‘Nobody Gets To Run A State For 50 Years Anymore’: Hawaii Political Life After Dan Inouye

Ten years after the political giant's death, power is more fragmented — but politics has become more inclusive.

WASHINGTON — For more than 10 years, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz has kept a large, wood-framed mirror in his office lobby.

It stands more than 7 feet tall by 4 feet wide and is the last physical vestige of his predecessor, U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, who died in 2012 at age 88. Occasionally, it’s draped in maile lei, a symbol of respect and status once reserved for Hawaiian royalty.

But for Schatz that’s often where the sentiment ends.

He tries not to think too deeply about the fact that he occupies the same office as the man he was appointed to replace or the notion that he quite literally walks in his footsteps when traversing the Capitol hallways.

He also doesn’t dwell on the idea that Inouye didn’t choose him to succeed him in office, and that he instead preferred former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.

“The mirror was here when I got here,” Schatz said. “It was just too heavy to move.”

The weight of Inouye’s legacy is not as much of a burden as it was when Schatz first arrived in the Senate. But like the mirror, it’s impossible to ignore even today — 10 years after his death.

Senator Dan Inouye exhibit at the Inouye International Airport HNL.
An exhibit is dedicated to U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye at the Honolulu airport, which was named after the late senator when he died. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018)

For more than a generation, Inouye was the dominant figure in Hawaii politics. He was the titular head of the Democratic Party and was believed to wield tremendous influence when it came to picking winners and losers in local elections.

Much of his power came from his ability to control the federal purse strings.

He’s credited, among other things, with deepening the military’s footprint in the islands, expanding federal funding opportunities for Native Hawaiian health care and education and setting the course for Honolulu rail.

There are many who consider him the founding father of modern-day Hawaii.

His absence has left a power void that has yet to be filled. And the political landscape, both in Washington and Hawaii, has changed in ways that make it doubtful anyone ever will.

Inouye’s death opened the door to new political players, beginning with Schatz and most recently with Hawaii Gov. Josh Green. And while he’s been gone a decade, Hawaii is still very much adjusting to a life without Inouye, especially as special interests continue to jockey for position.

Even Schatz, who knows he can’t escape comparisons to his predecessor, understands that things are different now. Consolidating power is more challenging than it once was and there seems to be little appetite for the same brand of paternalistic politics that existed when Inouye was at his peak.

“The world operates differently,” Schatz said. “Politics have changed. There’s globalization. The internet. Nobody gets to run an entire state for 50 years anymore.”

‘Dan Inouye Was Becoming Irrelevant’

There’s little doubt that Inouye’s death combined with Schatz’s appointment marked a turning point for the islands. Nobody recognized this more than former Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie, whose job it was to pick Inouye’s replacement.

When alive, Inouye could hand out blessings and curses. For many candidates running for office, it was almost a prerequisite to try to secure his endorsement even if it just meant putting his face on a campaign mailer.

“Inouye’s approval had the same weight as a ton of money,” Abercrombie said. “There’s no such power anymore, and there’s not even the idea that such power still exists.”

Inouye’s influence was already waning before he died, Abercrombie said, an aging monarch in a world that was rapidly evolving.

“The political reality was that there was a generational shift happening,” Abercrombie said.

Governor Neil Abercrombie calls for Rep Tulsi Gabbard to resign.
Former Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie worked with Inouye for 20 years in Congress and was ultimately responsible for picking his replacement after he died. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

Washington was changing all around Inouye. Political polarization was making it increasingly difficult to work across the aisle and many of his closest allies, including Republican Sens. Ted Stevens of Alaska and Bob Dole of Kansas were no longer in office.

Even his fellow Hawaii senator, Daniel Akaka, who had served alongside him for nearly 23 years, was in the twilight of his career.

Pork-barrel politics was also falling out of fashion. Inouye, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee from 2009 to 2012, considered himself the king of earmarks, and often boasted openly of his ability to shovel money to special projects in Hawaii. But in 2011, Congress agreed to ban the practice altogether after a series of corruption scandals led to the imprisonment of several lawmakers and lobbyists.

The issues confronting Hawaii were rapidly becoming more complex, Abercrombie said. Bringing home the bacon was important, but the state was facing its own existential crises from rising homelessness and climate change to the over-saturation of tourists making life for locals more difficult.

