With the death Monday of Hawaii’s senior U.S. senator, Daniel K. Inouye, the responsibility to replace him falls to the man who served with him for 20 years in the U.S. Congress.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie will choose from a list of three candidates submitted by the Democratic Party of Hawaii.

The time frame is uncertain, but with the pressure of the impending “fiscal cliff” in Washington, D.C., and the swearing in of a new Congress on Jan. 3, an appointment could come quickly.

The challenge, however, as Civil Beat has reported, is that there are very few people in Hawaii considered qualified to take Inouye’s Senate seat.

The select few include U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, 61, who was just re-elected to her second term, and Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz, 40, who has been in office just two years.

Hanabusa is said to have been Inouye’s preferred candidate to take his place one day, and news reports following Inouye’s death said the senator informed Abercrombie that Hanabusa should get his job.

Hanabusa spokesman Richard Rapoza said the congresswoman’s office had no comment on any possible communication from Inouye to Abercrombie regarding succession.

“Right now, the most important thing is to mourn the passing of a hero and a champion of Hawaii and the nation and a great man,” he said. “Let’s focus on that today.”

The Appointment Process

Abercrombie may also choose someone who will serve two years and not run for re-election, such as former Govs. Ben Cayetano, 73, and John D. Waihee, 66.

Though Inouye’s last term, his ninth, does not expire until 2016, state law requires Senate elections to be held at the next election cycle should the occupant not complete their term.

That’s what happened when Sen. Spark Matsunaga died in April 1990 and Daniel Akaka was appointed to replace him a month later. Akaka then won the seat outright in the fall elections that year to serve the remaining four years of Matsunaga’s term.

The process for replacing a U.S. senator is spelled out in Hawaii Revised Statutes Chapter 17.

It requires that replacement candidates hail from the party of the departing senator, and that that party submit names to choose from.

The Democratic Party has its own bylaws to follow in selecting names to give to the governor.

Candidates must be in “good standing,” meaning that they have been members for at least six months prior “to either the date on which the event occurs that creates a vacancy during the term of the office or the public announcement of the office holder of his/her intent to vacate the office during the term.”

After the party’s State Central Committee chooses three names, the party chair — in this case, Dante Carpenter — must then transmit the names to the governor’s office within three business days after compiling the list.

“No candidate shall be recommended who does not meet all the qualifications for office set by law for candidates who file to run in an election for the vacant office,” the bylaws state. “If for any reason, the body most immediately affected by the vacancy is unable to fill the vacancy within the stated timeframe, the County Chairperson may recommend the names for an office within the County or the Party Chairperson may recommend the names for a statewide office.”

Big Shoes To Fill

Truly replacing Inouye is another matter altogether.

A national figure for half a century, the senator was, as Sen. Jay Rockefeller said in a statement just last week, “a giant of the Senate, a true American hero.”

Abercrombie, 74, does not have to submit the name of a new senator to a vote. As a former member of Congress, he probably knows better than most in Hawaii the demands of a congressional seat.

Abercrombie is expected to run for for re-election in 2014, and he would likely not want to make a selection that would upset many in his party — say, former U.S. Rep. Ed Case.

That would suggest Hanabusa and Schatz are frontrunners.

Civil Beat interviewed Hanabusa on Dec. 5, the day before Inouye was hospitalized, and asked her about any concerns in leadership transition should Inouye leave office.

“I just had a lunch with the senator and he seemed fine to me,” she said, adding, “I just can’t see Hawaii without Sen. Inouye, it’s not even part of something that I’m thinking about. I believe that the senator is so crucial to Hawaii’s stability. People have called him the next biggest economy that we have.”

Choosing Hanabusa, though, would lead to a special election to replace her in the Hawaii First Congressional District, possibly allowing a Republican like Linda Lingle or Charles Djou to win a winner-take-all open contest.

It is possible that Democrats could put Abercrombie’s name on the shortlist, too, allowing the governor to pick himself.

That was an option open to Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, who earlier this month elected instead to nominate U.S. Rep. Tim Scott to replace Sen. Jim DeMint, who unexpectedly resigned. All are Republicans.

Sometimes, a senator’s spouse is appointed to fill a term.

Irene Hirano, 64, is Inouye’s second wife and has often accompanied him in public since their marriage in 2008.

It is not clear whether Hirano, who has lived and worked in California, is a Hawaii resident or a member of the local Democratic Party, as is required to succeed the senator.

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