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Champion for isles

By Derrick DePledge

LAST UPDATED: 6:24 p.m. HST, Dec 21, 2012

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Historians might debate whether Inouye made the most of his power nationally, but there is no dispute over his influence on Hawaii.

From his first days in the House after statehood to his last as one of the Senate's senior members, Inouye fought to make sure the islands were not shortchanged when it came to federal spending. Inouye was a voice for sugar, pineapple and shipping, for highways, airports and harbors, for the East-West Center, for the University of Hawaii and, most significantly, for the military. The senator worked to help make Hawaii the most important strategic location for the military in the Pacific, and the military became, along with tourism, the foundation of the state's economy.

From a perch on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and through collaboration with his good friend U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, Inouye was able to deliver federal money no matter which political party controlled Congress or the White House. The pair also held top posts on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which has control over maritime, aviation and other federal policy issues critical to the islands.

"I'm not embarrassed or ashamed by what they call earmarks."
—Daniel K. Inouye, his ability to funnel billion of dollars in federal funds into Hawaii earned him both praise and criticism

Inouye, who was reserved and deliberative, and Stevens, who was aggressive and abrasive, considered each other brothers in arms for their underdog states.

Some of Inouye's attempts to help Hawaii backfired. Inouye and U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, supported "Project America," which involved federal loan guarantees for two new cruise ships that were to be constructed at a Mississippi shipyard for use in Hawaii. The effort failed after American Classic Voyages, the cruise ship company, went bankrupt after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, costing taxpayers millions.

U.S. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who often clashed with Ino­uye on federal spending, called the "Project America" loans "one of the most incredible boondoggles in recent history."

Citizens Against Government Waste typically ranked Inouye and Stevens as among the worst for what it called "pork," federal spending that is earmarked by lawmakers for local projects or that does not go through the formal presidential budget request or congressional authorization process.

Yet both men saw the criticism as a compliment, proof they were just as skilled as any of their colleagues from more established states, if not more so, in the deal-making of the Senate.

"I'm not embarrassed or ashamed by what they call earmarks," Inouye told a reporter.

Inouye stood by Stevens, and even raised money and campaigned for his re-election, after Stevens was indicted in 2008 by a federal grand jury for not disclosing gifts from Alaska oil company executives. Stevens lost his re-election campaign, but a federal judge later set aside his conviction, citing prosecutorial misconduct.

When Inouye realized his coveted goal of becoming chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee in 2009, the moment was bittersweet because Stevens was no longer by his side.

Inouye was known mostly for bringing home federal money, but he also used his influence to change federal policy to benefit Hawaii, promote civil rights and preserve native cultures.

Inouye helped get an exemption to federal health and pension law so Hawaii could have the landmark Prepaid Health Care Act of 1974, which requires companies to provide health insurance to employees who work more than 20 hours a week. The senator won an exemption from federal environmental law that allowed construction to go forward on H-3, the interstate that linked Honolulu and Windward Oahu. He worked on an effort to require the Navy to clean up its firing range and return the island of Kahoolawe to the state so it could be restored as a Hawaiian cultural site.

The senator urged the Navy to transfer the historic battleship USS Missouri to Hawaii for a memorial at Pearl Harbor. He obtained an exemption to federal maritime law that allowed Norwegian Cruise Line to operate its foreign-built cruise ships under U.S. flags in Hawaii, which revived cruises between the islands.

Inouye helped set in motion the process that eventually led President Reagan in 1988 to apologize and provide $20,000 each to the survivors of Japanese internment during World War II, an injustice that gnawed at Inouye since he was a young GI.

The senator secured $20 million for a center on preserving democracy at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.

Appalled by the federal government's treatment of Native Americans after learning their history as a leader on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Inouye became a passionate advocate for Indian self-determination and was among the main forces behind the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington.

Inouye slipped language into a defense spending bill that fulfilled a government promise and provided $15,000 — $9,000 for noncitizens — to Filipinos who fought on behalf of the United States during World War II.

Working with U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, a Hawaii Democrat, Inouye helped win historic passage of a resolution signed by President Clinton in 1993 formally apologizing for the U.S. government's role in the 1893 overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii. In a Senate floor speech, Inouye said the resolution was not a step toward Hawaiian independence, but rather a reconciliation between the federal government and a people who had been wronged.

"It was authored by my friend from Hawaii because he loves America," Ino­uye said of Akaka, who is of Hawaiian and Chinese ancestry. "It is because of our love for this nation that this resolution was presented, to make it possible for all of us, even after 100 years, to cleanse one of our pages, to make it a bit brighter."

The senator also supported Akaka's Native Hawaiian federal recognition bill, which would create a process for Hawaiians to form their own sovereign government similar to Native Americans and Native Alaskans.

Some Hawaiians have doubted Ino­uye's commitment to sovereignty, while others believed that, given his personal history, he was uncomfortable with the anti-American tone prevalent in some of the movement's extremes. Some Hawaiians also resent the senator's role in the military expansion of the islands, including military training on land Hawaiians consider sacred.

But Inouye empathized with the Hawaiian struggle and helped steer millions in federal money annually to Hawaiian education, health and cultural programs. "I've tried my best, although it's impossible, to put myself in their shoes," Inouye told Heather Giugni for her 2003 biographical film on the senator. "And when I do that, I somehow get the feeling that if I were in their position, I may be screaming also."

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