“To a certain degree, Dan Inouye was becoming irrelevant,” Abercrombie said. “His style of politics and the world in which his position allowed him to have great power and authority was disappearing, and it was disappearing in Hawaii too.”

The trends that caused Inouye’s influence to wane in his lifetime have only gotten stronger.

“To be honest, I don’t think Inouye would enjoy the Senate of today.”
Jennifer Duffy, political analyst

Individual lawmakers, including committee chairs, are getting weaker as House and Senate leaders increasingly set the political agenda and capitulate more to the desires of the executive branch.

And while earmarks have returned, there are strings attached to increase transparency and cut down on the appearance of impropriety, for instance, by requiring lawmakers to disclose on their websites whether they or their family members have any connections to the entities receiving money.

Jennifer Duffy is a former analyst with Cook Political Report who had a close-up view of Inouye’s operations when she worked as a lobbyist with one of the senator’s closest friends and advisers, Henry Guigni, who died in 2005.

Duffy said Inouye relished his authority in Congress so much so that she often thought of him as the “King of the Hill.”

“To be honest, I don’t think Inouye would enjoy the Senate of today,” she said. “The power just isn’t there anymore.”

When Inouye was alive, he was one of the most respected members of Congress. Whether he would be held in the same regard in the present political environment is an open question, Duffy said, especially as voters become more cynical and politicians are no longer placed on pedestals as they once were.

“I just don’t think that reverence exists anymore,” she said.

Former state Rep. Kaniela Ing was among those who spoke out about Inouye’s alleged sexual misconduct after he died. 

This became apparent in 2018 during the height of the #MeToo movement.

Inouye had been dead for more than five years. Yet a state lawmaker who was running for Congress publicly criticized the state’s decision to name the Honolulu International Airport after Inouye, whom he described in a tweet as an “alleged serial rapist.”

The criticism stemmed from allegations that surfaced during Inouye’s 1992 bid for reelection in which he was accused by his longtime hairdresser of sexual assault.

Nine other women came forward with their own stories of alleged sexual misconduct, but their concerns went largely ignored. Inouye had vehemently denied any wrongdoing and many public figures, including business leaders and elected officials, were afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation.

Although the 1992 election would become the closest in Inouye’s career, he still beat his Republican opponent by nearly 30 points.

Amy Agbayani, an immigrant rights advocate and emeritus vice chancellor of student diversity and equity at the University of Hawaii Manoa, said the fact that Inouye weathered that storm is both a reflection of the time and his stature in the community.

“I think he would have been smashed if he were still present today,” Agbayani said. “But at the time he was a leader and people didn’t focus on things like that. We just focused on whether or not Hawaii got the resources we needed.”

How Do You Replace Irreplaceable?

It can be hard to find any one person in Hawaii who wields the same power.

“If you have to look real hard to see who the political kingpins are they probably aren’t there,” said Neal Milner, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii Manoa. “There’s nobody anywhere close to him that was such a dominant or charismatic figure.”

What made Inouye so powerful was his ability to control the levers of the so-called Democratic machine, which included the party itself, organized labor and big business.

Over time the strength and influence of these individual institutions has evolved and, in some cases, waned as they’ve become increasingly disjointed and, in certain respects, less relevant to political success.

The political machine as Inouye knew it was already being supplanted before he died.

The 2012 Honolulu mayoral race brought new, more sophisticated tactics to Hawaii that set the political stage for the islands today. A small, but mighty group of special interests, many of which are not accountable to voters, spends millions of dollars trying to influence races up and down the ballot.

Pacific Resource Partnership, which has its offices at 1100 Alakea in downtown Honolulu, is a top political spender. (PF Bentley/Civil Beat/2014) PF Bentley/Civil Beat/2014

At the top of the list is the Pacific Resource Partnership, which represents the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters — the largest construction union in the state — and more than 240 local contractors.

Over the past decade, PRP and its affiliated super PACs have spent more than $10 million on political advertising, according to data from the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission.

That’s nearly six-fold what Green spent on advertising during his entire run for governor last year.

Other top spenders in Hawaii in recent years have included super PACs with ties to major agricultural chemical companies and the Hawaii Government Employees Association, which with nearly 37,000 members is the state’s largest public employee union.

While Inouye was still a major player in the 2012 elections, Tyler Dos Santos-Tam, a Honolulu City Council member and former chair of the Hawaii Democratic Party, said it was clear shortly before his passing that the ground underneath his feet was shifting.

