Ben Cayetano‘s recent criticism of longtime Sen. Dan Inouye — that he’s out of touch with his constituents and doesn’t listen to them — is still reverberating.

Pro-rail group Pacific Resource Partnership, which represents Hawaii carpenters, has launched and is pushing a petition to urge Cayetano to “refrain from these kinds of mean-spirited personal attacks.”

On Sunday, The Washington Times ran an opinion piece by a Hawaii resident who argued that Inouye shouldn’t be offended by Cayetano’s suggestion that Inouye “go down to McDonald’s and talk to the retirees.”

Whether Cayetano’s denunciation of Inouye will hurt — or help — his chance to be elected Honolulu mayor won’t be known until the Aug. 11 primary at the earliest.

But the former two-term Hawaii governor did raise a legitimate point: Exactly how connected is Hawaii’s nine-term senior senator with his home?

After all, Inouye, who will turn 88 this September, has lived and worked in Washington, D.C., since 1959, the year Hawaii became a state. According to census data, two-thirds of Hawaii’s 1.3 million people have never known Inouye to not be in Congress.

Criticism of being “out of touch” is nothing new in politics, and it can pack a punch. Just ask Richard Lugar, the Republican from Indiana, who was heading to a likely defeat on Tuesday after 36 years of distinguished service in the U.S. Senate.

A look at Inouye’s activities as reported in the press and online from January through early May of this year show a senator hard at work — leading Senate Appropriations committee hearings, meeting with high-level officials (but also Hawaii high school students and mayors), giving interviews to a wide range of media (including local media) and traveling across the country and attending a variety of events (including in Hawaii).

His activities while at home are familiar, like eating at his favorite Zippy’s Restaurant, complaining about traffic to Oahu’s West Side and honoring veterans at Punchbowl Cemetery.

And, in spite of the blowback against congressional earmarks, Inouye still works to bring money home to Hawaii. It includes the announcement just last week that three health centers will split $10 million to expand services and fund renovation and new construction.

But Dan Inouye is not just any senator, and his life and career reflect that.

As the longest-serving member of majority Democrats, Inouye is president pro tempore — the second-highest-ranking official of the Senate and third in line to the presidency.

He has a federal security detail that accompanies him everywhere, including to homes in Bethesda, Md., Los Angeles and Waikiki. He travels frequently and treats constituents to a meal at restaurants where he sometimes rings up a hefty tab.

And he’s a war hero whose many decorations include the Medal of Honor and Distinguished Service Cross. He has received honors from France, Japan and the Philippines and numerous honorary doctorates from American universities.

As Cayetano put it, Dan Inouye is very much “up at the 30,000-foot level, dealing with national and international affairs.”

The senator was in transit Monday and unable to immediately comment to Civil Beat for this article.

But Peter Boylan, the senator’s deputy chief of staff for government and external affairs, describes his boss as a very hands-on lawmaker and political leader, eager to hear from constituents and making the time to do so.

According to Boylan, that includes email and letters — the letters are signed by Inouye; the autopen is used only for mass form mailings — and calls multiple times a day to Hawaii. Those on the other end of the phone include field representatives in all four counties providing him with fresh information.

And, while he doesn’t personally email, the senator does go online to view local television and online news. His staff gives him a morning and afternoon update on current events back home, Boylan says.

But Cayetano still has his doubts.

Told of the “in touch” description of Inouye, Cayetano told Civil Beat that he does not follow Inouye’s activities closely, adding that he usually only sees him at formal events.

But he also said he tried to arrange a one-on-one meeting with the senator earlier this year. Told by staff that he was out of town, Cayetano was advised to email Inouye instead.

Cayetano said he did, and that in his email he told Inouye he respected him but disagreed with him on rail.

“I gave some reasons and attached renderings of what the stations would look like,” he said. “I never got a response. I am a former governor of this state, and I thought I would get a courtesy reply.”

