Hawaii’s Matt DiGeronimo: Congressional candidate and a real American hero

Danny de Gracia interviews Republican candidate for Congress Matt DiGeronimo on life in the military, business and his decision to run for office. Photo: Matt DiGeronimo

HAWAII, July 10, 2012 – Running as a Republican in Hawaii’s Second Congressional District is Matt DiGeronimo, a successful Oahu businessman and former U.S. Navy fast attack submarine officer who retired at the rank of Lieutenant Commander. 

I had the opportunity to interview DiGeronimo to ask him about his thoughts on running for office and found myself extremely moved by his humility, spiritual strength and his take-charge attitude which he refers to as “taking the watch.”

Far too often, congressional campaigns have the tendency to attract individuals who are at best superficial, plastic in sincerity and convincing only at the dilettante level. DiGeronimo on the other hand is full of the kind of legendary all-American character that is so rare in politics and makes for the kind of hard-charging leader necessary for stability in turbulent times.

Here now is a transcript of our interview, edited for length and clarity.

Danny de Gracia: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What sparked your decision to run for Congress as a Republican?

Matt DiGeronimo:  I was born and raised in Hawthorne, New Jersey where sports were the name of the game and my dream of being a starting pitcher for the New York Yankees is just about over. My wife Aimee and I were married in Hawaii in 2009 and we now live with our three dogs Elroy, Vince and Gracie.

I have made a life of making bold decisions that would not be described as typical.  As an example, I attended Rutgers University where I studied engineering for a few years on a full academic scholarship, I left to enlist in the Navy.  My family and friends were stunned. 

I was committed to enlisting in the military because I had a long deep down inside to see what I was made of and if I could rise through the ranks to “earn” my rank, rather than be “born” into it as a member of the privileged class of our society.

The life of a junior enlisted service member is tough, and I don’t care who you are.  That experience was probably exactly what I needed because it really humbled me and made me appreciate the creature comforts of civilian life.  I was cleaning urinals, doing pushups for mild infractions of military training and stripped of my ability to literally stand “there” instead of “here.”

However, I embraced the lifestyle and chose to excel rather than pout.  I was the best urinal cleaner, the best push-up doer and so forth.  On top of the basic military training, I was attending the Navy’s most academic challenging enlisted schools called the Navy’s Nuclear Power Program. There were three separate schools to attend as Electronics Technician and Reactor Operator and I ranked first academically in each school.

After a few years of enlisted service and earning the rank of second class petty officer, I was selected for an officer program and I was overjoyed.  I was fortunate enough to select from virtually any school in the country, and I selected Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York where I graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor of science in nuclear engineering.

From there I went on to my service at a Navy Officer serving on nuclear powered fast attack submarines, where I spent over four cumulative years submerged in the four corners of the earth and everywhere in between.

I participated in over ten missions vital to national security where we conducted operations ranging from deep water, Cold War-style missions to today’s more common littoral operations.  These missions were always an exercise in mental and physical endurance, patience, attention to detail, and living in a constant state of readiness because the excitement level could go from zero to 100 in a matter of seconds any time of day. 

In addition to my submarine assignments, I also served in the Middle East in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom on the staff of the COMMIDEASTFOR as well as an instructor of submarine tactics at Navy Submarine School in New London, Connecticut. I was also a nuclear operations inspector for the Nuclear Propulsion Examination board at COMPACFLT.

Towards the end of my assignment as engineer aboard the USS Key West, I could sense that an injury that I had previously sustained was getting worse not better. During my shore duty at COMPACFLT the situation became untenable.  The Army doctors at Tripler tried a variety of possible solutions, but none would suffice.  I then accepted an early retirement.

After much thought, prayer and soul searching, Aimee and I decided to take a risk. During my time as an instructor at Navy Submarine School, I earned an MBA at the University of Connecticut. It was there when I recognized I had an insatiable affinity for business operations, strategy, and logistics. However, it was also here when I realized that I was much more interested in bringing this knowledge to small businesses and not an investment bank, a management consulting company, or a private equity firm like my peers. 

Aimee and I decided to use the bulk of our life savings and buy an existing business in Hawaii where we could control our destiny, serve and advocate for the small business community, and continue to live in paradise.  Running my own business was wonderful and what was even more fun was reaching out to the employees and clients to advocate for growth, both personally and professionally. 

In May of this year, some of the leadership of the Republican Party asked me to run for the second congressional seat.  Wow.  What a thought.  When I spoke to Aimee, my wife about it, she looked at me intensely for what like an eternity. 

I think we both felt the gravity of this life changing event that God had placed on our lap.  I think we both knew that he had to say yes.  Finally, I think we both knew that our lives were going to change, especially next January, because through our thoughts and prayers it was clear: our mission wasn’t to run for the seat.  It was to win the seat.  The more we looked at the more we realized just how “winnable” that seat was.

There is something so uniquely wonderful about the call of duty.  I have heard it very distinctly my life and it represents challenging and straining my limitations for the greater good.  When it beckons, you answer. That is what this campaign is about for me, answering the call of duty.