“The world around them changed,” Dos Santos-Tam said. “Dan Inouye was successful because obviously he himself was extremely talented and gregarious and possessed incredible charm, but he was also a product of his time.”

The Democratic Party is not the revolutionary force that it was in 1954 or in the early years of statehood when Inouye and others helped usurp GOP control of the islands. Dos Santos-Tam says the party apparatus has become less cohesive and consequential, especially after Inouye died.

A lack of meaningful Republican opposition meant there was no longer a common enemy to unify Democrats. Instead, they began fighting amongst themselves, one of the reasons most races for public office in Hawaii effectively end after the August primary.

The GOP has not held a majority in the Legislature since before statehood and the last Republican to hold statewide office was Linda Lingle, who won back-to-back terms as governor after a series of corruption scandals involving high-profile Democrats.

Since 2000 the average margin of victory for Democrats competing for federal office or the governorship in general elections has been 32%, and that’s including both of Lingle’s wins.

Dos Santos-Tam said Inouye had the respect and stature within the party to bring the various factions together. Today, there doesn’t seem to be anyone who has that unifying voice.

“In the post-Inouye era, the state of the Democratic Party as the state’s dominant political machine, however creaky it may be, is still unsettled.”
Tyler Dos Santos-Tam, Honolulu City Council

The internet and social media make it easier for politicians to operate outside the traditional party structure, whether it’s organizing a campaign or raising money. That means the loudest voices, sometimes, are the ones that get heard.

The party platform is often ignored, particularly at the Hawaii Legislature, where certain lawmakers, especially those viewed as the most powerful, pursue their own political agendas.

Take, for instance, the party’s 2019 legislative priorities. Near the top of the list were an increase to the state’s minimum wage, legalizing recreational cannabis and establishing a new collective bargaining unit for graduate students who teach at the University of Hawaii. Not a single one of these bills passed that year despite the fact that nearly the entire Legislature was made up of Democrats.

Dos Santos-Tam said it’s clear that the party is becoming less effective at the State Capitol and that party activists and legislators are “not speaking the same language.”

“In the post-Inouye era, the state of the Democratic Party as the state’s dominant political machine, however creaky it may be, is still unsettled,” he said. “It’s very difficult to herd all the cats now.”

The same could be said for business and organized labor.

Capitol Rotunda.
The Hawaii Democratic Party has become less effective at the State Capitol despite nearly every office being held by a Democrat. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

The end of the Big Five sugar oligarchy combined with the continued globalization of Hawaii’s economy – which includes investment from outside private equity firms – have decentralized power within the business community and shifted control of certain companies off island.

Labor is still strong in the islands, and the decreases in membership have not been as drastic in Hawaii as in other parts of the country. But like business, the labor movement has become fragmented, especially the longer Democrats have remained in power.

There’s no longer a unified voice representing a large share of Hawaii workers in the same way as when there was a suffering plantation proletariat, which before statehood was represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Instead, the focus of organized labor has narrowed to specific constituencies, such as government workers or union carpenters.

Eric Gill, the financial secretary-treasurer for Unite Here Local 5, which represents hospitality and health care workers, said the way unions operated in Hawaii has changed in the years since Inouye’s death.

When Inouye was alive, he said, some of the unions became complacent because they knew they had a strong advocate in the senator. As a result, he said, those unions didn’t invest as much time or effort into organizing their members to make sure they voted in local elections.

After Inouye died, Gill said, they needed to play catch up, which is one of the reasons that certain unions have spent more money on political advertising.

The other was the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United that opened the door to unlimited outside spending on elections.

“Unions in Hawaii had a fairly long period of influence in politics, but when that wanes it takes time for unions to realize what they need to do to amend their operations and programs to mobilize their true political power, which is their members,” Gill said. “Unions need to prove that they can move votes and there are two ways to do that. Get your members to vote together in the same way in an election. The other is to spend a lot of money on media.”

