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Democratic Party of Hawaii insiders are quietly beginning to talk seriously about the possibility that the state’s top two elected officials may not seek re-election.
In fact, both leaders tell Civil Beat that their intention is to do exactly that.
“I made an announcement several months ago, and I intend to keep that unless a truck runs over me,” Inouye told Civil Beat Monday.
Abercrombie assured Civil Beat he was running for re-election, saying he could not accomplish in one term his ambitious New Day agenda. It includes working on food sustainability, clean energy, workforce housing and the state’s unfunded liabilities in employee pensions and health benefits.
“I want continuity,” he added. “I’m not running for anything else. I have no other agendas. So the rest of that political intrigue can take place around me.”
But Democratic Party members aren’t so sure.
In the case of Inouye, 88, there is growing concern he may not finish his current term. For Abercrombie, 74, there could be an intraparty battle over who should head the gubernatorial ticket, or he could decide not to run again.
Neither scenario is unheard of. Sen. Spark Matsunaga died in office, and Gov. John A. Burns was challenged by his own lieutenant governor, Tom Gill.
Civil Beat spoke to nearly a dozen people within the party, none who would speak on the record.
In keeping with our policy, we agreed to grant anonymity to party insiders who we believe are in key positions and have information that would not be available unless their identities are protected. A sea change in the political leadership of Hawaii should Inouye or Abercrombie leave office warrants protecting these sources, we believe.
These sources say transition scenarios are being discussed, at least informally, because the departure of Abercrombie and especially Inouye would represent a dramatic shakeup in Hawaii government and politics.
The scenarios involve a handful of key Democrats who would like to serve in higher office. Because of the need to organize a campaign and raise campaign money, however, groundwork must begin soon.
Among the challenges for Democrats is that the party, despite its dominance of Hawaii politics and government, does not presently have a deep bench when it comes to potential governors and senators.
Hawaii Republicans, meanwhile, may see an opening, though their ranks are even thinner.
Between them, Inouye and Abercrombie have more than 100 years of public service.
Inouye entered the U.S. House of Representatives in 1959, the same year that Hawaii became a state. Three years later he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he has served ever since.
Most Hawaii Democrats hope that Inouye will continue to serve.
It is not only because Inouye heads the Appropriations Committee, which allocates federal funds to government agencies, departments and organizations including money for Hawaii, but because he is deeply revered. As president pro tempore of the Senate, he is also third in the line of succession to the presidency, after the vice president and the House speaker.
No single Hawaii politician is better known or has been more influential than Inouye; while his imprimatur is no guarantee, if Dan Inouye says something will be done, it usually gets done.
Hence the great concern when he finally leaves office.
Inouye is not the oldest serving senator. That would be fellow Democrat Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, who is eight months older. But if Inouye serves until June 29, 2014, he will become the longest-serving U.S. Senator in history, surpassing Robert Byrd of West Virgina, who died in 2010 at the age of 92.
Inouye is certainly aware of actuarial tables. At his age, he has outlived many of his colleagues.
This year alone, Inouye issued statements on the passing of former senators Warren Rudman (82), George McGovern (90) and Arlen Specter (82). Two of Inouye’s fellow World War II vets, former Sen. Bob Dole (89) and former President George H.W. Bush (88), have recently been hospitalized.
Hawaii’s other senator, Daniel Akaka, will retire in January. Inouye is just four days older than Akaka.
Asked about his health, Inouye downplayed any concerns.
“As you know, the whole world seems to know that I received a 3-inch wound on my head when I tripped in my bathroom,” he said, referring to his accident last month. “But falling down is not an uncommon thing. I don’t suppose you fall down?”
Inouye has also done his own math, explaining that he would be 98 in 2022, when his 10th term would expire.
He continues to keep up a hectic work schedule that includes a lot of traveling.
Inouye’s most recent filing with the Federal Election Commission shows his campaign had $265,000 in cash on hand — not a whole lot, given that Senate races run in the millions of dollars. But then, Inouye has never had a close election, and he’s not on the ballot for another four years anyway.
Abercrombie was first elected to office in 1974, the year Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. With barely an interruption, he has been in office ever since, including two decades as a congressman.
Elected governor by a landslide in 2010, Abercrombie has had an uneven two years in office, the first year rougher than the second, when he was less combative and scored a number of solid legislative victories.
The governor’s administration has also experienced high turnover, and public opinion polls have ranked him below 50 percent in popularity.
The governor appears to be entering campaign mode, as suggested by two recent developments: he’s taking a more conciliatory approach regarding the controversial Public Land Development Corporation and he’s taking the lead in reforming the state’s troubled election process.
