Cover Story continued

CHARLES DJOU

The Republican councilmember explains his thinking
Comes with video
CHARLES DJOU / Interviewer’s note: Charles Djou and I were schoolmates. Though we have spoken in a professional capacity many times since then, we had not seen one another since high school prior to this interview.

You made an announcement very early, almost two years ago, that you would challenge Neil Abercrombie in 2010 were he still in office. What about this job appeals to you?

I’ve built my career on being fiscally responsible. Fiscal issues have been what I’ve always sunk my teeth into, and that is what Washington, D.C. needs right now more than anything else.

Early in your career, you staked out a position as a fiscal conservative. Recently, however, you’ve wandered into social issues.

You know, my primary focus and concern continues to be on fiscal issues, and that will be my focus if I am lucky enough to get elected. The reason social issues have crept in is not exactly by my choice so much as what the voters have wanted to talk about. I’ll be frank: Civil unions is not something I would have raised or put an emphasis on.

To be clear: you opposed House Bill 444 and you support the Defense of Marriage Act?

Yes, that’s correct.

It took Congress a lot longer than many expected to address financial reform. Do you support the proposals now making their way through the U.S. Senate?

We need financial reform, and we need two principal things: number one, we have to take care of systemic risk, to make sure that no one company and no one trade can bring down the entire system; number two, we have to end “too big to fail,” to stop companies from getting so big that we have no choice but to bail them out.

Do you think Republicans, nationally, are misreading the public mood in blocking some of these reforms?

I will agree that there’s a game of chicken going on here, and that both sides are waiting to see who will blink.

It’s possible that you’ll be seated in time to vote on immigration reform, which has suddenly come to the fore.

I am a big proponent of legal immigration. And further, I am a strong advocate for a large, open and legal front door to the United States. But I believe that to have that, you have to close the back door. I believe we need to expand the number of visas for family unification, and I am big believer that we need to expand the number of H-1B visas, which are the technology and intellectual capital visas.

I support a farm worker visa. We need to secure the southern border, and a partial remedy for that is allowing for work-permit visas, allowing for three or four month seasonal visas. A lot of the illegal immigration right now involves people coming for seasonal work, but they’re worried that if they go home, they’ll never be able to get back in. So they stay. If you have some sort of work-permit visa program and then tell them to go home, I think we’ll get a better handle on illegal immigration.

I am a staunch fiscal conservative but far more moderate on social issues. My position on immigration is different from the majority of national Republicans.

Amnesty has long been one of the toughest parts of this, but now it seems support for it is eroding, even on the left.

Here in Hawaii, we don’t have the illegal immigration problem that other states have. We do have a problem with the Compact of Free Association [the agreement that allows citizens of the Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau access to health care, housing and education in the United States]. These are not illegal immigrants, they’re legal immigrants. But I believe we need to reform the COFA, and that federal government should make a one-time payment to the Federated States of Micronesia. I believe that’s the better approach the more economical one for both the federal taxpayer and the state of Hawaii.

You are famously anti-tax, and yet we do not have the projected revenues to cover Medicare, Social Security and other obligations that are more or less sacrosanct. At some point, isn’t the government going to need more revenue?

Where I disagree is with the premise. First of all, I support a moratorium on earmarks. Whether you’re wasting a billion or a million or one dollar, it’s too much. And we need to change the culture of spending in our country, we have to end the idea that every problem can be solved by spend, spend, spend.

I also support a balanced budget amendment. The state has it, the city has it, every family has it. I think that will do more to impose fiscal discipline than any other step.

But every family doesn’t have a balanced budget. People carry huge amounts of debt.

I would disagree. If you’re unable to make your mortgage payments or are financing them on credit cards, that’s exactly what the federal government is doing.

Getting back to the question–if you assume that the current structure of entitlements cannot and will not ever change, you will probably need to dramatically raise taxes. But I do believe in entitlement reform.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted Social Security, there were 16 workers for every retiree. Today it’s down to 4 to 1, and by the time my children get to working age, it will be 2 to 1. We absolutely need bipartisan entitlement reform.

I support the president’s bipartisan entitlement reform commission, and I’m disappointed that Republicans blocked it two weeks ago in the Senate. I would be willing to support a comprehensive, sensible entitlement reform package. But it’s going to require guts from Democrats and Republicans.

We’ve done it before. When Bill Bradley got together with President Reagan for tax reform and social security reform, we were able to come together and recognize that we needed to address this. But it’s been 20 years, and it’s time to do it again.