How Hawaii’s Top Elected Officials Have Changed Over A Generation


Scroll Left To View The Full Chart » »

Year 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023
Inouye Inouye Inouye Inouye Inouye Inouye Inouye Inouye Inouye Inouye Inouye Inouye Inouye Inouye Inouye Inouye Inouye Inouye Inouye Inouye
Schatz Schatz Schatz Schatz Schatz Schatz Schatz Schatz Schatz Schatz
More InfoFirst elected in 1962
More InfoDec. 17: Inouye dies
Dec. 26: Schatz is appointed
More InfoAug. 9: Schatz beats Hanabusa
in Democratic primary
Akaka Akaka Akaka Akaka Akaka Akaka Akaka Akaka Akaka Akaka Akaka Akaka Akaka Akaka Akaka Akaka Akaka Akaka Akaka Akaka Akaka
Hirono Hirono Hirono Hirono Hirono Hirono Hirono Hirono Hirono
More InfoSep. 23: Akaka beats Case in primary
Nov. 7: Akaka wins election
CD 1
Abercrombie Abercrombie Abercrombie Abercrombie Abercrombie Abercrombie Abercrombie Abercrombie Abercrombie Abercrombie Abercrombie Abercrombie Abercrombie Abercrombie Abercrombie Abercrombie Abercrombie Abercrombie
Hanabusa Hanabusa Hanabusa Hanabusa
Hanabusa Hanabusa
Case Case Case
More InfoFeb. 28: Abercrombie resigns
May 22: Djou wins special election
Nov. 2: Hanabusa beats Djou in general election
More InfoJuly: Takai dies
Nov. 8: Hanabusa wins special election
and general election
CD 2
Mink Mink Mink Mink Mink Mink Mink Mink Mink Mink
Case Case Case
Hirono Hirono Hirono Hirono Hirono Hirono
Gabbard Gabbard Gabbard Gabbard Gabbard Gabbard Gabbard
More InfoSep. 28: Mink Dies
Nov. 30: Ed Case wins special election
More InfoSep. 23: Hirono beats Hanabusa
and Schatz in the primary
Nov. 7: Hirono wins election
More InfoJan. 24: Gabbard announces campaign
for president
Waihee Waihee
Cayetano Cayetano Cayetano Cayetano Cayetano Cayetano Cayetano
Lingle Lingle Lingle Lingle Lingle Lingle Lingle
Abercrombie Abercrombie Abercrombie
Ige Ige Ige Ige Ige Ige Ige
More InfoAug. 9: Ige beats Abercrombie
Nov. 4: Ige is elected
Lt. Gov
Cayetano Cayetano
Hirono Hirono Hirono Hirono Hirono Hirono Hirono
Aiona Aiona Aiona Aiona Aiona Aiona Aiona
Tsutsui Tsutsui Tsutsui Tsutsui Tsutsui
Green Green Green
More InfoDec. 26: Schatz leaves for U.S. Senate
Dec. 27: Tsutsui is appointed
More InfoNov. 4: Tsutsui is elected
More InfoJan. 1: Tsutsui resigns
Feb. 2: Doug Chin is appointed
Nov. 6: Green wins election
Dec. 3: Green is sworn in

‘In Certain Circles, I’m The Godfather’

To many people in Hawaii, Dan Inouye was looked at as a fixer and a facilitator. But in the eyes of others, he and those around him could be overbearing.

Civil Beat interviewed nearly four dozen elected officials, political insiders, academics and business executives to find out who or what has replaced him as the gravitational center of island politics in the 10 years since he died.

Many of them requested anonymity so that they could speak freely, not just about the late senator, but current political leaders.

While the interviews covered a wide range of topics, some steeped in nostalgia for the past and others expressing relief for an end to the old guard, most agreed that Inouye’s brand of strong-armed leadership doesn’t seem to exist anymore.

If anything, Hawaii has experienced a diffusion of power — both political and economic — that can make it hard to identify who, if anyone, is in charge today.

U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye with former Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie in an undated photograph from the University of Hawaii archives. (UH Archive/Civil Beat/2023)

Eight years of Hawaii Gov. David Ige — which were marked by criticisms that he was too deliberative and indecisive — and the coronavirus pandemic brought into stark relief the idea that Hawaii was struggling to find someone who could take the reins in a crisis.

In 2020, Ige was openly quarreling with his lieutenant governor, Josh Green, while the mayors of all four counties took their own approaches to responding to the outbreak, which sometimes flouted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for containing the spread of the deadly virus.

The response had become so disorganized that members of Hawaii’s federal delegation, including then-U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, were openly criticizing their state counterparts.

At one point Schatz even described what he saw playing out as “objectively terrible.”

Chuck Freedman, a longtime political observer and former adviser to Hawaii Gov. John Waihee, said it’s in these moments of crisis that some seem to long for the past when Inouye was considered the first and last person to talk to get something done in the islands.