The skill set to get elected to Congress these days is not a skill set that necessarily leads itself to operating successfully in a large chaotic group such as the House of Representatives.  A representative must be able to put a team or a cause ahead of themselves, but without allowing the interests of Hawaii to be lost in the shuffle.  A representative must be willing to resist the temptation to seek the spotlight which so readily available when it is nothing but a distraction.

Our representative must be able to put the cause above the credit for the cause.  I believe it was Ronald Reagan who said “There is no limit to what a man can achieve if he cares not who receives the credit.”  I do not observe a critical mass of these types of Congressmen presently.  I know that I can achieve results for the country and the state.

DDG: Let’s talk about your military background for a moment. I personally think as both a former U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander and a line officer you make a superb Congressional candidate, in part because you’ve already been placed into situations where attention to detail, leadership by example and command aren’t buzzwords, they are the difference between life and death. If you’re elected to office, how would your prior military experience shape your legislative approach for Hawaii’s Second Congressional District?

DiGeronimo:  I think the strongest influence – although maybe not the most obvious – is that I have a lifetime of experience of working with individuals from all parts of our country.  I have learned well the uniqueness of our country’s sub-cultures. I am very comfortable working within groups of a variety of backgrounds and cultures. 

To your point, because I have been in situations where the wrong decision would have conclusively meant death for myself and others, I realize two things well.  One is that every minute of every day there is a U.S. service member risking their lives for us.  They trust us to treat our jobs with the same level of responsibility.  Second, I have developed the poise that can only come from being in those types of situations.  There are no other life experience substitutes for that.  

I am excited to bring a level of responsibility and accountability to a congressional seat that has not been observed but needs to be. I am ready to show the people, and children, of the second district of Hawaii what it looks like when an adult takes responsibility.  When the cards are dealt, and the hand is played, there will be no finger pointing except one finger pointing right at me.

I do not need a title to define me.  I will have a much easier time doing what is right, even when no one is watching because I do not need to retain the title of Congressman to feel accomplished.  Therefore, it will make it much easier for me, than it is for politicians, to keep their constituents updated or explaining the consequences of a piece of legislation to Hawaii.

DDG: Many people feel that a lot of big things are riding on this upcoming election, be it the economy, jobs, healthcare, even America’s place in the world. It seems like America is perpetually in a crisis mode these days where nearly everything that comes up is an existential threat and our elected officials engage in policy brinkmanship where extreme ideas keep getting proposed or passed into law. Would you agree?

DiGeronimo: I would agree. I believe that is a symptom of a disease that if left unchecked will continue to grow.  I think we would all agree that the most important thing to our career politicians is re-election.  Unfortunately, that motivation is not compatible with serving the people of America with the highest levels of integrity, because if someone’s election is two years away but the consequences of a bill, a program, or an engineering project is more than that, the motivations are misaligned and it takes a very special person to be able to put that aside and do the right thing.   

I don’t believe there has been open and honest dialogue in the House of Representatives for decades.  There is dealing – making things happen, getting the votes through exchanges of support and so on. I am not naïve enough to think that dealing will ever go away.  However, when was the last time there was a member of Congress whose speech or debate changed the minds of the other side?

If this doesn’t happen, then the House is not actually listening to each speaker.  What’s the point of having our Congressmen present, defend or debate if the audience is not really listening?  This is another example of motivation misplaced. 

DDG: Would you say that Washington’s leaders are getting a little bit too determinalistic in their policy – that is to say, micromanagement of the American people is starting to become the norm? Does there really have to be a law, regulation or tax for everything?

DiGeronimo: I could not agree more.  When Thomas Jefferson said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance” he was referring to the citizen’s duty to be eternally vigilant for any and all efforts of the federal government to expand beyond its jurisdiction. 

Many citizens are programmed to believe these days that our government is so grand and mighty that it has the resources to fix any problem we as a country may face.  This is an illusion.  There are many issues which the federal government is not equipped to handle from a centralized location.

The bottom line is that the government is not the show! The people are the show.  It seems to me that our politicians are so concerned about media attention in order to keep their name recognition high or prepare for their next book.  I believe a government is best when it governs least and a leader is best when people barely know he exists.  Our scientists, engineers, artists and other creators should be making front page news, not our politicians!

DDG: Do you think the government should be able to force private insurance plans or hospitals to provide certain services and products?

DiGeronimo: Absolutely not.  I believe that private enterprise is private and that individuals should be free to pursue business ventures free from government influence.  I can accept, begrudgingly, the fact that sometimes our government may intervene to prevent a private enterprise from doing something, or doing something in a certain way, or obtaining a government license to do “x” but I cannot accept the government forcing private enterprises to provide certain goods and services.  Again, this is too close to the extortion zip code for me to accept.

DDG: Right now, two-thirds of the Federal budget is essentially on what one senior senator described to me at CPAC as being “on autopilot” and by this we mean to say the entitlements are the biggest drain on the taxpayers. Do we have to accept this as a permanent trend or is there a way to bring entitlement spending under control?

