Case vs. Akaka: Is it time to re-think 'local values'?
DID YOU vote for "local values" last weekend?
The race between Sen. Dan Akaka and Congressman Ed Case was a referendum on local values, and Akaka emerged victorious.
The message sent to young voters like me, especially those who've returned from school on the mainland: 'Local values' are in, and all other sets of values are not welcome here.
With his warm smile, booming "Aloooo-ha" and air of a kupuna, Akaka personifies our local values. I heard the nicest -- and strangest -- reasons why people voted for Dan. "He had lunch with my family in Washington," said one local resident. "He's a wonderful old man and he's been a senator a long time," said another.
But just as so many chose Akaka because of his local values, many were swift to criticize Case for his assertiveness, saying he was "pushy" and "arrogant." Case's challenge shook many old-time Hawaii Democrats. Scores of comments appeared in print and on the Internet, shouting that Case should "Wait his turn! Has he no respect for his elders?"
But Case did not apologize, and the indignant cries became louder.
"Ed's moves to date have been all about Ed, and nothing more," wrote one blogger. Another decried his "mean-spirited behavior," saying "we don't need people who think that kind of thing is cool." Another woman said she declined to vote for Case because his body language rubbed her the wrong way.
It was simple -- in his soft-spoken, humble way, Akaka embodied local values. In his outspoken, often unapologetic way, Case did not. All of this hit very close to home. The two sets of values I learned were pitted against each other in a battle to the death.
I'M A LOCAL girl, born and raised on Oahu. Growing up here instilled within me many of the local values that were hugely important in this election. Compromise is better than direct confrontation in class and at the office. Respect your elders. Wait patiently for your turn to speak during a discussion; raise your hand politely only after others are pau.
I also learned other things: If I were first to speak, I'd be called "pushy." If my answer were too outrageous, I might be teased, so best to keep silent. When I ran for student government, I was labeled "conceited" and "greedy for attention." If I editorialized in the school paper about the dress code, I was reprimanded for being "out of line."
Such traits in a student at my school, Iolani, were undesirable and were best reserved, I was told, for the kids at that other school up the hill.
I didn't always agree with all these things, but I accepted them as part of our local values.
When I first arrived at Williams College in Massachusetts, I believed that I'd do well in any academic environment. I'd been warned about the aggressive mainland crowd; but I'd be OK as long as I showed them the aloha spirit.
I soon realized that relying on local values alone would get me nowhere fast. If I didn't become more outspoken, more assertive, I'd be eaten alive by my classmates -- most of whom had been reading the New York Times before Nancy Drew.
So I adapted, and in doing so, abandoned many of my Hawaii values. I was the first to speak in class. I wasn't afraid to disagree with my professor or question an argument by a famous historian. I wasn't embarrassed if a peer countered my position. I wrote strong, forceful editorials criticizing college administration policies. I even engaged in discussions where none of the students raised their hands!
In college, I was taught a different set of values -- I learned how to debate, to question, to think for myself. And I learned to do it without an ounce of shame.
Part of the reason I supported Case in this election was that he represents a set of values that I now believe are very important. He listened -- but was not afraid to speak up. He shone as a small but fiercely independent voice, questioning the Democratic establishment and defying the machine that tried to silence him from Day One. And he wasn't afraid to take a chance. He didn't win this one -- but we can be sure he'll be back.
Case, the Big Island boy who didn't "ask permission" to run, lost the race. It was a classic example of the local kid who raises his hand -- and is scolded because of it.
BUT BEYOND this, the race also sent a clear message to young people like me -- think twice before sticking your neck out. And when younger, energetic thinkers like Case are discouraged from challenging the system, it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to effect change in Hawaii politics. With the support of the party, slick PR staff and special interests behind him all the way, the elderly Akaka was a formidable candidate, despite his dismal congressional record and the obvious physical effects of his age.
This sad message resonated loud and clear on election night. The party elite flanked Akaka on all sides, beating their chests like Warrior football players. None of these "nice guy" Democrats thanked Case for making this the most interesting and important showing of democracy in years.
"Don't bother running for office in Hawaii, especially if you're polluted with non-local values," the party tells young voters. "You'd better listen to us if you want anything done."
After seeing the second voting print-out, I sat at a table with four friends at the end of the night. We were all young voters who had graduated from good local schools and good mainland colleges. Of the five of us, four either had moved away from Hawaii or wanted to move within the next year.
Maybe it's the lack of good jobs. Or maybe it's something else.
I RECOGNIZE that I have two sets of values that clash at many levels. I know that many of my friends and I would love to live here and serve our state -- perhaps employing some of what we've learned outside Hawaii to remedy the problems we face at home. But this election made it clear that one set of values will work here, and the other will only bring frustration, criticism and defeat.
Still, I think I'll stick with the "Ed Case" values -- even if it means moving to the mainland. After all, I remember what it's like to be too frightened to raise my hand in class.
Kim Fassler has worked for CNN in Beijing, ABC News in New York and KHON-2 in Honolulu.