Congress

Think big, be humble and remember to serve coffee

Rep. Case recalls lessons from original Aloha State representatives

Hawaii Rep. Ed Case spent time as a House intern and staffer in the House and Senate before coming to Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Hawaii Rep. Ed Case relays a Grateful Dead lyric to describe his journey to Congress: “What a long strange trip it’s been.”

Case says his experiences as an intern and staffer in the House and Senate with his former boss, Spark M. Matsunaga, brought him from pondering his post-college plans to charting a course to Capitol Hill. Back in Congress after 12 years, he now holds the same Honolulu-area seat as Matsunaga did before he was elected to the Senate. (Case previously represented the 2nd District, which encompasses most of Oahu that is not Honolulu and the other islands.)

Case absorbed Matsunaga’s robust attention to local concerns and his interplay with his contemporary Hawaii members. He cites Matsunaga’s commitment to “pack a punch” that carries an impact beyond the state’s four-member delegation as a framework for Aloha State lawmakers to follow to this day.

Q: Can you tell me how you got started working for Congressman and then Sen. Matsunaga?

A: It was really a bit of a fluke. I was born and raised in Hawaii and I was in college in Massachusetts. I got to the end of college and really didn’t know what to do with the rest of my life. I figured that I would go to graduate school eventually and go back to Hawaii, but I wasn’t ready to do all of that quite yet.

I think the second semester of my senior year, one of my best friends and I looked at each other and said, “Why don’t we go down to Washington and be summer interns and we’ll figure out after that.” And so I graduated from college on a Saturday and we drove to D.C. on a Sunday, and I started work as a summer intern with then-Congressman Matsunaga on a Monday and my life changed. ... I had no expectation of staying on as a regular staff member, but I loved it from the beginning. So pretty fast, I told them I’d love to stick around if they had a position, and he hired me at the end of that summer.

Q: You stayed on with his office into the Senate as well?

A: I was really fortunate in that sense because I served with him in the House for a year and a half. As I got into the second year, he decided to run for Senate. And he won [in 1976], then I went over to the Senate with him, at that point a pretty senior legislative assistant, and had another year plus with him in the Senate. He got on some pretty major committees right away. He got on the Energy Committee right away, which was huge because [those were] the years after the Arab oil embargo when we were freaking out about energy independence and alternative energy and not having to depend on the rest of the world for our energy sources. So that was a huge area. He was pretty much in the forefront of that, and so I had that responsibility.

Q: Were there any lessons learned from his understanding of service?

A: A couple of things that stick to me this day. First, don’t ever forget the people that you serve. No matter how powerful, no matter how influential, no matter how responsible you become in Congress, you still serve your district and your state and those are the folks that put you there. That’s who you owe your service to.

He had a standard speech, which I still give to my staff here when they come in: “I’m your boss, and the people back home are my boss, therefore they are your boss. So when they want something in this office, we try to deliver that for them. When they walk into this office, we try to serve them. When they come in tired from a long flight from Hawaii, probably for the first time that they’ve ever been in D.C., you stop whatever important thing that you’re doing for me and ask them if they want a cup of coffee, or what can we do for you?” … That’s a powerful lesson that I think people can forget if they’re not careful.

The other lesson was that whatever you did back in Hawaii, we have a delegation of four here, only four. To fully represent Hawaii as best we can, we have to pack a punch beyond just four members of a delegation.

We’ve got to be able to interact with a very broad range of people and get to know people and try to be good, productive members of the body because you don’t have a delegation of 40-plus from California that if you slip up, somebody else can cover for you. You are responsible for a state that’s a long way away and a small representation.

Q: Do you think that Sen. Matsunaga had that strategy right from the get-go from your understanding?

A: I don’t know. That generation: Sen. [Daniel K.] Inouye, Sen. Matsunaga, Rep. [Patsy T.] Mink, Sen. [Hiram L.] Fong, in many ways they were cut from a pretty unique cloth. They had all been through discrimination of some kind or another in their lives. … They were all quite mature by the time they came in. They came in right after statehood, so they had an extra responsibility to prove that the admission of Hawaii into the union was fully to the benefit of the country, and they carried that burden.

“My only regret on my DC staff years is that it was the era of disco, polyester and corduroy and this picture survived.”
“My only regret on my DC staff years is that it was the era of disco, polyester and corduroy and this picture survived.” Case with former Rep. Spark M. Matsunaga in 1975. (Courtesy Rep. Ed Case)

Q: They brought in a very polished platform and how to approach policy?

A: No, I mean they were still freshman members of Congress at some time or another. And they were in awe in being in Congress, as I think every member of Congress should be in awe of being a member of Congress.

I remember in the Senate … I went down there with Matsunaga inside his first month in the Senate. He had his desk and I sat behind him. Pretty soon he looks over his shoulder and he goes, “Ed, come here.” He wanted to show me something. He lifted up the lid and he goes, “Look at that,” and there was this list of people from the history of the United States that was written right there. In that moment, I knew that he was incredibly awed to be sitting in the United States Senate. Even this incredibly experienced and polished legislator couldn’t believe that he was sitting in the U.S. Senate. … I don’t think he felt he was entitled to be in Congress, and that’s another pretty good lesson. Once you feel like you’re entitled to be in Congress, it’s probably the time for you to not be in Congress. I don’t think he ever felt that it had to be him. He knew there were other people who could do the job, and he did the job as best he could. He was a very hard worker. ... I absorbed enough, whether it was a direct conversation or just kinda watching him in action over two and a half years to last a lifetime.

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