Cayetano added that he did not think Inouye had met with prominent rail critics like Cliff Slater, Randy Roth and some Honolulu architects.

Boylan’s response to Cayetano’s comments, via email: “He did not call the office. He requested a meeting and the Senator was in Washington. He was encouraged to email or call the office. He sent an email saying he was opposed to rail and he was running for office, there were no renderings attached.”

As for the meetings, Boylan wrote, “He may not have met with Ben and his cadre of rail opponents but he has met with many constituents and public officials who support and oppose the project.”

A Senator’s Life

It can be challenging for a Hawaii congressman to keep in touch with folks back home. Washington is 5,000 miles, four time zones and at least 10 hours by plane away from Hawaii.

Inouye flies to Hawaii about six times a year, however, according to his office.

He also keeps up to speed with what’s happening at home in no small part by technology in recent years that has helped cut down the distance. Boylan said Inouye, with the help of staff, has learned to adapt as times change.

Civil Beat looked at Inouye’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, his office press releases and coverage of him in the media since Jan. 1 to get a sense of his attention to Hawaii.

Granted, it’s a filtered look, and his social media, press releases and Boylan — a former Honolulu journalist who handles both the Twitter and Facebook duties — seek only to portray the boss in the best light. But it’s also revealing.

Inouye’s Twitter feed (@Daniel_Inouye, 6,315 followers) shows the senator’s office engaging with a range of Hawaii folks:

Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi (a former intern) and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Honolulu City Council woman (and congressional hopeful) Tulsi Gabbard, former Honolulu Mayor (and congressional hopeful) Mufi Hannemann, the Coalition for a Drug Free Lanai, students from Lokelani and Washington Middle Schools, Hawaii representatives from the American Diabetes Association, the Hawaii County Workforce Development Board, Honolulu rail officials Daniel Grabauskas and Toru Hamayasu and Dr. Jerris Hedges, dean of the John A. Burns School of Medicine.

Inouye also met with a Maui High School team participating in the Ocean Science Bowl in Baltimore and fellow McKinley High School alum and World War II veteran Arthus Nishimoto in Las Vegas.

And, he gave interviews to reporters from local press: Civil Beat’s Adrienne LaFrance, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Maui TV News, KHON, KNDI 1270 AM.

When Inouye is mentioned favorably in the press, Boylan is sure to tweet that out, too. And he is quick to respond to criticism in the media, as he did to The Washington Times’ dig on eating at McDonald’s.

Local Inouye appearances included meeting with Kiewit construction workers in Waipahu (where he complained about the drive), the morning fish auction at the United Fishing Agency, the Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge, the groundbreaking of the U.S. Army Pacific Command and Control Facility at Fort Shafter and the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (Punchbowl).

When heavy rains hit the island in March, Boylan retweeted a flash flood warning for Oahu. And when KHON posted a story about Inouye being taken to Queens Medical Center in April, Boylan quickly tweeted out that the story was “a complete fabrication.”

During those same four-and-a-half months, however, Inouye also met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, King Abdullah II and Princess Aisha Bint Al Hussein of Jordan, Vu Van Ninh, deputy prime minister of Vietnam; Hedi Ben Abbes, deputy secretary of state of Tunisia and Ambassador Mohamed Salah Tekaya; the Italian ambassador to the U.S., Claudio Bisogniero; and former Sen. Bob Dole, whom the senator has known since both men spent time in the same hospital after the war.

Inouye also spoke at the State Department about the Filipino experience in Hawaii and the U.S., filmed a segment with Dan Rather and filmed another segment — about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in World War II — for PBS and the AARP. He also attended a dinner at the State Department in honor of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.

That’s a rarified schedule, befitting a powerful U.S. senator. And an exhausting one; Inouye never takes a vacation, according to staff.

The public information about Inouye’s activities is not a complete picture, however. Sometimes, the people meeting with Inouye don’t want it advertised; and sometimes the meetings are secret, like those involving his work as chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Defense.

