WASHINGTON — It’s January again, the blank canvas of a new year stretched out before us. One thing is certain: 2012 will bring big changes for Hawaii’s representation in Washington.
For starters, after more than 20 years in the U.S. Senate, Daniel Akaka will step down. He now has less than a year to try to pass legislation to secure federal recognition for Native Hawaiians that he’s failed to move forward in a decade. The outcome of his final attempts could largely shape Akaka’s legacy.
Akaka’s departure — and the fact that Democratic Rep. Mazie Hirono and Republican former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle are among those running to replace him — means there’s a real chance that Hawaii will elect its first female U.S. senator.
If Lingle is elected this year, she’ll be the first Republican to represent Hawaii in the U.S. Senate in more than three decades. The last and only Hawaii Republican to serve in the U.S. Senate was Hiram Fong, who retired in 1977.
The possibility of a Lingle win also raises a question about the Senate majority and its implications for the one delegate from Hawaii who doesn’t have to defend his seat this year: If Republicans reclaim the Senate, Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye will lose influential posts like his chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
With a presidential election playing out on the national stage, expect Hawaii Democrats to play up their connections to Honolulu-born President Barack Obama, who remains popular in the islands. Obama’s name at the top of the ticket will likely help Democratic candidates in other Hawaii races.
There’s no question that isle Republicans are ready to put up a fight in at least one of the two districts. Just over one year since her election to Congress, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa will try to beat back a challenge from Charles Djou, the Republican former congressman whom she ousted in last November.
One of Hanabusa’s major areas of focus in Congress is defense, and Djou will return from an Army Reserve deployment to Afghanistan to campaign against her this spring.
A change in the political landscape doesn’t always mean adding new players to the mix. Another former congressman, Democrat Ed Case, is fighting Hirono for the Democrats’ Senate nomination. Some of the familiar names running to replace Hirono include former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann and Honolulu City Council member Tulsi Gabbard, who has also served as a Hawaii state representative.
Then there is the perennial candidate, John Carroll, who’s running as a Republican for Senate. By now you may also have heard of Rafael del Castillo, who is making his first run for the 2nd Congressional District after two failed attempts at getting elected in the 1st Congressional District.
Bob Marx, also running for the 2nd District seat, is no stranger to politics: He served in the Oregon Legislature in the 1970s before embarking on his law career, according to a bio on his website. Another candidate in that race, Esther Kiaaina, worked for Akaka and Case in the Senate and House, respectively.
Familiar names and political regulars may still catalyze a major shift in Hawaii’s political dynamic. Hawaii will elect a new U.S. senator and a new House representative this year, and the fact that the victors will step into roles previously held by the most progressive half of the state’s congressional delegation is significant.
A 2011 Civil Beat analysis found that Hirono votes with the Democratic majority 98 percent of the time. Akaka votes with Democrats 97 percent of the time, according to the Washington Post.
The fact that one or both of their seats could be reclaimed by a more moderate candidate — let alone a Republican — could mean a significant transformation in Hawaii’s congressional representation.
While Hawaii politicians play an intense game of musical chairs in 2012, the business before Congress is more likely to trigger déjà vu.
Last year, the 112th Congress was characterized by gridlock at every turn. This year, it will pick up where it left off. We can expect debate on many of the as-yet-unresolved issues that came up in 2011 including the federal deficit, raising the debt ceiling, reforming entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, whether to again extend payroll tax cuts, and how to stave off deep automatic cuts that are scheduled to take effect one year from now.
The United States removed its combat troops from Iraq late last year, but the war in Afghanistan continues. Above all, joblessness in a still-fragile national economy remains the major issue at the start of the new year. But other big issues for Hawaii that could come up between now and election day: The federal government’s role in fulfilling Compact of Free Association obligations; hundreds of billions of dollars in defense cuts; and an ongoing foreign-policy shift that the Obama administration says will be focused squarely on the Asia-Pacific region.