“We still hear it from time to time,” Freedman said. “‘If only Dan Inouye were still alive …’ I don’t know if that kind of mana exists anymore.”

“There were times when I enjoyed success because of my own skills and capabilities. But I suspect very often it had to do with the perception that I was part of Inouye’s coterie.”
Jeff Watanabe, retired Honolulu lawyer

Inouye knew he was powerful and he was unafraid to wield his influence to help his friends and political allies, whether it was securing federal contracts or winning them appointments to key positions in government.

A Center for Responsive Politics and Taxpayers for Common Sense analysis of Inouye’s earmarks from fiscal year 2010, for instance, found that he directed more than $99 million to his campaign contributors, which equaled about 25% of all set asides he secured that year, and was tops among other members of Congress.

As Inouye’s stature grew, he leaned into his persona as the preeminent authority of all things Hawaii.

“In certain circles,” Inouye told The Washington Post in a 2010 interview, “I’m the godfather.”

Walter Dods, the former president and CEO of First Hawaiian Bank, was among those who witnessed the senator’s power firsthand. Dods was a longtime campaign adviser to the senator and one of his closest confidants.

When Inouye’s former campaign manager, Donna Tanoue, was nominated to be chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Dods said it was Inouye who broke the Republican opposition to secure her appointment.

He also remembers hearing a phone call in which then-Vice President Dick Cheney called Inouye, who sat on the Appropriations Committee, asking for help approving his office’s budget. Inouye assured the vice president, “I’ll find a way to make it happen.”

As a former banker, Dods said, he understood the source of Inouye’s influence.

Walter Dods was long considered one of the most influential businessmen in Hawaii. (Eric Pape/Civil Beat/2016) Eric Pape/Civil Beat/2016

“It was the M-O-N-E-Y,” Dods said, spelling out each letter of the word. “He knew how to deliver for Hawaii.”

Of course, a significant part of Inouye’s mystique came from the idea that he was all powerful.

Jeff Watanabe is a Honolulu-based lawyer and a longtime friend of and adviser to Inouye. He said the perception of power can be just as effective as the reality. An Inouye endorsement didn’t always equal victory at the ballot box and his reach could sometimes be overstated.

“There were times when I enjoyed success because of my own skills and capabilities,” Watanabe said. “But I suspect very often it had to do with the perception that I was part of Inouye’s coterie.”

Before he retired, Watanabe was invited to serve on the boards of some of Hawaii’s most prominent businesses, including Alexander & Baldwin, American Savings Bank and Hawaiian Electric Co.

Although no one ever said so explicitly, he said he always assumed it was due to his relationship with Hawaii’s senior senator.

Does Hawaii Need A ‘Benevolent Dictator’?

In his two terms as governor, David Ige said he faced different challenges than those of earlier state leaders, including Inouye.

“With social media everyone has a megaphone and the dynamics of public opinion and the ability to organize people who are like-minded in opposition or support of a project is very different today than it was 10 years ago,” Ige said. “You have to engage with those who disagree with you differently.”

There were some in Hawaii who still look to Inouye as a “benevolent dictator,” someone who could use sheer force of will to make projects happens, whether it was saving the Pearl Harbor shipyard from closure or getting an exemption from environmental reviews to poke a hole through the Koolaus to build the H-3 interstate highway.

Without him, they say, it’s harder to see certain projects through because there’s no longer anyone powerful enough to pull the strings or lean on the opposition.

The Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea was one of the most commonly cited examples. If Inouye were alive, there are some who say the telescope would have been built by now despite vigorous and sustained protests from the Native Hawaiian community.

Ige says he’s not so sure.

Whenever he would book travel to the Big Island to meet with officials to discuss the telescope, he said the details of itinerary seemed to make it to protesters almost in real time and they were able to organize quickly and spread their message across the globe in a matter of minutes.

That same level of instantaneous public pressure just wasn’t around when Inouye was alive, he said.

“I do think that has changed dramatically the approach that you need to take for these mega projects,” Ige said. “It’s about building consensus and engaging all the stakeholders and really listening.”

Inouye, by contrast, was not shy about working aggressively behind the scenes to get what he wanted, and some of these efforts were still coming to light even after his death.

