The congresswoman was anointed by the senator in his last wish, but would have contended anyway
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 20, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 3:43 a.m. HST, Dec 21, 2012
Even without a letter from U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye stating his "last wish," U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa probably would be the most likely and best qualified candidate to replace the senator, political analysts say.
Inouye, 88, died Monday of breathing complications. In a letter delivered before his death to Gov. Neil Abercrombie — who by law will appoint a successor — Inouye asked that Hanabusa be chosen to fill his seat.
"Any way you look at it, especially from the logic of the Democratic Party, Colleen Hanabusa would've been in a strong position," said Neal Milner, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii. "If you create a scenario where the governor had to come up with three candidates for a Senate position that he could appoint to, it would be hard to believe that she wouldn't be in that top three anyway."
John Hart, chairman of the Department of Communication at Hawaii Pacific University, said the case for Hanabusa is stronger than just being among the likely top three choices.
"It's kind of unfortunate this story's being framed as she's going to get this job because of his deathbed wish," Hart said. "As dramatic as that is and as understandable as it is that he would do this in that last effort, it misses the point that she probably is the most obvious choice. She's been in D.C. She's intelligent. She's effective.
"She would make a good successor and even without that letter she would be the front-runner."
Abercrombie is required to appoint a successor from a list of three candidates submitted by the state Democratic Party. He has asked the party to deliver the list so an appointment can be made before the swearing-in of the next Congress.
The party's central committee plans to meet Dec. 28 to select the candidates. The application deadline for prospective candidates is Monday.
Whoever is chosen would serve until an election can be held in 2014 to fill the seat through the end of the term in 2016.
Hawaii Democratic Party Executive Director Debi Hartmann said the party will consider only people who apply.
A spokesman for Hanabusa — who represents the 1st Congressional District, covering urban Honolulu — confirmed that Hanabusa submitted her nomination packet Wednesday.
Other names mentioned as possible successors include Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz, who has not commented on the possibility, although a source said he also would apply.
If Schatz is appointed, state Senate President Shan Tsutsui (D, Waihee-Wailuku-Kahului) would be in line to succeed him as lieutenant governor. If Tsutsui declines, whoever is House speaker would be next.
A spokeswoman for Abercrombie said the governor has no plans to apply for the vacancy. Neither does U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, who is retiring and supporting Hanabusa for the job, according to his spokesman.
"Formally, you've got to nominate three people," Milner said. "But the case for Colleen is so compelling in two ways: The senator's last request and the fact that there doesn't seem to be any political reason not to follow it as far as the governor's concerned.
"The rest of the list is kind of pro forma. It'll be an honor for the other two people, whoever they are, to be put on the list."
Hart said he also would be surprised if Hanabusa did not emerge as the appointee.
Whether Abercrombie goes with or against the wishes of Inouye could affect his political future, Hart added.
"If Neil doesn't want to run, he can do what he wants," Hart said. "If he wants to run, does he really want to risk alienating the Inouye machine?
"Think about it: The guy (Inouye) is going to be like the (32nd) person to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol and this is his last wish."
Hanabusa's appointment would create a U.S. House vacancy to be filled by a winner-take-all special election, probably early next year.
Similar circumstances occurred in 2010, when Abercrombie resigned his seat in Congress to concentrate on his run for governor.
Republican Charles Djou emerged the winner in that special election with a plurality of 40 percent, as Hanabusa and former U.S. Rep. Ed Case split the vote among Democrats. Hanabusa won a rematch with Djou in November of that year and defeated him again last month to win a second term.
Milner and Hart said Djou and Case would be among the potential candidates for the open seat, along with other highly recognized names such as former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle and former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann.
Djou said it was too early to comment on the possibility of running again.
"At this stage, there is no election and I'm happy just being a husband and a dad and a normal private citizen again," Djou said. "It's too early to tell and for that matter I think the focus really should be on Sen. Inouye and his achievements."
Lingle, who lost to U.S. Sen.-elect Mazie Hirono for the seat being vacated by Akaka, would not comment on the potential opening.
Case, who lost to Hirono in the Democratic primary for Senate, and Hannemann, who lost to U.S. Rep.-elect Tulsi Gabbard in the Democratic primary for the 2nd Congressional District, did not return telephone messages seeking comment.
A newer candidate might have a harder time raising money and running a statewide campaign, Hart said, saying Lingle could potentially win in a special election field with several known Democrats.
Milner said it is too early to tell who might contend among Democrats.
"It's hard to know what guys like Case are going to do, or what Hannemann's going to do," Milner said. "It depends how flawed they feel from the last one.
"The first thing you look for is whether the ones that are on the tip of the tongue — Djou, Hannemann, Case — whether they jump in, because if they don't that really does change the dynamics and that would bring in a whole lot of other kinds of candidates."