Facing likely strong challenges in next year’s election, U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka has chosen not to seek a fifth term only days after U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye publicly warned that he may not be able to give him the financial support of years past. Hawaii’s revered low-key junior senator has represented the state well: Dependable and free of notoriety, his decades of work on behalf of veterans, health care, public workers and native peoples are solid testament to public service. His successor — and there will be many at the gate vying for the honor — will be obligated to continue Akaka’s effort to gain sovereignty for native Hawaiians, a dream for the senator that fell ever so short of a legacy achievement.
Democrat Akaka’s announcement yesterday to bow out was not a surprise, and the diminishing of his Senate standing after almost 22 years became apparent this year when he lost his chairmanship of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and was given instead the helm of the lesser Indian Affairs Committee.
Financially, Akaka had only $66,278 in campaign cash on hand at the end of last year, a minuscule amount against the political battle ahead. Inouye, who gave $300,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign committee to help Akaka defeat challenger and fellow Democrat Ed Case in 2006, said only a week ago that he would not be able to repeat the financial help. In that "Insights" interview on PBS Hawaii, Inouye added that Akaka would need at least $3 million in campaign money to be competitive.
As for the election ahead, former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle had indicated she would have challenged Akaka in next year’s election, and former Republican U.S. Rep. Charles Djou wrote a column that stirred talk that he might be a candidate. As of late yesterday, though, Djou told Politico.com: "I currently have no plans to run for political office."
Akaka’s decision is sure to create a wild race for the Democratic nomination for his seat. Case, who left his U.S. House seat to run against Akaka, is a likely contender, and so is former Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who has been poised for a U.S. Senate opening. Case was a member of the fiscally moderate Blue Dog coalition, while Hannemann has enjoyed the backing of labor and the party’s leadership.
Either or both of Hawaii’s House members — Mazie Hirono and Colleen Hanabusa — were mentioned by Inouye as possible contenders, which would require them to leave their present seats and create a larger scramble. Other names are sure to be added as possible candidates.
In announcing his "difficult decision," Akaka said he chose to end his 37 years on Capitol Hill, including seven terms in the House, "after months of thinking about my political future." He added: "I feel that the end of this Congress is the right time for me to step aside. It has been a great honor and privilege to serve the people of Hawaii."
Despite his quiet style or maybe because of it, Akaka has had a popular following. Elevated from the House to the Senate in 1990 by then-Gov. John Waihee following the death of Sen. Spark Matsunaga, Akaka won fairly easily in every subsequent race, even Case’s challenge. Now however, Akaka, at age 86, has rightly decided to end his political career gracefully rather than test today’s rough political waters.