But the consequences of the election also extend far out into the Pacific.
Officials from U.S. island territories and freely associated states have a stake in the election, because they rely on Hawaii’s congressional delegation to help ensure that their voices are heard.
“In the case of the island programs… territories face a fundamental disadvantage because they don’t have a vote,” said Allen Stayman, a senior staff member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, who spoke at the University of Hawaii on Friday about congressional issues confronting U.S.-affiliated Pacific islands.
Rep. Madeleine Bordallo from Guam, along with Rep. Gregorio Sablan from the Northern Mariana Islands, supports Hirono for the U.S. Senate seat. As Democrats, both have worked with her in the House.
But given the complex political history between the U.S. and its affiliated islands, losing Akaka means losing an important advocate for this often-overlooked region.
Non-Voting Members Look to Hawaii
Bordallo is one of several non-voting delegates representing U.S. territories in the House of Representatives.
Because they don’t have a vote, delegates from the Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands rely on voting members of the House and Senate to move their initiatives forward.
The governments of freely associated states, which include Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia, don’t have delegates and instead depend on ambassadors and lobbyists.
“When the door closes and the horse trading begins, having a vote is important,” Stayman said.
Both Akaka and Sen. Daniel K. Inouye have served as advocates on Pacific island-related issues. As a former member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Akaka had influence on many bills sent to the committee that affected the island territories and nations.
Bordallo said that Akaka consistently assisted her efforts to obtain war reparations for the people of Guam. Ambassador Hersey Kyota of Palau said that the senator has always been supportive of Palau’s needs.
Akaka co-sponsored a bill to restore Medicaid eligibility to migrants from the Freely Associated States. Their eligibility was removed in 1996 with the Welfare Reform Act.
He also cosponsored a bill to approve the U.S. treaty with the Republic of Palau.
But neither bill has been passed yet, and there is still more work to be done.
That’s not to say there haven’t been moments of tension between Hawaii’s congressional delegation and their Pacific island neighbors.
Last summer, the entire Hawaii congressional delegation signed a letter asking Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar to address the lack of federal funding to help support the cost of health care for migrants from Compact of Free Association states. The letter included the controversial suggestion that migration be capped.
Hirono or Lingle?
According to Stayman, the November election has important ramifications for U.S.-affiliated islands.
“It is going to certainly have an impact [on how territorial legislation is received],” Stayman said.
Stayman said that important issues facing the territories include the minimum wage in American Samoa; the renewal of the Compact of Free Association with Palau; and the ownership of submerged lands and the status of nonresident workers in the Northern Mariana Islands.
Kyota said that he is confident that whoever is elected to replace Akaka in November will be a friend to Palau.
“I know that in the past the Hawaiian congressional delegation has been supportive of Palau and I know that whoever will be elected will continue that trend,” Kyota said.
Not surprisingly, the delegates from the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam, both Democrats, support Hirono.
“[Hirono] has co-sponsored my legislation giving the Northern Marianas ownership of submerged lands around our islands, and other bills with an island or regional aspect,” Sablan said via email. “So I will be sorry to see her leave the U.S. House of Representatives. But I look forward to having her as a good friend in the U.S. Senate.”
Bordallo said she has worked with Hirono on a number of issues, including transportation and immigration.
“Irrespective of the outcome of the 2012 election in Hawaii, it will be imperative for Guam and Hawaii to continue to work together in Congress,” Bordallo said.