POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 21, 2012
Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz said Thursday that he will apply for the appointment to replace U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, giving Hawaii Democrats a youthful option who could build seniority in the Senate over several decades.
Schatz, 40, said he would not comment publicly until after memorials for Inouye conclude on Sunday, but he did confirm his interest in being one of the three nominees the party's state central committee will forward to Gov. Neil Abercrombie.
Inouye's personal appeal that Abercrombie name U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, to succeed him has dominated the discussion about the appointment process over the past few days. But several Democratic insiders, speaking privately, say that while Hanabusa, 61, is the front-runner, her selection is not a foregone conclusion.
"No one can take the place of Senator Inouye, and we all continue to mourn his loss," Schatz said in a statement. "On December 28, the Democratic Party of Hawaii will meet and decide upon three names for the governor to consider for appointment to the United States Senate. I will apply to be considered for this vacancy.
"I hope to make the case to the state central committee members that I should be one of the three names that the governor will ultimately consider."
Inouye asked Abercrombie in a personal letter delivered before he died Monday to grant his "last wish" and select Hanabusa, who had earned the senior senator's trust and would have been considered for the appointment even if Inouye had not made the request.
Hanabusa, who represents urban Honolulu's 1st Congressional District, also has precedent on her side. When U.S. Sen. Spark Matsunaga, D-Hawaii, died in 1990, Gov. John Waihee appointed U.S. Rep. Daniel Akaka to fill the vacancy.
But some Democrats have privately expressed reservations about a Hanabusa appointment because it would trigger a winner-take-all special election to fill her seat. Former Congressman Charles Djou, a Republican, won a similar election in May 2010 with a plurality after Hanabusa and former Congressman Ed Case split the Democratic vote. Hanabusa, however, was able to defeat Djou in the November 2010 general election to replace Abercrombie, who had resigned to run for governor.
Other Democrats are privately uneasy about the orchestrated campaign behind Hanabusa by some of Inouye's allies since the senator's death — one compared it to a "coronation" — and the pressure it has placed on the state central committee and Abercrombie.
Abercrombie told reporters at the state Capitol on Thursday that he feels any talk of who he might nominate is premature. "The plain fact is, when the choice for the senator's successor takes place, it will be the result of democracy in action," he said.
The governor said he would give "every weight" to Inouye's request but added that he did not want to preclude the work of the party's state central committee by indicating any sort of preference.
"I don't even know that Rep. Hanabusa's name will come forward," he said. "The central committee will take everything into consideration, I'm sure, including the senator's opinions and perspective.
"I have full confidence in the central committee, not only their ability and desire, but their capability of coming to a conclusion quickly and thoroughly, and that I'll be able to rely on that when those names come."
There are more than 75 members on the central committee.
The argument for Schatz, some Democrats say, is his potential to serve for several decades and eventually amass the seniority that is the currency of power in the Senate.
His appointment would not prompt a special election. Under state law, state Senate President Shan Tsutsui is the next in line of succession to the lieutenant governor's office, followed by House Speaker Calvin Say.
Schatz is a former Makiki state lawmaker and Democratic Party of Hawaii chairman who was involved in President Barack Obama's campaign in the islands in 2008. He unsuccessfully ran in the Democratic primary for the 2nd Congressional District in 2006.
Schatz was elected lieutenant governor in 2010.
"She's probably the leader in the clubhouse," one Democratic strategist said privately of Hanabusa, using a golf metaphor. "But this isn't done."
The strategist also cited Abercrombie's contrarian streak. "Neil is Neil," the strategist said. "And he's ultimately going to have to decide what's best for the people of Hawaii."
Abercrombie had been willing to consider Schatz for a Senate appointment if Akaka had opted to step down early when the senator announced in March 2011 that he would not run for re-election, several sources said at the time.
But Akaka and his staff, who had heard the talk in Democratic circles, said Akaka had no intention of resigning. Akaka made a point of publicly saying that voters should choose his replacement when he announced his retirement.
Abercrombie's appointee will serve until voters in 2014 elect a senator to fill out the remainder of Inouye's six-year term, which runs through 2016. The appointee will likely have the advantage in those elections.
In addition to Hanabusa and Schatz, Tony Gill, chairman of the Oahu Democrats and a labor attorney, and state Sen. Will Espero (D, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point), chairman of the Senate Public Safety and Military Affairs Committee, have shown interest so far. The deadline for applications is 5 p.m. Monday.
"I do support the senator's wishes that Rep. Hanabusa be the next appointed individual. However, since the law is clear that there must be three nominees, I would be honored to be considered one of those other nominees," Espero said.
Many Democrats on the state central committee, even some who have clear preferences, want the application process to play out as intended, which is to screen nominees for the governor's consideration, not tip the scales toward a particular candidate. But the party's deliberations are inherently political, so it is impossible to remove outside influence.
"We need to have the process take care of itself," said Ed Hasegawa, a retired educator who has volunteered for Case and Abercrombie campaigns and serves on the state central committee.
Jim Shon, a former state lawmaker who serves on the state central committee, saidthose on the committee take their decision very seriously.
"They don't feel that honoring Inouye translates as an automatic decision in favor of Colleen," he said. "Part of it is, we're not making the selection, we're making a list, which is a little bit different.
"And I think, for myself and others, we're looking at what three very strong, capable people should be on that list or could be on that list."