said he supports a moratorium on earmarks — he calls them "a gateway drug" — and an end to federal stimulus and bailouts.
Djou calls himself a fiscal conservative but moderate on social issues. He was one of only five House Republicans to support repeal of the "don’t ask, don’t tell" forcing discharge of military personnel if they are outed as gay, and he hails immigration as the lifeblood of Hawaii’s economy and culture.
Hanabusa, a locally educated labor lawyer who has been in the state Legislature for a dozen years, brushes off her opponent’s claims of having hit the ground running.
"The only record Charles has is one of voting no — he’s against everything," said Hanabusa, 59. "It’s easy to block. It’s easy to say no. The real challenge is the ability to get legislation passed in the interest of the constituency."
The outcome in November may hinge on which party’s assessment of labor’s influence is correct. State Republican Party chief Jonah Kaauwai insisted the Hawaii State Teachers Association endorsement of Democrats "should shame them," claiming the state’s schools have tumbled from mediocrity to disaster in the recession because educators protected their jobs at the expense of school days.
Hanabusa sees the GOP as unfairly casting union members as a drain on business, as many hotel, airline and service industries are engaged in collective bargaining.
"Our business community isn’t necessarily adverse toward labor," she said. "Anyone who runs for office in Hawaii should recognize that it’s the working people who are the voters."