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Image: Christen vidanovic

Why first-time candidate Rafael del Castillo believes he has all the experience he needs to be a congressman

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Cover image for Apr 28, 2010

Despite the fact that Honolulu’s special congressional election has largely been reported as a race between three familiar, highly polarizing politicians, the ballots that will begin to appear in Honolulu voters’ mailboxes next week will feature the names of 14 candidates. Among them is Rafael del Castillo, an attorney and longtime advocate for patients’ rights.


“I remember the moment distinctly,” said 62-year-old del Castillo of his decision to run for the U.S. House of Representatives in Hawaii’s first congressional district. “I was sitting at the dinner table with my wife and remarking about the choices that we have in the upcoming election. She said, ‘Why aren’t you running?’ And never having thought about the possibility of her ever agreeing to live in D.C., I’d never actually broached the subject with myself. But she said, ‘I’d love to,’ so I said, ‘All right, we’re on! We’ve got to do something about this.’”

The “this” del Castillo wants to do something about is what he sees as a vicious cycle of voters perpetually electing career politicians who serve their special interests rather than those who elected them. He said it’s time to make way for people who know firsthand how legislation works–and doesn’t work–in practice.

His own credentials include more than a decade of legal work in the health care industry. Before he earned his juris doctor from the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law in 1997, del Castillo worked to help various agencies–health care providers and other nonprofits–meet the needs of their clients and reach the standards set by public entities that provide their funding, first in California, then in Hawaii when he and his family moved to Oahu in 1987.

“I got recruited to help Homeless Aloha, which was a private entity that was in charge of keeping all of the homeless programs across the state accountable,” said del Castillo. “They had the duty to report back on what they were doing, so they needed to have realistic goals and figure out what their true needs were, to help people transition from homelessness. My job was helping them understand this, helping their surveyors learn how to survey programs, helping the program set goals, and then going back in and helping them achieve those goals.”

Del Castillo spent years tackling Hawaii’s homelessness problem, surveying poor conditions in temporary public housing, reaching out to members of the homeless community and connecting them to health care and other services, meeting with leaders–like Andrew Cuomo, who is now New York Attorney General–who had shown success addressing homelessness in other parts of the country. Eventually, in the early 1990s, the State of Hawaii acquired Homeless Aloha and turned it into a State agency within the housing department.

“As a consequence of that, the former executive director of Homeless Aloha contacted me and asked if I would help him with a project along the Waianae Coast,” said del Castillo, who said he believes that the recent crackdown on homeless populations living in Oahu parks only worsens the problem in the long run. “So then I got into mental health. We were doing outreach with people living in caves in Waianae. Mostly single folks, primarily middle-aged women, maybe with a kid, maybe not, and not very trusting of society. So it was trying to get a lot of them on medication regimes to try to get them back to functioning.”

Lofty dreams

It wasn’t a long-planned career trajectory. In the 1970s, he had been a math teacher and a playwright–he wrote a hybrid tale of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz at the request of the young actors in the children’s summer stock he ran at a community college theater in Monterey, Calif., in 1972. But longer ago still, as a little boy growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, del Castillo–who was named for an ancestor who emigrated from Colombia to New York City in the late 1800s–knew exactly what he wanted to do.

“By the time I was 6, I knew the profile of every plane in the sky, and I wanted to be a fighter pilot in the worst way,” he said. “I was in the second grade when I got fitted for my first pair of glasses, and my dad broke the news to me that I wouldn’t be able to fly fighter planes.”

Aside from the disappointment over his eyesight, del Castillo describes his childhood as happy. He was one of seven siblings–four brothers and two sisters–and spent much of his time playing with them outdoors, fishing and riding horses. His earliest memory is from an afternoon when he was about three years old, wearing a Hopalong Cassidy costume and perched atop a horse during one of his family’s frequent trips to what is now Pecos National Historic Park. On annual fishing trips, del Castillo’s father taught him how to catch brook trout, and how much patience, perseverance and humor fishing requires.

“For the longest time, my dad was after this fish that he used to hear,” said del Castillo. “Trout jump for flies, so you hear them splash, and everybody used to joke that it was actually a beaver but he was convinced it was a fish, and he fished and fished and fished for this fish. One night, he was standing out there in the rain and he was convinced he got it but he was afraid it was going to break his tackle, so he just jumped in the water. He comes in holding a seven-inch trout, it wasn’t even big enough to keep, legally, but he didn’t throw it back because he had to show why he got wet. He was great. He never did catch that fish.”

Perhaps in a cue from watching his father’s determination, when the time came to wear the glasses that represented the obliteration of his future as a fighter pilot, del Castillo, all but eight years old, stood his ground.

“I refused to wear them and carried them around in my back pocket until I sat on them once,” he said. “My parents were far beyond angry because, if I remember, it was a $60 pair of glasses, and in 1954, there was no insurance company to cover it. I never carried my glasses in my back pocket ever again. And I never was a fighter pilot, but I was a jet engine mechanic in the Air Force.”

Del Castillo’s jet engine work ended when he was honorably discharged from the Air Force as a conscientious objector to Vietnam in 1970. Some 30 years later, he took another step toward achieving his childhood dreams of flight.

“In 2000, I started soaring,” said del Castillo. “I was getting my license out at Dillingham Airfield in gliders. It’s amazing. It’s very quiet and you actually don’t go very fast, but it will fly without too much encouragement. By the time you hit about 12 or 15 miles an hour, you’re already off the ground.”

People’s politician

Del Castillo’s sense of adventure notwithstanding, the enthusiasm with which he embraces some of life’s more mundane day-to-day challenges–accessing healthcare, eliminating homelessness, reforming education–and his ability to solve related problems are why his supporters say he has earned their vote.

