Hawaii’s homeless candidate for Congress

Editor’s Note: This story is part of CNN’s new project, Change the List. John D. Sutter is trying to start a conversation that could bump Hawaii off the bottom of the national list for voter turnout.

Story highlights

Kawika Crowley calls himself the only homeless U.S. House candidate

Crowley won the Republican primary for Hawaii's House District 2

Some political observers consider him a joke candidate

But he has stirred up political interest among new groups of people

Honolulu CNN  — 

Kawika Crowley lives, works and runs his U.S. congressional campaign out of a beat-up white minivan that he often parks overnight at a grocery store on Oahu. In the van’s front seat, which is his office, is a homemade shelf for his laptop, a copy of the U.S. Constitution, and a flurry of index cards that are scattered like confetti after New Year’s. On the cards are his ideas and talking points: pro-smoking (in bars, if the owner wants to allow it); anti-taxes; anti-commuter rail; pro-freedom. Each is written in meticulous penmanship, in thick black ink. He’s been preparing for a debate.

In the back of the van, the necessities: a wire to hang his clothes, which are soaked in that sweetly acrid smell of cigar butts left out in the rain; a cooler for food; a jug for water (and another for vodka); and a container for bodily waste. “Only No. 1,” he says. Between it all: his bed, which is a valley-like clearing that starts between the bucket seats in the front and the coolers in the back, with the clothes hanging like mountains to the side.

Crowley calls himself the only homeless candidate for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He’s proud of that – at least, he is now. In a state where most people don’t vote, he’s using the reality-TV-type intrigue the situation creates to his advantage – to try to draw people who never have cared about politics into the process.

I spent a recent afternoon with Crowley, including a detailed tour of his van, which seems to personify his quirky and somewhat likable disdain for the ordinary. I was working on a story about Hawaii’s low rate of voting, the lowest in the country. During my time with him, two thoughts kept fighting for space in my mind: Either this guy is a complete joke, an example of how little power the Republican Party has in this Democrat-controlled state (Crowley is the Republican running against a rising star in the Democratic Party, Tulsi Gabbard, who spoke at that party’s national convention this year); or maybe it takes an over-the-top character like Crowley – sort of the Honey Boo Boo of politicians, super-odd but kind – to make people care about elections again.

At the start of the interview, I certainly thought the former.

I met Crowley and his iconic van in front of the Hawaii Capitol. The location was one of his choosing. I figure he wanted to get a good photo op in front of the oddly modern building, with its pillars that look like palm trees – an architectural reminder that these islands only became a state five decades ago. Before we met, I wondered how I would spot him. When I arrived, however, Crowley’s van – which has a large American flag where an antenna might otherwise be; a placard on top that reads “KAWIKA4CONGRESS.COM”; and dozens of other signs that say things like “Hawaii Smokers! 200,000 strong!” and “DON’T BE A DUMB A**!!! Get Involved! Get Educated! GET SMART!” – was parked up on the curb.

It was impossible to miss. Not that Crowley, a 61-year-old with a Ron Swanson mustache, frizzy ponytail and the build of a bowler, would blend into a crowd, either. He was wearing a loud Hawaiian-print shirt and talking to a security guard (no doubt explaining why he had parked nearly on the Capitol lawn) as I approached.

“Maybe a question would be, ‘What made you decide to run for Congress?’ And then I can go through my little spiel and we can go from there,” he told me, shortly after introductions had been made. It became clear quite quickly that Crowley intended to try to produce every aspect of our interview. He told the videographer I was working with, Edythe McNamee, to get a wide shot of him with the Capitol and palm trees as a backdrop. And then he launched into a story of how he decided to run for office. I can boil that story down to three words: the smoking ban. Hawaii passed one, covering restaurants and bars, in 2006. That’s what got Crowley energized. He founded the Hawaii Smokers Alliance, calling for partial repeal. And, after winning a Republican primary against a better-known candidate, somehow ended up here.

“A lot of lawmakers like to stand out in front of this building and call it the people’s house. Well, I call it the people’s outhouse!” he said. “Because it’s where us Common Joe citizens get crapped upon.” He always speaks in lovably ridiculous soundbites like this.

