Ten days after the death of Dan Inouye, Hawaii has a new U.S. senator. And it’s not Colleen Hanabusa.
“I make this decision with full confidence that Brian’s appointment is in the best interest of the state of Hawaii and the nation,” Abercrombie said Wednesday afternoon in the executive chambers of the state Capitol.
Schatz said he was “humbled and honored” to serve as a U.S. senator and promised to run for re-election in 2014. He said no one could possibly fill Inouye’s shoes, “but together all of us can try to walk in his footsteps.”
In making the appointment, Abercrombie noted, “These are challenging times for Hawaii.” He was referring to the loss of Inouye who, he said, “gave a lifetime of selfless service to our country.”
But more challenging times await, especially in local politics, and it’s possible that Abercrombie may suffer down the road for his decision.
Hanabusa was on the senator shortlist along with Esther Kiaaina, a deputy director with the Department of Land and Natural Resources. As Inouye’s designated successor, Hanabusa was viewed by many pundits as the frontrunner.
In a statement released after the announcement, the congresswoman was respectful: “I fully respect the process and the governor’s right to appoint a successor.”
But some are already speculating whether Hanabusa will challenge Schatz in 2014 — or Abercrombie for governor. It’s not so fun being a minority in the House of Speaker John Boehner.
Schatz, 40, will also have seniority over Mazie Hirono, who will be sworn in Jan. 3 with 12 other newbie senators. His appointment may rankle Hirono, who defeated strong opponents in the Democratic primary and the general election. There were reports that Hirono lobbied to prevent her from becoming the junior senator.
Hirono ultimately took the high road, saying in a statement, “I look forward to partnering with Senator-appointee Brian Schatz, Representative Colleen Hanabusa and Representative-elect Tulsi Gabbard as Hawaii’s federal delegation.”
As for Gabbard, some questioned whether she was getting a little ahead of herself applying for Inouye’s seat before having served a day in Congress.
Most revealing of all was the following statement from Jennifer Sabas, Inouye’s chief of staff:
Senator Inouye conveyed his final wish to Governor Abercrombie. While we are very disappointed that it was not honored, it was the Governor’s decision to make. We wish Brian Schatz the best of luck.
Republicans are paying attention and are already sniffing for vulnerability among Democrats.
David Chang, chairman of the local GOP, said, “The Hawaii Republican Party would like to wish Brian Schatz well in his new role as Hawaii’s Senator, even though he lacks the legitimacy of an election and was selected counter to the final dying wish of Senator Inouye. … The extreme partisan politics of Hawaii Democrat Party serves as a reminder that a balanced two-party system is sorely needed.”
Inouye is now buried at Punchbowl, but the consequences of his death will probably be felt in many ways for decades to come.
In selecting his own lieutenant governor, Abercrombie had several good arguments to make and the political cover of his party’s State Central Committee.
There will be no special election to replace Hanabusa, something that cost Democrats when Abercrombie resigned in 2010 from Congress to run for governor, sending Republican Charles Djou to D.C. for about seven months.
(Per the Hawaii Constitution, Schatz’s appointment means that Shan Tsutsui, the state Senate president, can take the LG job if he wants. Tsutsui said he is talking over the idea with his family — they live on Maui. If he takes the job, Abercrombie would pick his replacement and Senate Democrats will pick a new leader.)
“A special election weighed on central committee members — you can ask them,” said Abercrombie.
In fact, several members of the State Central Committee told Civil Beat that that was major concern. Many of them posed for photos with Abercrombie after the Schatz announcement.
The governor cited other factors in not picking Hanabusa: Her relative seniority in the 435-member House (she was elected in 2010) and the fact that she sits on the House Armed Services Committee, which helps Hawaii because of its large military presence.
In fact, Hanabusa never had a lock on the Senate appointment, which may have led to Inouye writing a “last wish” letter to governor.
Another reason for going with Schatz: He is 21 years younger than Hanabusa and a quarter century younger than Hirono.
And though he didn’t say it, Abercrombie now has his own man in Washington.
Finally, the governor said the decision was “nothing preordained.” He said “everyone’s voice was heard” and “taken into account” in making the decision.
Schatz is also qualified for the job. Besides two years as lieutenant governor, he spent several terms in the state House of Representatives, chaired the local Democratic Party and played a top role in Obama’s 2008 Hawaii campaign.
Abercrombie used the words “intelligent, forceful, insightful, experienced and committed” to describe Schatz.
Schatz said his priorities would include “identifying and stabilizing” the federal funding stream to the islands, to be in close contact with U.S. Pacific Command, to advocate for Native Hawaiian federal recognition and to combat global warming — “the most urgent challenge of our generation.”
Schatz leaves for Washington, D.C., Wednesday evening, on Air Force One, as President Obama is scheduled to return to the nation’s capital after a short Christmas vacation in Kailua. Schatz will bring with him his parents, his wife and his two young children.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is expected to swear Schatz in Thursday afternoon, meaning that Schatz could be voting on “fiscal cliff” legislation this week. Large tax hikes and deep budget cuts are to take effect Jan. 1 unless Congress and the White House act.
“I will give every fiber of my being to doing a good job,” said Schatz.