Both come from families of immigrants. Both grew up in Hawaii. Both are lawyers who rose to power in elected office.
But despite their similar backgrounds, Republican Charles Djou and Democrat Colleen Hanabusa couldn’t appear more different in their congressional contest this fall, with Djou decrying out-of-control government spending and Hanabusa defending federal programs meant to create jobs.
The victor in their tight race will represent Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District of urban Honolulu following the Nov. 2 election.
During a recent store-to-store sprint to meet with voters in Oahu’s Kalihi area, the 40-year-old Djou appealed to struggling small business owners with the argument that less government will result in more prosperity. The blue-collar Kalihi district is the home of many immigrant families, especially from the Philippines, who Djou said could represent a swing vote.
“The American dream is built by individual Americans, and that’s what makes our country great,” said Djou, the incumbent, in an interview. “It’s not a bureaucracy or a regulation or an act of Congress that makes our country great.”
Across town, the 59-year-old Hanabusa told supporters at a “coffee hour” dinner gathering that when times are tough, the government should help people rather than turn its back on them. The meeting was in Hawaii Kai, a higher-income area that Djou lives in and represented on the Honolulu Council.
She said she would have supported programs extending unemployment benefits, doling out federal education money and providing economic stimulus.
“Why would you vote against that? Why would you feel that’s not good?” Hanabusa asked the audience of about 100 people. “I am far from a pushover when it comes to the budget, but that doesn’t mean we don’t understand what needs to be done.”
The two candidates hail from opposite corners of Oahu, and their values began to take shape early in their lives.
Djou, born in Los Angeles, is the son of a father who fled communist China and a mother who emigrated from Thailand. Now a captain in the Army Reserve, Djou sees economic freedom as the path to social justice.
Hanabusa, a fourth-generation American of Japanese ancestry, was raised by her parents and grandmother in rural Waianae with the belief that Hawaii residents are bound by their sense of community. She’s risen from labor attorney to president of the Democrat-dominated state Senate as an unabashed fighter for workers.
At Hanabusa’s coffee hour, she tries to dispel the perception that she’s a hard-charging pit bull by laughing easily, answering questions and lauding Democratic leaders from former President Bill Clinton to U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye.
“You’ve got to be tough in politics, and she’ll always be tough and independent,” said supporter and attorney Scott Kubota. “She won’t just vote one way because it’s politically popular. She’ll analyze the issue.”
During Djou’s dash to meet with business owners, he introduces himself and promises to work for them before moving on to the next storefront along a strip of hair salons, restaurants, travel agencies, mortgage brokers and flower hops.
“He is the shining light for Hawaii,” said Ben Beruan, owner of Jamin Sales Inc. trophy shop. “He knows what he’s talking about on the economy and spending. There’s no end to the spending.”
As the candidates shake hands and try to connect with voters, they’re selling their personalities as much as their policies.
Most people they meet already have a good idea what they stand for, so Hanabusa and Djou seem like they’re trying to appear genial in person to counter their unwavering — and sometimes stiff — public image.
“The perception people have of me is quite different when they meet me,” Hanabusa said in an interview. “People actually come up to me and say things like, ‘You’re actually funny.'”
Djou, who took office following a May special election in which two Democrats on the ballot split the party’s vote, said people will support him because he can relate to their beliefs and struggles.
“Issues change from year to year. What voters want is somebody at their core who share their understanding, their views and their values,” Djou said. “That’s what I bring.”