In 2016, the Hawaii Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case in which Inouye’s chief of staff, Jennifer Sabas, and others were accused of pressuring a state official to approve a permit to build a solar telescope on top of Haleakala despite protests from Native Hawaiians who say the land is sacred.

Although the high court upheld the decision to approve the permit, a number of justices expressed misgivings about the ways in which Inouye’s staff tried to hold sway over low-level workers.

“Would it be OK for the senator to call one of us up on the case?” asked Associate Justice Paula Nakayama. “Obviously, that’s not right, so how can it be proper for somebody to carry the senator’s message to those decision-makers.”

John Hart, a communications professor at Hawaii Pacific University, says it can be easy to get caught up in the nostalgia of life under Inouye given his stature and his many accomplishments. But he said it’s also important to acknowledge that the senator was a complicated figure whose tactics weren’t always appreciated, especially by those he deemed opponents.

“Some of this is rose-colored glasses,” Hart said. “We might be a little wistful about something we didn’t want, which is daddy telling us what to do.”

Here’s What Hawaii Leaders Say About Sen. Inouye’s Legacy


“It’s never lost on me because it’s the context in which I’m operating. But I wouldn’t say it looms over me like it may have in my first couple of years. Now I understand it as an obligation to do a good job.”

Brian Schatz
U.S. Senator (D)
(On being named Inouye’s successor)
1 - Jennifer

“Brian is doing great. He’s following a similar path and I think the senator would smile down on that because he knew how important it would be for people to step up and fill the void when he was gone.”

Jennifer Sabas
Former chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye
(Talking about current U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz)
2 - Coleen

“He’ll always be the measuring stick.”

Colleen Hanabusa
Former U.S. Representative (D)
3 - Andy

“I would have always preferred to have Sen. Inouye on my side, period.”

Andy Winer
Former chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and well-known Hawaii political operative who worked with Inouye and against him in various elections.
5 - Linda Chu Takayama

“Many folks when approached for fundraising were very forthcoming. I think many of them felt very obliged to keep somebody like that in Congress so that he could continue to deliver for Hawaii.”

Linda Chu Takayama
Former campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye
6 - Dods

“In the old days, truly, you could get five business guys, five labor guys and five political guys together in a room to solve a problem. That just doesn’t happen anymore. The power is more diffuse.”

Walter Dods
Former president and CEO of First Hawaiian Bank
7 - Abercrombie

“What you have now are political entrepreneurs. They understand that their elections don’t stand on whether Brian Schatz, Mazie Hirono, Ed Case or Jill Tokuda say no.”

Neil Abercrombie
Former Hawaii Governor
8 - Saiki

“There is no leadership at the top and that goes both for the Republicans and the Democrats.”

Pat Saiki
Former U.S. Representative (R)

Confronting the ‘Inouye Cliff’

When Inouye died, the grief was quickly followed by panic. Many local and state officials worried about where their money would come from.

Inouye’s departure, combined with the retirement of Akaka, meant Hawaii would be represented by two junior senators. The thinking was that it would take many years to bank enough seniority for either of them to come close to filling Inouye’s shoes, particularly when it came to securing federal dollars.

Hawaii is heavily dependent on federal money, and depending on the year, ranks within the top 10 per capita among the states in terms of reliance upon Washington.

Inouye’s prowess over the purse was legendary when he was alive, and his ability to secure earmarks was even more impressive.

In fiscal year 2010, Inouye sponsored 158 earmarks worth $392.4 million, which was enough to rank him second among all members of Congress. It was also nearly three times the average amount secured by his fellow Senate colleagues and almost 14 times the average obtained by lawmakers in the House.

Rear view of the UH Manoa East West Center with Japanese garden on left.
The East-West Center is among the institutions that U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye helped create through the use of earmarks. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

Kalbert Young, Hawaii’s finance director at the time, put it succinctly to state lawmakers during a budget hearing in January 2013. Congress was grappling with a looming “fiscal cliff” in which anticipated tax increases and deep spending cuts threatened to send the nation’s economy back into a recession.

Inouye’s death presented its own dangers to the Hawaii economy that for so long had depended on his largesse. The state, Young said, should be prepared to go over the “Inouye cliff.”

He pointed out that about one-fifth of the state’s budget — about $2 billion — consisted of federal funds, and that that figure didn’t include other line items, such as grants and contracts for nonprofits and local companies.

“The stuff Inouye was able to do is far beyond quantifying,” Young said.