Hawaii governors are hard to unseat, the lone exception being Republican Bill Quinn back in 1962. A primary challenge by his lieutenant governor, Jimmy Kealoha, was thought by some to have hurt Quinn, who lost the general election to Democrat Jack Burns.
Unlike Sen. Inouye, Gov. Abercrombie is not universally loved by his party. There are factions — labor unions, environmentalists — that have not been pleased with his governorship, and some would like to see someone else heading the ticket in 2014.
But Abercrombie, who has never lost a re-election bid, is a fighter who would not wilt from a primary challenge.
Asked about a possible primary challenge, Abercrombie dismissed the talk as part of the blogosphere — Facebook, Twitter and the like.
“With that kind of instant communication, that kind of speculation is a lot easier to get out there,” he said. “Mostly, it creates drama. And one thing I’ve learned for sure, on this side of the desk, as opposed to the legislative side, it’s amplified. But I take the long view. Today’s opposition is tomorrow’s partner.”
The governor was also asked about his health. He said he is having an operation on his shoulder Wednesday, but aside from sinus problems when flying and dealing with a touch of vertigo, Abercromie said he is in strong health.
“All my tests — my cholesterol, my triglycerides — just couldn’t be better,” he said, adding: “In terms of my energy and physical health, it’s excellent. And my physiological heath couldn’t be better.”
“I’m in better condition and better health today at 74 then I was at 47.”
Still, despite assurances by Abercrombie and Inouye that they’re in good health and sticking around, some Democrats are looking ahead to new leadership even though they’re not united on who that might be. But given the realities of running major statewide campaigns, Democrats don’t want to be left scrambling for strong candidates at the last minute.
If for some reason Abercrombie did not complete his term, he would be succeeded in office by Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz.
If Abercrombie chose not to run for re-election, Schatz would be a likely frontrunner. He is a former legislator and party chairman.
But being a sitting lieutenant governor is no lock on getting the top job, and other candidates for governor would certainly emerge. Among those names that come up the most in discussion among Democrats is that of U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, a former state Senate president and labor attorney.
Hanabusa, the theory goes, could decide that she’s tired of toiling in a Republican-controlled House and wants to come back home. A contested primary did not hurt Democrats when Abercrombie faced Mufi Hannemann for governor in 2010 and U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono fended off former Rep. Ed Case for Senate in 2012.
But Hanabusa’s departure from the House would leave open the Hawaii First Congressional District seat. While a number of other Democrats would likely make a bid, so would several Republicans (though perhaps not Charles Djou, who has lost on his last two tries).
What about Linda Lingle? The former governor got stomped by Hirono in this year’s Senate race, and a House seat is of lesser stature than a Senate seat. But it’s a possibility.
There are others who may believe they would make a great governor, but running a statewide campaign is expensive and difficult and far different than running for the Legislature or county council. That dramatically narrows the field.
County mayors have a better chance; for example, the Big Island’s Billy Kenoi is seen as an up-and-comer. Then again, Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi ran four times for governor and lost.
Hanabusa, 60, may opt to wait until Inouye leaves office and then run for his seat. Again, the race would be no lock, and other Democrat contenders would emerge — perhaps Kenoi, who once interned for Inouye (but who also barely held off his predecessor Harry Kim on Nov. 6). And Lingle or Djou might fair better in an election year when Barack Obama is not on the ballot.
Soon-to-be-former Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle is another prospect, except it’s not clear which party he belongs in.
If for some reason Inouye did not complete his current term, Hawaii’s governor would select a replacement from a list submitted by the Democratic Party of Hawaii. The replacement would serve until the next election cycle.
Filling Inouye’s shoes would be a delicate matter; there simply isn’t anyone in Hawaii of his stature. Still, the speculation goes, there are several scenarios.
Two, the governor could submit a list that includes some of the same names mentioned as possible governors, namely, Hanabusa and Schatz. The party and governor might also submit the name of Case, but that would upset some Democrats and be seen as disrespecting Inouye, who is still burned about Case’s run against Akaka in 2006.
A problem with this scenario is that it’s not known who would be governor when Inouye might hypothetically leave office. Another problem is that Hawaii Democrats, though hugely successful at the ballot box in 2012, are torn internally. Asking the State Central Committee to agree on a replacement list could be challenging.
One well-known Democrat whose name does not come up in discussions for who might be the next governor or senator is Mufi Hannemann. His party credentials have always been in doubt and, besides, he got creamed in the 2010 governor’s race and lost all three of his bids for Congress.
Lastly, there is the dark horse theory — the emergence of an unlikely candidate who upsets the political mango cart. That’s not unheard of, either; Tulsi Gabbard‘s surprise congressional victory this year is such an example.