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Two former Hawaii governors, a former chief justice and a former U.S. senator heartily and publicly endorsed Colleen Hanabusa for Senate Tuesday, arguing that leadership trumps Senate seniority.
The congresswoman is the person the late Daniel K. Inouye very much wanted to succeed him, and is in a competitive contest with the man Gov. Neil Abercrombie — Brian Schatz — appointed to take Inouye’s place following his death in December.
Inouye’s name was evoked frequently at the campaign event, which about 150 people attended at Bishop Museum.
In attendance at the Atherton Halau were political heavyweights like Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr., Big Isle Mayor Billy Kenoi, former Sen. Daniel Akaka, former Govs. George Ariyoshi and Ben Cayetano, retired Hawaii Chief Justice Ron Moon and retired banker Walter Dods.
OK, more shameless name-dropping: state Sens. Will Espero — said to be gearing up for a run for the seat Hanabusa is vacating — Michelle Kidani, Donovan Dela Cruz and Jill Tokuda; state Reps. Marcus Oshiro, Ryan Yamane, Jo Jordan, Sharon Har and Scott Nishimoto; former legislators Bob Nakata, Sam Aiona and Annelle Amaral; party photographer extraordinaire George Waialeale, Inouye’s longtime chief of staff Jennifer Sabas and Inouye’s widow, Irene Hirano Inouye and son Ken Inouye.
The parade of luminaries was intentional: to show that Hanabusa attracts a powerful following, and to persuade others to join the team.
While the Hanabusa-Schatz race has many Democrats torn about who to back — see A House Divided — Which Way Will Democrats in Hawaii Go? — it’s clear that many are already taking sides.
“We’re seeing a lot of history tonight,” said Dods, referring to the collected stars. “We have so many special people speaking to us.”
“She has made a great impression in the Congress of the United States,” Akaka told the crowd. “I have many friends on the House side, and I talk with them on how our folks are doing, and they tell me Colleen is doing a great job for Hawaii and expresses herself so well. … She is very what we call ‘Hawaiian-style.'”
Ariyoshi, who rarely takes sides in primaries, decided the 2014 Senate race was one of those times. He dismissed arguments that one or two years in the Senate amounts to real seniority.
“It does not mean anything,” he said, clearly taking a swipe at Schatz.
“It’s not about seniority, it’s about leadership,” said Cayetano, who observed that he earned a grudging respect of Hanabusa even though she sometimes worked against his agenda. “Compare the records. There really is no comparison.”
The event also demonstrated that it’s not just top Inouye acolytes, which Civil Beat has reported on — Can Inouye’s Ghost Take Down Sen. Brian Schatz? — that are backing Hanabusa.
Hanabusa also has the communications assistance of Elisa Yadao, who helped Akaka hold off Ed Case in 2006 and helped Hirono hold Case off again in 2012. Not to overstate it, but it’s obvious that a lot of female Democrats like having women represent Hawaii in D.C.
Hence the Bishop Museum event Tuesday, Hanabusa’s first large, high-profile campaign event since she announced her candidacy in early May.
It ain’t a local campaign without Hawaiian jams.
Hanabusa’s campaign event comes amid questions in some island circles as to whether Hanabusa should have stayed safely in her 1st Congressional District seat or challenged Abercrombie for governor. A Civil Beat poll released Tuesday shows that Abercrombie’s approval rating is stuck in the mid-40s — not exactly a ringing endorsement of his first term in office.
Schatz may have been appointed to his job, and Inouye may have been the most powerful figure in modern Hawaii history, the thinking goes, but Inouye is gone and Schatz is a sitting senator. Why bother to challenge him in the most blue of states?
Because Inouye thought Hanabusa was the best choice, said Dods.
“Some of my friends in the press try to point out that someone who left this Earth still wants to control politics,” he said. “How sick is that?”
Dods said Inouye wanted Hanabusa to take his job not to burnish his own legacy but because he wanted to help Hawaii’s people. The point was enforced by Hirano Inouye, who said her late husband told Hanabusa as much a few weeks before he died.
Hanabusa, who spoke last, accepts the responsibility.
“Why did it take so long to decide which race?” she said, referring to whether she would run against Schatz or Abercrombie. “It is because I wanted to be sure that, as honored as I was with Senator’s wish, that that was the best way to serve Hawaii.”
Meanwhile, the politicking continues in other arenas.
The two campaigns are already calling attention to polls they say shows their candidate ahead.
The dueling polls were released by the political camps after Civil Beat’s own poll story Monday showed Schatz with a tiny lead and a whole lot of undecided voters.
Yet another indication of the strength of Schatz and Hanabusa will come later this month when the latest federal fundraising reports are released.