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UPDATED 11 A.M.
One of Hawaii’s most powerful operatives is throwing her considerable political heft behind U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa’s bid for a slot in the Senate.
Jennifer Sabas, the longtime chief of staff for the late U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, told Civil Beat she will work for the campaign in Hanabusa’s race against U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz. Given Sabas’ profile, she is almost certain to play an influential role.
Inouye’s former deputy chief of staff and spokesman, Peter Boylan, has also signed on with the Hanabusa campaign.
Together Sabas and Boylan, who are working on the campaign pro bono, are hoping to bring the dying wish of their former boss to fruition.
Should Hanabusa defeat Schatz, she will owe her ascension largely to lingering affection for Inouye, the most powerful figure in the modern history. It would suggest that the late senator is so influential that he can win victories from beyond the grave.
But if Schatz prevails, it could signal the end of an era of a kingmaker in Hawaii politics, and the beginning of a less predictable period.
Since announcing her primary challenge to Schatz last month, Hanabusa has repeatedly invoked the senator’s name in her public statements.
But with Schatz securing support from an array of notable groups — particularly from Hawaii’s large pool of organized labor — the question is this: Can Hanabusa ride Inouye’s legacy well enough to unseat an incumbent senator?
“The senator continues to cast a shadow on Hawaii politics,” said John Hart, professor and chair of Hawaii Pacific University’s Department of Communication. “If anyone thought it would just evaporate when he passed from the Earth, that’s a very questionable assumption.”
Inouye may be dead, but his one-time supporters are still very much alive, Hart said. If they come together they will be “exceedingly formidable.”
Sabas worked for Inouye for 25 years, serving as his chief of staff starting in 1994. She implemented Inouye’s vision, but some political insiders described her as something of a backroom enforcer. Perhaps that is true, but she rarely stepped from behind the curtain.
And her hands-on involvement in the senator’s affairs put her in intimate contact with Hawaii’s political elites, many of whom could now lend their support to Hanabusa’s campaign as a sort of final favor to Inouye.
Today, Sabas works for Move Oahu Forward, a pro-rail consortium made up of some of the state’s most influential business and labor leaders.
Sabas doesn’t have an official title in Hanabusa’s campaign, and she said she’ll be working in much the same fashion as she was for the senator — behind the scenes.
Her plan is to rally as many of Inouye’s supporters as possible to win Hanabusa the seat that the senator said that he wanted her to have before he passed away. Both Inouye’s widow, Irene Hirano Inouye, and his son Ken from his first marriage have backed Hanabusa’s Senate bid.
“Once Irene announced her endorsement to carry out the senator’s last wish, I decided to step forward to be part of the Hanabusa campaign,” Sabas told Civil Beat. “We’re going to encourage the senator’s supporters to support Colleen Hanabusa as the most qualified candidate to take his place.”
“I’m honoring Dan’s last wish and putting my full support behind Colleen Hanabusa,” Hirano Inouye wrote. “I’m asking you to do the same and contribute to her campaign right now.”
While Sabas stays in Hawaii, Boylan will remain in Washington, D.C., where he works in government relations for Time Warner Cable. (Boylan stressed to Civil Beat that he is not a registered lobbyist).
Boylan, who served as Inouye’s spokesman, will serve as a campaign spokesman for Hanabusa. He is married to Ashley Nagaoka Boylan, Hanabusa’s D.C. press secretary.
Another longtime Inouye friend and political heavyweight who already supports Hanabusa is Walter Dods, a retired Honolulu banker. It was Dods and high-profile attorney Jeff Watanabe who hand-delivered Inouye’s “last wish” letter to Gov. Neil Abercrombie.
Dods, the Inouye family, former Gov. George Ariyoshi and other heavy hitters are scheduled to appear at a major campaign event July 2 at the Bishop Museum.
Melding the Hanabusa campaign with top Inouye operatives still might not be enough to elevate the congresswoman to the Senate.
Schatz has established a clear edge thanks to labor support, scoring a major coup last month when he received an early endorsement from the state’s largest union, the Hawaii Government Employees Association.
An early indicator may come when the next round of campaign fundraising reports is released in July.
If Hanabusa does pull out a win, Hart says Hawaii voters should expect a political free for all. Voting for Schatz can be looked at as voting for the status quo. Not only was he handpicked by a higher power — Abercrombie — but he’s also the incumbent, something that traditionally carries plenty of weight here. A vote for Schatz is a vote for normalcy.
A Hanabusa victory could convince U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard to challenge U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, Hart said. Gabbard’s aspirations for higher office are no secret. When Inouye died she too joined the field of possible replacements, along with Hanabusa and Schatz.
“The gloves are off, the rules are gone, and Uncle Dan is not here to give us his preferences,” Hart said. “You’re going to see more dog fights, and that’s why I think everyone will be watching this race closely.”
University of Hawaii professor emeritus Neal Milner is another well-known political commentator, who pays close attention to island politics.
He’s hesitant to say how much of an influence Inouye’s posthumous backing will have on the primary campaign, especially considering both candidates are Democrats in a deep blue state.
“It’s essential for Hanabusa to establish and keep the loyalty of the supporters of the late senator,” Milner said. “But the fact that people had very strong feelings for the senator will not necessarily translate in the voters booth.”
It also shouldn’t come as a surprise that Inouye’s people are supporting Hanabusa, Milner said, calling it a “duh” moment. It’s certainly not as big of a deal as Schatz getting the support of the HGEA, he said. The union, which has more than 40,000 members, could buy ads to bolster Schatz’s candidacy.
“Next to her husband, these guys are her most predictable supporters,” Milner said. “It would be a much bigger deal if they didn’t support her.”