DiGeronimo: I do not believe entitlement spending as it now, is sustainable.  However, I do not support pulling the carpet out from underneath anyone’s feet, especially anyone that had an agreement with the government – Social Security, veteran’s benefits as two examples.  This entitlement and spread the wealth versus self-reliance debate is great for classroom conversation and coffee house banter, but for actual change, we are going to have to do something big that has observable, positive, and immediate results.

The solutions have to originate closer to home, especially in Hawaii.  It is unrealistic to think that any of our solutions can from five thousand miles away.  However, until we take responsibility locally, real change will never happen.  

DDG: What do you think about the stimulus, Wall Street bailouts and too big to fail policies?

DiGeronimo: I thought the stimulus package was an absolute disaster, and yet the money still hasn’t made its way into the economy! It was a figurative junk drawer of earmarks that had been sitting around looking for a home, and they found one.

Fundamentally I have a problem with the stimulus package because I found it extremely arrogant. If our government leaders decided our economy needed a $900 billion boost, why not collect $900 billion less taxes that year? Plus, our economy is so complex with so many variables all of which are changing each second, there is no man, woman or computer that could calculate or determine the best use of that $900 billion dollars, therefore, stop trying!

I guarantee that if the government had lowered the tax percentages on small businesses and other businesses, we would have witnessed an immediate acceleration to recovery.  Business owners aren’t going to squirrel that extra money into their pillow cases.  For some it would be the difference between staying in business or shutting down jobs.  I don’t think everyone even at the highest levels of our government understands just how narrow the profit margins that many of our small business owners face.

DDG: As a former Navy officer, what’s your thoughts about the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea Treaty? The Obama Administration is pushing pretty hard on it. What do you think?

DiGeronimo: I think we should stay far, far away from it.  Nothing good can happen by agreeing to be one of 160 countries – many of which are landlocked –  that would vote on issues regarding the law of the sea.  We have worldwide sea power dominance through strong, responsible and credible operations over the last several decades.  To have a weak step-kid of the United Nations take charge of international sea lanes and laws is something that absolutely no good can come from.

DDG: The military has been going through a major realignment over the last decade, both as a result of the ongoing Global War On Terror and structural changes in the budget. What are your thoughts about our current state of readiness and ability to deter nations like China who are building up a blue water navy? 

Great question. Not an easy one to answer.  I think our military is spread very thin and perhaps thinner than our operational commanders would have you believe.  Overseeing our military leaders is like being Rocky Balboa trainer in a tough fight.  He is never going to say anything but “I’m good, I’m good” even when he is getting the snot kicked out of him.

Ask the chief petty officers, the gunnery sergeants, the Lieutenant Commanders and the Majors. The operational tempo continues to increase with endpoint in sight and our men are being asked to more and more with less.  Something has to give.  We either need to commit to rebuilding our fleet and increasing our manning, or find a way to say no to mission requests from time to time or in my opinion, we will become increasingly vulnerable. 

In regards to China, they are certainly preparing for something outside of a game of chutes and ladders.  And that only describes what we know, the increase in the underground tunnels are evident and we know that they are using these tunnels to maintain and build ships and submarines that they don’t want us to gain any satellite imagery of.

I don’t believe they mean to present a direct immediate threat to us, but there is no doubt in my mind that they intend to replace or integrate with us as the planet’s super power. 

Their economy is growing as they are opening markets and encouraging local enterprise, our economy is not as we continue to close markets and discourage local enterprise – especially Hawaii.   Their military is growing as they keep their forces concentrated, and we continue to spread our existing fleet thin without an acceptable rebuild plan.  

We need to consider China an ally, but use their advances as healthy competition to get back to where we need to be.  Comparing ourselves or worrying about them is not healthy at this juncture, because have so many items to work on at home first.

DDG: Last but not least, is there anything you’d like to tell our readers in D.C.?

DiGeronimo: It is my honest and humble assessment that the absence of true accountability and responsibility from our elected officials and the acceptance of this absence by our nation’s voters will keep us underwater like a cinder block tied around our neck.

In my Navy career, I learned quickly to accept the sanctity of the words, I have the watch. You can assess the current situation for as long as you need to, you can refuse to take the watch, but the instant the words “I have the watch” are said responsibility, accountability and authority transfer from one person to the other. It is unforgiving, absolute and unquestionable.

When we win the general election in November, I intend to share with my district how this principle works and why it is essential to bring an element of that to our government officials.

I have the watch. It means I will accept full and absolute responsibility for the consequences of anything that comes out of Congress. There are no exceptions to this, and it cuts both ways.   Take the good and the bad.  No excuses, no exceptions.

Washington needs this. Hawaii needs this. Your children need to observe responsibility handled this way. The career politicians have seemingly convinced us that finger pointing, name calling and blame avoidance is acceptable behavior. It is not.

This is a small price to pay to restore the integrity, dignity, and effectiveness to the greatest system of government the world has ever known. Help me take the watch!

 


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More from Making Waves: A Hawaii Perspective on Washington Politics
 
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Danny de Gracia

Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs committees at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, Danny has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. Now working on his first novel, Danny resides on the island of Oahu.

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