Only a man as beloved and powerful as Dan Inouye could convince local Democrats to enter a saimin-eating contest.

That’s what happened Sunday at Washington Middle School, where electoral candidates Colleen Hanabusa, Lyla Berg, Brian Schatz and Kirk Caldwell gamely used their hashi to eat a bowl as quickly as they could. Even the senior senator and his wife, Irene, participated, with Inouye telling the party faithful how he won a saimin contest (14 bowls in one hour!) in the eighth grade.

(Caldwell, flush in the face from a 5K Cane Haul Run in Waipahu that morning, said he regretted chowing down a bento lunch before the contest. Did he mention that he was born in Waipahu? Yes, he did.)

The official purpose of the Moiliili gathering was to celebrate the community — in this case, the mostly Japanese-American neighborhood where Inouye, who turns 86 next month, grew up. Next to Washington Middle School is Inouye’s Zippy’s restaurant of choice, where he’s known to grind on a Chili Moco and a Nalo Greens Strawberry Salad.

On hand Sunday were 16 Democratic candidates, party officials, a person in a waffle dog costume and lots of keiki wearing hachi maki headbands.

In short, it was a love fest for the Democratic Party of Hawaii, put on by its patriarch.

But the celebration also included business. The Sept. 18 primary, which will end (for now) the political ambitions of most of these candidates, is just four weeks away.

It also came at the end of a week that saw dramatic developments in the governor’s race between Neil Abercrombie and Mufi Hannemann, including new polling numbers from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now that show the former congressman with a 5 percentage point lead over the former mayor. Polls in the lieutenant governor race and Honolulu mayor contest are expected early this week.

In a year where Democrats are on the run nationally, Inouye aimed to bring his party together before it tears itself apart.

In addition to Abercrombie and Hannemann, the 16 candidates included U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono and Hanabusa, who wants to join Hirono in Congress; six candidates for lieutenant governor (including Schatz and Berg) and several state legislators. Acting Honolulu Mayor Caldwell was on hand, but mayoral candidates Peter Carlisle, Panos Prevedouros and Rod Tam were not. (The mayoral contest is nonpartisan.)

The community celebration was retail politics done Hawaii style: a buffed state Rep. Marcus Oshiro demonstrating his taiko drum skills, Hanabusa manning the ikebana booth (“It will put you in the right frame of mind,” she promised), lieutenant governor candidate Bobby Bunda wearing a red palaka-print shirt and handing out palaka-print hand-held fans.

Nearly every candidate gave out recipe cards — in the case of LG candidate Norman Sakamoto, Spaghetti Carbonara (with a half-pound of bacon) and Tofu Casserole (with Shiitake mushrooms soaked and sliced). Even U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka, who is not up for re-election, showed up, bringing recipes for Ono Fried Rice (with one-half cup “dice kamaboko”).

The only prominent Democrat who appeared not to be attendance was former Congressman Ed Case. But, in private conversations with politicians and party insiders, his stunning, harshly worded endorsement Saturday of Abercrombie was very much on the minds of many.

In rejecting Hannemann, Case said in a statement, “I’ve come to view him as the most dangerous politician in a generation, because his talents mask an agenda which, if successful, will set Hawaii back a generation…He’s practiced the politics of division, exploiting rather than healing differences of race, origin and economic status.”

Case’s endorsement followed criticism this week of Hannemann from Inouye and Republican Gov. Linda Lingle. Both took the former Honolulu mayor to task for negative campaign tactics. In seeking to contrast himself with Abercrombie, Hannemann angered some with the negative tone of a mailer last week.

In his brief remarks, a buoyed Abercrombie made no mention of the mailer or the poll but did tell Democrats “our diversity unites us rather than divides us.” A subdued Hannemann, who arrived near the end of the program just before the bon dance, said only that it was important that a Democrat enter Washington Place on Dec. 6, the day Lingle steps down. But then a smile lit up his face as he took to the stage for a bon dance.

The Man of the Hour

Sen. Inouye loved every minute of the day, greeting friends, cracking smiles and consuming waffle dogs. (When he arrived, emcee David Arakawa intoned over the P.A. system, “Sen. Inouye is in the house.”) Inouye’s only son, Ken, was in tow with wife, Jessica, and only granddaughter, Maggie, named after the senator’s late first wife.

Organizers say Washington Middle School was chosen as an alternative to McKinley High School, where Hawaii Democrats have traditionally held election rallies. (Inouye is a graduate of both schools.) The idea was to be playful, as if to dispel any notion that Democrats have difficulty playing with each other.

Many volunteers wore the black T-shirts with yellow writing that symbolize the Inouye campaign, his ninth for the U.S. Senate. An Inouye banner hanging over the school multi-purpose room stage read, “Now. More than ever.” A T-shirt contest featured Inouye trivia questions — e.g., “What was the senator’s first job after graduating from Georgetown law school?” Answer: Honolulu deputy prosecutor.

Inouye invited the Hawaii Farm Bureau to bring some of its members to the celebration. Hawaiian-made chocolates, sugar, ginger and other diversified ag products were gobbled up by hungry patrons.

“Everyone talks about sustainability, but we can’t do that without an agricultural base,” Mae Nakahata of Maui’s HC&S told Civil Beat. “You won’t get coqui frog invasive species if you grow local.”

To no surprise, Inouye was praised generously by all who attended.

Caldwell credited him with helping him to meet his future wife when she was at Georgetown and he was working in Inouye’s office. Hanabusa said he was the only one in the state who could bring Democrats together before an election. Hirono said she represented Moiliili — home to Inouye’s late mother — when she was in the state Legislature. Akaka said Inouye was “the most distinguished American in the United States of America.”

When Inouye, wearing blue jeans and a black aloha shirt, took the stage, the audience stood in rapt approval.

Djou, Djou — and Aiona

Hirono and Hanabusa ripped into U.S. Rep. Charles Djou, the first Republican Hawaii has sent to Congress in two decades and Hanabusa’s likely general election opponent. Both noted how Djou voted against the recent $26 billion federal package for unemployment benefits, teachers and Medicaid funds.

“Rich people got tax breaks for the last nine years,” Hirono complained, referring to Democrats efforts to end tax cuts for high-income earners approved by the Bush administration.

To fire up LG candidates like Jon Riki Karamatsu as they attempted to hit the taiko drum, Arakawa told them to pretend Djou’s face was on the drum.

Candidates for lieutenant governor, meanwhile, dismissed James “Duke” Aiona‘s two terms in office.

“I will not waste eight years in office,” said Gary Hooser.

To make sure the words translated into action, organizers for the Democratic National Committee circulated the room to make sure folks were registered to vote — for the general election, anyway, as the primary deadline passed last week.

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