As U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye lay dying in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center last December, his two closest confidants were given a somber task: Deliver one final letter to Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie.
Walter Dods and Jeff Watanabe were Inouye’s personal emissaries, a role that highlights their stature in the late senator’s eyes.
They were also among his most influential supporters. Dods was the senator’s long-time campaign manager and the former CEO of First Hawaiian Bank, and Watanabe was the retired founder of one of Honolulu’s most powerful law firms.
The tandem worked to keep the senator in office and ultimately to help build up his legacy.
But the contents of that letter have since put his friends — as well as other Hawaii Democrats — in an awkward position.
Fast forward to the 2014 special election, which is set to be a title bout: Schatz versus Hanabusa.
Rarely has a political primary felt so much like the main event. But this one will test the loyalties of Inouye’s supporters, and it may well lead to personal tensions and even some soul-searching.
Many party members have voted for the two candidates in previous elections, and like them both. But now those same Democrats are being forced to choose, something akin to a parent picking which of their two children they love more.
“They’re both friends, I like them both,” Watanabe said. “I wish they weren’t running against one another.”
Many others share Watanabe’s view, saying Hanabusa and Schatz are both capable Democrats who could do well in Washington D.C. The problem is that the loser will no longer have a job inside the Beltway and will have wait to take another stab at higher office.
There’s also concern that an epic campaign battle could taint the candidates’ reputations, as well as create deeper rifts inside their party.
But Bart Dame, a co-chair of the Progressive Democrats of Hawaii, spoke of his party’s resilience after internal political combat.
While he said he would prefer Schatz and Hanabusa to run for separate offices, he argued that contested primaries strengthen the party and are good for the electorate because they give voters more choice.
“I don’t think this will be bad for the party,” Dame said, adding that other stresses within the party have the potential to test it more than this race.
One of those is a recent complaint filed by the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus of the Democratic Party of Hawaii against Democratic state legislators who tried to pass bills that defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. This went against the Democratic Party of Hawaii’s platform, which supports gay marriage.
There’s also disagreement about a lawsuit that aims to change Hawaii’s open primary system so that only registered Democrats or Republicans can vote in their party’s primary. It is an issue that divides Democrats.
Dame highlighted the 2008 presidential primary, between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, when the top Democratic candidates were locked in a heated campaign that sparked rifts within the party, before unifying behind the eventual Democratic candidate.
This happens in local races too, Dame added, noting that the party holds a “unity breakfast” after primary elections to get candidates to come together. “A lot of us actually like each other,” he said. “We’ve been through it enough that we don’t hold grudges.”
This might be true. But there are painful moments in the heat of some campaigns that can leave deep wounds.
Take former Democratic Congressman Ed Case. When he ran against former Sen. Daniel K. Akaka in 2006, many influential people felt he wasn’t awaiting his turn. How dare he challenge someone as revered as Akaka?
Case got creamed — and he also didn’t attend the unity breakfast afterward. (That’s another no-no in Hawaii politics.)
Republican Party Chair David Chang said that without Inouye the Democratic Party has lost its unifying voice. This leaves Inouye’s people to “duke it out” with Abercrombie’s, he said.
While it is easy to think that Republicans might relish possible turmoil among Democrats, state Sen. Sam Slom — the only Republican in the Senate — made a little joke to say that’s not the case.
“I take my relish on a Costco hot dog,” Slom said. “The Democrats have a long history of running good candidates against each other and giving their voters a choice, and I think that’s to be commended.”
He wishes the Republican Party would do the same.
This doesn’t mean Democrats aren’t feeling torn. Dante Carpenter, the chair of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, said he has cast votes for both Hanabusa and Schatz in previous elections.
He chose Hanabusa for Congress and supported Schatz for lieutenant governor.
But this time, he has just one vote to give.
“Does it put us in an uncomfortable position? You might say so,” Carpenter said.
“They both have an opportunity in the next year and a half to show me exactly what they can do … and we’ll see (who I choose) when the time comes.”
So, what are members of the Democratic establishment supposed to do between now and the 2014 election? Is there any way to soften the blow when both candidates are your “friends”?
Watanabe says that he has the answer: “You send them both checks.”