Inouye’s Facebook account this week features a photo of Inouye and his wife, Irene, posing with Hawaii performers from Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas.

Also on the soft side is photo of Inouye and his granddaughter at the piano: “I would like to wish a very Happy 2nd Birthday to my granddaughter Maggie.”

Facebook shows him at work, too, chairing a full committee “markup” for “for next year’s Agriculture and Energy Appropriations Bills” and announcing that the Honolulu rail transit protect will receive $250 million in federal funding.

Recent press coverage includes an Anchorage Daily News blog item on Inouye helping to raise money for Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, even though Begich beat Inouye’s longtime friend, the late Sen. Ted Stevens, in 2008.

There is also an April 16 Q&A with Capitol Hill’s Roll Call newspaper. Excerpt:

Q: Which Hawaiian island is your favorite?

A: It would be bad politics to favor one island over another. However, I have always looked upon Kauai with fond favor. It is the oldest island in the archipelago and the place where my grandparents, accompanied by my father, who was 3, landed after immigrating from Fukuoka, Japan, in September of 1899.

Of note: The backdrop of Inouye’s Twitter page is a photo of Hanalei Valley.

$9,200 for Xmas Cards

With frequent travel and meals with constituents, it’s not surprising that Inouye has significant expenses. Many are tied to keeping in touch with constituents, sometimes in rather extravagant fashion.

As reported in his first quarter 2012 campaign finance report with the Federal Election Commission, some expenditures are quite modest — like $16 for Champion Malasadas.

Other expenditures may be understood in the context of a man who has spent more than a half-century in elected office, like $9,200 for Christmas cards and envelopes (paid to Service Printers Hawaii).

But other expenses appear more suited to a politician who has certain tastes and travels in certain circles — like $727 for a Senate Dining Room reception for the King of Jordan, $348 to stay in the Four Seasons in Amman, Jordan; $609 to stay at the Ritz Carlton-Kapalua; and $1,868 for silk flowers for his Senate office (from C.S. Wo Gallery in Honolulu).

The senator also likes to take people to dinner. A few high-end examples:

• Matuba Japanese Restaurant in Bethesda, $580
• The Prime Rib on K Street in Washington, $723
• The Warehouse Restaurant, Marina del Rey, $784
• Ristorante Pierluigi, Rome, Italy, $862

Inouye’s campaign also paid Helen Milby & Co. of Washington $3,000 for fundraising event planner fees, and transfered $300,000 in “excess funds” to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Inouye Welcomes ‘Robust Dialogue’

In Hawaii, reporters can often seem deferential to Inouye. In Washington, though, the press corps is more aggressive.

Boylan said Inouye welcomes tough questions.

“He enjoys a full and robust dialogue about any issue, including his performance in the U.S. Senate,” he said.

Inouye is known to greet anyone who comes up to him, often with a hug. When he became president pro tem, he informed his security detail — provided by the United States Capitol Police, Dignitary Protection Division — that he wanted that practice to continue.

The senator has many critics. Besides the anti-rail faction, they include those who resent the powerful military presence in the islands, activists who desire Hawaiian independence and not a few fellow Democrats who resent Inouye’s power as a kingmaker.

In fact, Inouye has often backed the losing candidate, suggesting that his imprimatur is no guarantee. And Hawaii has changed a lot since 1959.

Asked if he regretted calling Inouye out of touch, Cayetano told Civil Beat, “Maybe I should have said it in a less blunt way, but when I looked and read his statements about rail, I know that he is not talking to anyone else except from the city and the (Federal Transit Authority).”

When it comes to a major issue like rail, Cayetano argues that a vigorous discussion of the issues is necessary.

“Put it this way: I think too often this happens, that people tend to rely heavily on the government — in this case the city and the FTA,” he said. “I have learned to be skeptical of the government. I have always been that way.”

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