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Inouye seat entails tough calculations

LAST UPDATED: 2:49 a.m. HST, Dec 23, 2012

The death last week of U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye was a seismic event in the political history of the state. As in an actual tectonic shift, Hawaii’s foundational strength will be put to the test.

Inouye’s name was frequently invoked by other lawmakers, even other members of the congressional delegation, as the state’s chief political resource. Newly elected U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono campaigned against her Republican rival, former Gov. Linda Lingle, pointing out the value of her partisan alliance with Inouye as being part of a “one-two punch.”

Now that the senior senator is gone, it all falls on Hirono, on two recent arrivals to the House of Representatives and on whomever Gov. Neil Abercrombie appoints to replace Inouye, to deliver what goods they can for Hawaii.

About that seniority issue: Tongues have been wagging about various schemes for minimizing the damage to Hawaii’s standing in the U.S. Capitol. According to one scenario, whether or not Abercrombie ultimately goes with Inouye’s pick and appoints U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, he could name the successor early and get her sworn in ahead of the other freshman senators coming to Capitol Hill. The apparent message here: Every little bit of seniority counts.

In the final analysis, though, such a maneuver reeks of gimmickry and probably wouldn’t make enough difference to be worthwhile, anyway. There simply is no getting away from the fact raised six years ago by former Congressman Ed Case who left his House seat to challenge U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka. Hawaii stood then on the brink of losing its seniority edge, Case said, and the only preventive solution would be to start early to rebuild it.

Whether or not one found Case’s challenge of Akaka unseemly, the point is we have arrived at the juncture he predicted. With Akaka’s imminent retirement, Hawaii goes from many years of seniority in the upper chamber to absolutely none. And with seniority key in winning chairmanships and even placement on important committees, that certainly leaves the 50th State in the backfield.

In the House, where there is more churn, Hawaii’s relative junior standing is less consequential, but it matters there, too. If Hanabusa does make the big leap to Senate after only two years in Congress, it will leave the House delegates as green as they come, too.

This means that all four delegates will be on the hot seat, taking a final exam in a course they’ve barely begun. During her re-election campaign, Hanabusa said she leaned on her skill at networking, honed during her years at the state Legislature and finally as state Senate president, to begin forging relationships and making deals to benefit her electorate. She probably never expected that she would need so soon to accelerate her use of those skills but, in whichever chamber she ends up, she will need to do just that. And this is where the rubber meets the road for freshman Rep.-elect Tulsi Gabbard and Hirono as well.

Less than a week after Inouye’s passing, the eulogizing and final strains of “Aloha Oe” are starting to fade, and the sound beginning to overtake them is the whispers of strategizers and the whirring of political wheels spinning. If Hawaii ends up with a vacancy in the U.S. House that needs filling through a special election, how will that play out? Will Republicans put up Charles Djou again, and hope for a replay of 2009, when he slipped past two Democratic contenders for a U.S. House seat to win a special election for the same U.S. House seat? Can the Democrats manage to put forward only one champion of their own, so the vote doesn’t get split again?

Or will Abercrombie try to avoid that whole scenario and appoint someone other than Hanabusa?

There certainly are willing candidates throwing hats into the ring.

The current realignment of political leadership is exceedingly important to the interests of everyone in the state, including myriad programs that now no longer can expect such a clear path to funding.

Policymakers will have to make budgetary plans with that reality clearly in mind.

However, it doesn’t diminish the critical nature of this change to make this observation: The political drama that lies immediately ahead will be fascinating to watch.

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