Vassilis Syrmos was forced to confront the cliff head-on as the vice president for research and innovation at the University of Hawaii.

From fiscal years 2010 to 2012, the university brought in an average of approximately $337 million per year in federal research funds.

In 2013, the first year without Inouye, that figure dropped to $263 million in part due to a lapse of stimulus funding that had come to the university in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The university would not crack the $300 million mark again until fiscal year 2021.

“Senator Inouye’s ability to get these funds was unparalleled,” Syrmos said. His death presented a series of challenges.

Without Inouye, a number of programs began to suffer and some even faded away, including the Hawaii Underwater Research Laboratory at the Makai Pier in Waimanalo. For years, Inouye made funding HURL a priority despite the fact that its manned submersibles were becoming obsolete as remote technology improved.

Syrmos said the university had to learn how to become more competitive, which he described as a good thing.

“The difference now is that you have to make a case for why you need these monies,” Syrmos said. “It’s not just a phone call away.”

‘Politics Is Not Zero Sum’

What’s become abundantly clear over the past decade is that no one person or institution has filled the void left by Inouye. And politics has become more inclusive as a result.

One Democratic strategist described Inouye as a banyan tree, whose roots spread out far and wide. While the large canopy can provide a lot of shade, it also means “nothing grows underneath it.”

With Inouye gone, many of the politicians considered his proteges have languished on their own, including former Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi and former Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, both of whom worked for Inouye in his congressional office.

In 2016, Kenoi was indicted on felony theft charges after he was caught using his government-issued credit card to rack up hefty bar tabs, including at hostess clubs in Honolulu, and to make other authorized purchases.

He died of cancer in 2021 as he was trying to rehabilitate his career.

Caldwell, too, was never able to reach new heights. After winning the mayor’s race in 2012 he was reelected in 2016. He was considering a run for governor in 2022, but dropped out early after struggling to raise money.

During his last years as mayor his approval ratings sunk to all-time lows. He was also surrounded by controversy, including a ballooning budget for the city’s rail project and a public corruption scandal involving the former Honolulu police chief that resulted in at least two of his Cabinet members being indicted.

HART Board Chair Colleen Hanabusa during a board meeting held at Alii Place.
Former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa is now a volunteer member of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Colleen Hanabusa, who was Inouye’s chosen successor, has also struggled to remain relevant.

After Abercrombie appointed Schatz to take Inouye’s place, Hanabusa gave up her seat in the U.S. House to take on Schatz in the 2014 Democratic primary and ended up losing by less than 1%. Since then she’s lost more than she’s won.

After a brief return to Congress in 2016 to fill a seat vacated by U.S. Rep. Mark Takai, who died in office, Hanabusa would lose subsequent races for Hawaii governor and Honolulu mayor. She now serves as a volunteer board member on the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, the agency that oversees the city’s $10 billion rail project.

Many of those in Inouye’s inner circle have either retired or moved on, including Walter Dods and Jeff Watanabe.

Linda Chu Takayama, Inouye’s campaign manager, worked briefly as Ige’s chief of staff, but after his term expired in December she says she’s no longer working in politics.

The most influential member of Inouye’s orbit still active today is Jennifer Sabas, his former chief of staff. Sabas has been able to maintain her relevance in large part by continuing to hold on to the relationships she built while working for the late senator.

Sabas has spent the past 10 years maintaining Inouye’s legacy as the director of the Daniel K. Inouye Institute, but she also has her own consulting firm, Kaimana Hila, that works closely with the University of Hawaii and Hawaii Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs Council to ensure that federal money continues to flow.

She also still plays a role in politics, including on Hanabusa’s campaigns for Senate, governor and mayor. Most recently, she was a campaign adviser for U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda.

“The twists of fate are such that I would probably not be governor right now had certain politicians made different choices.”
Hawaii Gov. Josh Green

When Inouye was alive he presided over a culture of “wait-your-turn” politics, said Colin Moore, a political scientist and associate professor at UHERO. His death, he said, “opened up a lot of space” for others to run.

One example, Moore said, is U.S. Rep. Ed Case, who had a long-standing and well-documented rivalry with Inouye that began in 2006 when Case decided to run in the primary against then-U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka against Inouye’s wishes.

Inouye and his backers helped Akaka win that race, but the senior senator held onto the grudge for years to come.

