POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 20, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 3:43 a.m. HST, Dec 21, 2012
U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono knew she was expected to carry the legacy of retiring U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, a Democrat who gracefully embodied the aloha spirit of Hawaii in the Senate.
But the death of U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye this week of respiratory complications leaves Hirono and the temporary appointment who will replace the senior senator with much more urgent responsibilities.
Hirono, who will be sworn in to the Senate on Jan. 3, must immediately begin to fill the void left by Hawaii's loss of 72 years of seniority — Inouye's 50 years and Akaka's 22 years — and lead a congressional delegation that will be among the least experienced in Washington.
The 65-year-old former lieutenant governor and state lawmaker is among the most popular Hawaii politicians — the Hawaii Poll put her favorability rating at 62 percent in October — but she has never had the expectations that are placed on her now.
"Even as we mourn the senator's passing, we will pull together and build on the tremendous foundation he laid for us in so many areas," Hirono said Wednesday by phone from Washington. "And I know he would expect us to be strong and go forward, and that's what I'm going to do, and our entire delegation is going to do that."
Hirono, who has served for six years in Congress, said she had the opportunity to watch and work with Inouye on issues important to Hawaii. "I bring all of my years of experience and learning from him over this period of time to bear on the challenges ahead," she said.
Senate Democrats had announced last week that Hirono would be assigned to the Judiciary, Energy and Veterans' Affairs committees. But Inouye's death opened up the chairmanship of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, and the potential nomination of U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., as secretary of state, would lead to adjustments in the committee lineup, so it is possible Hirono might get another assignment.
Hawaii has relied on the federal money that Inouye delivered for a half-century. In the days since the senator's death, political analysts and economists have tried to quantify his loss, but the impact is incalculable. Inouye's influence was not just measured by dollars and cents, but also in the personal relationships he cultivated over decades with senators, congressmen, presidents, diplomats, military brass, bureaucrats, lobbyists and interest groups.
Political insiders say it would be unfair to expect Hirono — or any new senator — to replicate Inouye's influence or Akaka's aloha. But Hirono will not get the same grace period she might otherwise have enjoyed if she had been able to experience the Senate under Inouye's wing for a few years.
One of the themes of Hirono's successful campaign against former Gov. Linda Lingle was that a Lingle victory and a Republican Senate would weaken Inouye's power. That power is now gone.
Hirono and the temporary appointee chosen by Gov. Neil Abercrombie to replace Inouye will start near the bottom of Senate seniority. In the U.S. House, former Honolulu City Councilwoman Tulsi Gabbard, who is replacing Hirono in the 2nd Congressional District, will also be near the bottom.
U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, was first elected in 2010, so she too has little seniority. Hanabusa is among the Democrats under consideration to replace Inouye, so if she were appointed to the Senate, the winner of a special election to follow her in the 1st Congressional District would also start near the bottom.
"I don't think that a delegation that works as strongly as we do starts at zero," Hirono said. "The Senate is also a changing institution, so there is movement that happens. But the bottom line is that Sen. Inouye did leave us with a tremendous legacy and foundation that we will build upon."
Hirono, the first Asian-American woman elected to the Senate and just its second woman of color, enters a Senate that is far different today than the exclusive old boys' club that Inouye encountered in 1963 and was largely still in place when Akaka arrived in 1990. Two women served in the Senate in 1990. In January, Hirono will be among a record 20 women in the chamber.
Hirono has a kinship, both personal and political, with the newly elected Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.
The internal politics of the Senate may also be different. A ban on earmarks, which Inouye — the "king of pork" — had reluctantly approved, makes it more difficult for senators to direct federal money for projects in their home states.
Senate Democrats are discussing term limits on committee chairmanships — Republicans already have a six-year limit on chairpersons and ranking members — that would discourage senior senators from establishing the nearly untouchable power lnouye had built on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Senate Democrats, under pressure from progressives and labor interests, are also talking about filibuster reform. Some senators want colleagues who filibuster to actually take to the Senate floor and talk at length to block legislation, rather than just threaten to filibuster. Some also favor limits on the number of opportunities to filibuster on a single bill.
"We recognize, certainly, the greatness of Sen. Inouye. But I believe Mazie has always been prepared to lead," said Jadine Nielsen, a friend and ally who thinks Hirono will rise to the challenge.
Bob Toyofuku, a Hirono confidant and one of the state's top lobbyists, said Hirono is a collaborator who already drew support from within the Senate during her campaign. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, had publicly backed Hirono over former congressman Ed Case in the primary.
"So I think that will go a long way," Toyofuku said. "And she's not afraid to talk to anybody."
Charles Freedman, a veteran Democratic strategist, described Washington as "a pretty tough town with jagged edges," but contends Hirono will bring the same Hawaii ethos that guided Inouye and Akaka and often disarmed their colleagues.
When senators paid tribute to Inouye over the past few days, they cited his familiar life story — his bravery in World War II that earned him the Medal of Honor, his service to Hawaii in Congress since statehood — but among the most touching anecdotes were about his qualities as a person. Senators had similar praise for Akaka on his retirement.
"I think Mazie will not leave us short on being a good projection of what Hawaii is about, as a person," Freedman said. "I think she'll fit in right away and won't leave anybody disappointed."