I let him finish, thinking I was about done with this interview, when he informed me that we quickly would be moving on to location No. 2: the place he usually parks the van during the day. “You can watch me take off my pants and do a little change,” he said, sounding completely serious. “I can take a bath.” He wanted to take us inside his life as a homeless person running a political campaign. I told him removing his pants would not be necessary, but that we’d follow him to the spot. (How could you not be intrigued?)

I followed Crowley and his van – American flag flapping in the wind, arm and cigarette hanging out the window – up a road that winds through Oahu’s misty mountains. Eventually we stopped at a dead end near the top of a hill, by a park. Again, he insisted on the costume change – part of his plan to show the two sides of himself, the would-be politician and the regular guy. “Remember how I said I wear a few hats? Now, I’m going to change into my Average Joe hat,” he said before literally putting on a different style hat, this one a ball cap with an NYPD logo on it, a reminder of 9/11.

“That’s how I’m more comfortable.”

He also compared himself to two other masters of dual identities:

“Was it Batman or Superman who went inside the phone booth?” he asked, referring to Superman’s costume changes in small quarters, much like his. “I do that a lot.”

It was here that I learned more about Crowley’s back story and started to empathize with him a bit. He told me (and a friend of his confirmed by phone) that he was working as a handyman when the recession hit. He ran out of money and had to start living in his van. While he’s taken government handouts in the past, he said, he didn’t want to do that again. Instead of seeking welfare, he decided to live the only way he could afford to.

After temporarily finding a place to stay, at a client’s house where he was doing some repairs, Crowley found himself again without a home. This happened during primary campaign season, he said. He considered dropping out of the race, but decided to trudge on. Instead of letting the media discover he was homeless, he made a point of calling himself the homeless candidate. “I didn’t want it to be used against me,” he said. I started to think there is an earnest, caring person hiding behind Crowley’s icy blue eyes.

If elected, he plans to live in his Washington office and donate half of his salary to the Wounded Warrior Project. He’s gotten used to life in small quarters, and his small-government mindset is outraged by what would be his $174,000 government salary.

I realized at least some other people feel the same when we made our way to the third and final stop on Crowley’s guided tour of his life – a spot where he campaigns along Kamehameha Highway, across from a neon-green golf course and mountains so vertical they look as though they’d been smushed into a ridge by a giant’s hands.

Crowley parked the van and pulled out two wooden campaign signs, one for each direction of traffic. He stood there on the side of the road, cigar in mouth, and gave commuters a thumbs up. This is his primary method of campaigning, he said.

It seemed to work. Every third or fourth driver honked, smiled or waved at Crowley.

“Thank you! Thank you!” he said in return. Not that they could hear him. The most important thing about campaigning at roadside, he told me, is to make eye contact with each passing motorist. Never mind that he was wearing aviator sunglasses.

Meanwhile, despite the fact that Crowley has created media buzz, draws the embrace of commuters, and won – yes, won – the primary election, his opponent, the rising Democratic Party star, did not take up his calls for a debate. Tulsi Gabbard’s spokesman told me no media outlets had approached Gabbard campaign officials about the topic, so they didn’t push for it.

“He’s outspoken and he’s intelligent,” said Sam Slom, the only Republican in the Hawaii state Senate, who supports the idea of a debate. “I give him a lot of credit.”

I’m sure Gabbard has nothing to win by taking the stage with a man who doubtless would have a cigar in his mouth and a half-serious platform. In a recent poll by the news organization Civil Beat, she led Crowley 70% to 18%, with 12% undecided.

Many political observers in Hawaii consider Crowley to be a joke candidate. And in many ways, they are right. At one point during our conversation, he made a bigoted remark about Gabbard’s Hindu religion, saying it doesn’t align with the constitutional foundation of the U.S. government. (Crowley is a Deist, by the way.) But I can’t help thinking that denying Crowley the opportunity to debate is inherently undemocratic. It’s part of the reason Hawaii has checked out of the political process – that it’s the state with the lowest voter turnout rate in the nation. Some nonvoters I met on my trip to three of Hawaii’s islands told me they felt that most political decisions in the state are made by the Democratic Party – and that they don’t vote because there’s no real choice.

By and large, Hawaii is a one-party state. To get people interested in politics again, the islands need to embrace the public discussion of a diversity of opinions – even if those opinions sometimes make people squirm. They should be aired and debated – shot down if needed, but not hidden. And Crowley, in his own quirky way, is trying to do just that.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John D. Sutter.