“He’s not a politician,” said Jon Osorio, professor of Hawaiian studies at UH, who first met del Castillo at Calvary by the Sea Lutheran Church more than a decade ago. “He’s been working a nonprofit existence for many, many years. I like the idea of electing someone who is actually committed to working people and poor people having access to services, that they don’t get cut out of the picture during hard times. Del has never been the kind of person who looks for acknowledgement. He’s just a very quiet and unassuming individual who is still extremely charming, very engaging and smart as a whip.”

Osorio, well-known for his Hawaiian nationalism, also said he was impressed by del Castillo’s response to the Akaka Bill, legislation designed to establish federal recognition for Native Hawaiians similar to the federal process in place for recognition of indigenous peoples whose ancestors lived in what are now the contiguous United States.

“I asked him how he felt on the Akaka bill,” said Osorio. “He told me he was opposed to it because many Hawaiians were opposed to it, and he feels Hawaiians really need to be the ones to get consulted on this. I really liked that answer and I appreciate the fact the that that’s not an easy position.”

Del Castillo has spent much of his time considering some of the political complexities that are unique to Hawaii. In 1996, as a second-semester law student at UH, he won the law school’s Amy C. Richardson Award for his paper, Heaven under The Sword: The Hawaiian Decolonization Dilemma, in which he used examples of colonized and decolonized African nations to discuss how partial or total decolonization of Hawaii could mean social and economic benefits for Hawaiians, but would require strong leadership to carry out.

“He’s obviously extremely committed to addressing injustices and trying to help vulnerable and disadvantaged people,” said Jon Van Dyke, a faculty member at the William S. Richardson School of Law, and del Castillo’s former professor there. “I think he’s shown a lot of courage and tenacity in taking on some of the big institutions in our community to try to level the playing field for the little guy. He’s an exceptionally thoughtful and intelligent person.”

Van Dyke, who said he’s voting for Hawaii Senate President Colleen Hanabusa in next month’s election, notes the unusual winner-take-all structure of the special election, and alludes to worry over a split vote between Democrat candidates that would enable a Republican candidate to win.

“Having an election in which somebody could win with only 35 or 38 percent of the vote is not good for the community,” said Van Dyke. “The person who gets the highest number of votes wins, even if it’s not a majority.”

Del Castillo said while he’s aware of the concern over such a scenario–there’s even a section on his website that’s headed “Worried about splitting the vote?”–he hopes people will focus on voting for a candidate they believe in, rather than prioritizing voting against a candidate they don’t support.

“Think long and hard about voting against people in politics,” said del Castillo. “We want to be able to choose to vote for who we want. If you’ve been a disaffected Democrat, it’s time to reaffect. Come on. If you’ve been a disaffected Republican? Let’s get going. Let’s get back into it. And if you think that I’m the best candidate, regardless of the fact that I’m a Democrat? Hey, you can vote for me in the special election.”

Del Castillo also emphasizes that, in addition to being philosophically opposed to voting for one undesirable candidate out of fear that an even more undesirable candidate might win, he doesn’t believe that a Republican could do irreparable damage during a six-month stint as an interim Congressperson.

“I’ve had a couple of longtime supporters who have had a really difficult time with this,” said del Castillo. “People have said, ‘I’m not going to vote for Rafael in the special election, although I support him, because I’m afraid if I don’t vote for this other Democrat then [Republican City Council member Charles] Djou’s gonna win, and then we’re really in the soup. First of all, Charles can’t put us in the soup in six months. No matter what he does. I mean, that’s not a situation that a lot of Democrats would be very happy about, but I don’t think, frankly, he can win in November.”

Grassroots

While del Castillo acknowledges that partisan fears over vote-splitting present a challenge, his supporters say his biggest challenge has been catching the attention of local reporters, who won’t seriously cover anyone outside of well-known candidates.

“His only weakness is that the newspapers and the media treat this as a three-person race and they wont talk to the other people who are running,” said Osorio. “It’s a disservice to every voter and the very notion of democracy. They’re running, and somebody should talk to them. They’re putting in their time and their money. Somebody should take them seriously.”

Del Castillo says it was President Barack Obama, and the enormous grassroots support he amassed, who inspired him to believe he might be able to stand up against household-name politicians in this race.

“I came to believe from Obama’s race that traditional media was less relevant to political campaigns,” said del Castillo. “It was possible to get your name out through the social media and through the Internet, through word-of-mouth and face-to-face contact.”

Though del Castillo admits he expected to have garnered a bit more attention from the mainstream local media by this point, he hasn’t let it slow him down. With little time for his hobbies–cooking, tennis, making homemade fruit and vegetable juices, gliding, wine-tasting–these days, his spends his free time going door-to-door campaigning, or licking envelopes around the kitchen table of his Hawaii Kai home with his wife, Lea, and one of their four daughters. He said he enjoys campaigning, though. If anything, it energizes him more than wears him out.

This again calls to mind del Castillo’s adventurous nature and a tenacity that seems deeply ingrained, though at first surprising given his gentle demeanor and tendency to use salutations like “howdy.” Still, del Castillo has the same twinkle in his eye and the same spark in his voice when he talks about politics as he does when he describes his childhood as a “famous trout fisherman.”

“I caught a huge brook trout one year when my family was packing the car to go,” said del Castillo. “They were almost ready to leave and I was still out fishing. All of the sudden, I got him. He was so big that he doubled my rod over. I had him and then I lost him, just in a heartbeat. The biggest fish I ever caught, but it didn’t last long.”