In 2010, Case and Hanabusa both were running in a special election to replace Abercrombie in Congress. National Democrats, from the White House to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, all wanted Case to win. But Inouye insisted that Hanabusa take the seat. The standoff resulted in Case and Hanabusa splitting the vote and a Republican, Charles Djou, representing Hawaii in Congress for the first time in nearly two decades.

When asked about it later, Inouye was unapologetic, telling a Politico reporter that, “It’s a Hawaiian matter.”

Case tried again for federal office in 2012, but encountered the same results. He only returned to Washington in 2018 when he dropped into a crowded primary late in the contest and won a plurality of the votes. He’s been in Congress ever since.

“There wasn’t anyone to enforce that order anymore,” Moore said. “The power center had disappeared and there wasn’t an heir-apparent to take over.”

Inouye’s death resulted in a reshuffling of the political deck in Hawaii, especially at the top, and led to a lack of stability within the federal delegation where longevity and seniority matters most.

While U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono have remained steady for the past decade, the same cannot be said for their colleagues in the House.

There’s been more turnover in recent years than the historic norm for the islands, particularly in Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District. Previous officeholders Tulsi Gabbard and Kai Kahele pursued their own ambitions, with Gabbard running for president and Kahele launching a campaign for governor.

In the newly fluid environment, some have found opportunities that might not have existed if Inouye were still alive, including Gov. Josh Green.

Although Green followed a traditional path to the governorship — 14 years in the Legislature followed by four years as lieutenant governor — he did not fit the historical mold for the position.

He’s a Big Island doctor who was born in New York and grew up in Pittsburgh. In the Legislature, he was not considered the likeliest political riser, although he was a prodigious fundraiser. While he was the chairman of the Senate Health Committee, that was due more to his background as a doctor than his political clout.

He considers Inouye’s death and Abercrombie’s decision to appoint Schatz over Hanabusa as a key inflection point, not just for him, but for Hawaii as a whole.

“The twists of fate are such that I would probably not be governor right now had certain politicians made different choices,” Green said.

Inouye was a prolific fundraiser when he was alive and was generous when it came to handing out money to state and national parties.

In the 2010 election cycle, for example, Inouye donated more than $625,000 to the Democratic Party’s House and Senate campaign committees to help retain control of the Congress, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

That same year he donated more than $208,000 to the Democratic Party of Hawaii.

No other member of Hawaii’s federal delegation comes even close.

Senator Brian Schatz listens during a field hearing held at the East West Center Auditorium.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, who has replaced Inouye as Hawaii’s senior senator, says he’s followed his predecessor’s playbook, but has “trimmed the sails.” (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Schatz, the top donor in the delegation, between 2019 and 2022, gave $68,000 to the local party through both his campaign committee and leadership PAC. Hirono, by comparison, has donated around $23,000.

Many in Hawaii look to Schatz as being the closest iteration of Inouye.

More than anyone else, Schatz has the ability to build up seniority and extend his clout into the islands.

Because he’s in Congress, Schatz doesn’t face term limits. When he was appointed he was 40 years old, just one year older than Inouye when he won his first term in the U.S. Senate in 1962.

He’s also modeled parts of his career on those of his predecessor, including securing a coveted seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee and taking over the chairmanship of the Indian Affairs Committee.

When he ran for reelection in 2022, Schatz, like Inouye, boasted of his ability to secure federal money for the islands, which he considers one of his primary responsibilities as a federal lawmaker from Hawaii. He also won by a large margin, trouncing his GOP opponent, former state Rep. Bob McDermott, by 40 percentage points.

But when Schatz reflects on the similarities, he’s careful to point out the distinctions, saying he’s “trimmed the sails.”

When it comes to earmarks, he’d rather spread the money around to a wide range of nonprofits than a handful of high dollar projects that will go to military contractors.

He also steps gingerly when wading into local politics. While he’s advised various candidates over the years, including Josh Green and Kai Kahele, Schatz said he chooses his public support carefully.

His only overt endorsement of a major political candidate in a competitive race was when he openly backed his former campaign treasurer Keith Amemiya for Honolulu mayor in 2020. Amemiya survived the primary but lost in the general election to Rick Blangiardi by nearly 20 percentage points.

“The one thing that I’ve tried my best to do is reject the idea that there’s a political in group and a political out group,” Schatz said. “For whatever reason that has been the assumption in Hawaii politics for a long time. Politics is not zero sum and it’s possible for all of us to succeed together. Your victory can also be mine.”

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