Let’s talk about “the letter.”
Appoint U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa to my seat, Inouye wrote. “I hope you will grant me my last wish.”
While this immediately shot Hanabusa to the top of the succession list, it also put Abercrombie in a tough spot.
How could the governor not grant the dying wish of Hawaii’s most revered statesman? And if he doesn’t, what would be the political consequences?
Hawaii has sent only five people to the U.S. Senate. Mazie Hirono will be the sixth, and Hawaii Democrats will send recommendations to Abercrombie for the seventh.
A special meeting — moved up from Friday — is scheduled for Wednesday at party headquarters, and we may have a new senator even before Hirono is sworn in Jan. 3. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who spoke at Inouye’s Punchbowl Cemetery service Sunday, has urged Abercrombie to decide quickly so Reid has all the votes he can get on any “fiscal cliff” legislation.
“It’s a matter of national importance,” Party Chairman Dante Carpenter told Civil Beat Saturday at Inouye’s Capitol Rotunda service.
That it is, but Inouye’s letter is politically charged. The fact that he wrote it suggests he worried Abercrombie isn’t keen on Hanabusa.
It also speaks to the gravitas of the situation. There’s a strong likelihood that whomever Abercrombie picks will be in that seat for a long time.
Inouye wanted continuity and made sure everyone knew where he stood.
“While I understand that selecting someone to serve out the remainder of my term is fully your responsibility, I respectfully request that U.S. Representative Colleen Hanabusa succeed me, and continue the work, together with Mazie, on behalf of Hawaii in the U.S. Senate,” he wrote on his official letterhead. “Colleen possesses the intellect, presence and legislative skill to succeed in the Senate. I have no doubt that she will represent Hawaii with the same fervor and commitment that I brought to the Senate chamber since 1962.”
Abercrombie may not want that. With Inouye gone, the governor — already the titular head of his party — is the top man, and appointing Inouye’s replacement is his first, and perhaps most important, action in that capacity.
“The Senate seat will be the first battle for the future of the Democratic Party of Hawaii and what happens from there will have a ripple out effect in terms of the governor’s race, the (First Congressional District) race, etcetera, etcetera,” said John Hart, professor and chair of the Hawaii Pacific University Department of Communication.
“The king is dead. We were used to Inouye making a lot of decisions. And obviously in the past year his power to influence things diminished, but the factions that worked with him or influenced him are alive and well.”
On the day Inouye died, Dec. 17, Abercrombie revealed that the senator had sent him a letter. When asked what the letter said, Abercrombie said that “(Inouye) especially marked it personal.”
The senator’s staff released the letter to the media soon after, thereby making the deceased senator’s preference publicly known from Honolulu to Washington.
Still, just because Inouye said Hanabusa should succeed him doesn’t mean she’s the automatic replacement. Inouye’s shot across the bow hasn’t scared others from applying for the job. They include at least a half dozen credible candidates, including Hanabusa.
“Certainly people who are critical of this letter will say it’s one last attempt from beyond the grave to control the future of the Democratic Party,” Hart said. “There are also those who are critical of this letter who will say that the senator was trying to force the governor’s hand.”
Abercrombie is said by several close to him to prefer other candidates over Hanabusa. They include Blake Oshiro, his deputy chief of staff, Brian Schatz, his lieutenant governor — even Ed Case, with whom he served with in Congress. Case, 60, announced Sunday he was applying for the job.
Age may also be a consideration. Oshiro and Schatz are in their early 40s, meaning they could theoretically serve longer in the Senate and build up greater seniority. Hanabusa is 61 and Hirono is 65.
The most important component in all this may be Abercrombie’s independent streak.
HPU’s Hart said the governor is capable of marching to his own drum, and that he might not care about the political fallout of choosing someone other than Hanabusa — even with his re-election less than two years away.
“Can you make it any more dramatic than Inouye specifically saying (appointing Hanabusa) is a deathbed wish?” Hart said. “And on the other hand of the political drama, if Abercrombie wants to say there’s a new sheriff in town, there would be nothing more dramatic than denying the senator’s deathbed wish.”
Though the governor greatly respected Inouye, the two weren’t exactly best friends. The senator urged Mufi Hannemann to run for governor in 2010 rather than back Abercrombie, who likely chafed at the idea that he somehow get Inouye’s permission to run.
Political analyst and University of Hawaii political science professor emeritus Neal Milner said Inouye knew exactly what he was doing when sent the letter to Abercrombie. It was meant to put the governor on the spot.
“What’s pretty elegant about this is how straightforward this is,” Milner said. “It’s about as straightforward as it can be and it’s about as dramatic as it can be. It certainly does raise the ante.”
It had been assumed that Hanabusa would be Inouye’s successor when the senator eventually left office, and over the years it appeared the senator had taken a liking to the congresswoman, according to political experts. The two even had lunch just before he entered the hospital.
Milner said it’s also likely that when the senator looked around at his options that he saw a “thin bench” of replacement candidates.
“If you put yourself in his position and looked around to see who was qualified to take his position there’s not much to look at,” Milner said. “The pool gets narrowed very quickly if you look at it through the eyes of the senator. He’s not interested in pulling someone out of nowhere and giving him or her the seat. That just wouldn’t register with him.”
It’s also political maneuvering, something Inouye knew a lot about.
UH American Studies professor Robert Perkinson said it’s entirely appropriate for Inouye to express his ideas about who should replace him, but that the way he went about it could set bad precedent.
“Sen. Inouye was a giant in Hawaii politics and led this incredible life from war hero to senior statesman, and his opinion about succession should matter,” Perkinson said. “But we’re also a democracy, not a monarchy so we shouldn’t have someone who has been in office for decades choosing who should be next.”