U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka’s announcement yesterday that he will not seek re-election in 2012 creates a rare open seat in Hawaii in a year when the balance of political power in the Senate will be at stake.
The 86-year-old Democrat said he will serve out the remainder of his term so that voters would have the opportunity to select his successor. His decision will force a discussion on leadership transition and who should partner with U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, the state’s leading Democrat and the Senate’s most senior member.
Daniel Kahikina Akaka
» Born Sept. 11, 1924, in Honolulu.
Akaka is the seventh senator — and the fifth who caucuses with Democrats — to announce retirement after 2012 when Senate Democrats will have to defend far more seats than Republicans. Senate Democrats and independents now hold a 53 to 47 majority over Republicans, so the open seat in Hawaii will likely be one of several that will draw national interest next year.
Hawaii has not had an election for an open Senate seat since U.S. Sen. Hiram Fong, a Republican, chose not to run in 1976. Akaka, a former educator who served 13 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, was appointed to the Senate after U.S. Sen. Spark Matsunaga, a Democrat, died, and he was elected in 1990.
"As many of you can imagine, it was a very difficult decision for me," Akaka said in a statement. "However, 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. In 2006, the people of Hawaii gave me an opportunity to continue my service in the United States Senate and I fully intend to serve the last two years of my term in office."
Akaka, according to accounts from his staff, made the decision to retire in conversations with his wife, Millie, and his family when he was in Hawaii over the past few weeks. He returned to Washington, D.C., yesterday and informed his staff and Inouye. He also telephoned U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada.
Staff members in Akaka’s suite in the Senate Hart Office Building — and those tuning in on a conference call in Honolulu — described the announcement from the grandfatherly senator as emotional.
Jon Yoshimura, Akaka’s communications director, said the senator smiled and said there was a season for everything.
"He told us that we have a lot of work to do in the next two years, and that we have a lot of time to say goodbye," he said. "And now is not the time."
Humble and gracious, Akaka is widely respected in the islands and in Washington, a gentle man known for his hugs. The senator, who is of native Hawaiian and Chinese ancestry, speaks movingly about the aloha spirit and has often been described as its embodiment.
Akaka has been an advocate for native Hawaiian rights and, with Inouye, has successfully obtained federal money for their education, health and social service programs. Akaka and Inouye were behind the drive to persuade the United States to formally apologize for its role in the overthrow of Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893. President Bill Clinton issued the apology in 1993 on the 100th anniversary of the overthrow, the first chapter in what Akaka sees as a reconciliation with Hawaiians.
Over the past decade, worried about the legal threat to Hawaiian-only programs, Akaka has pushed for a bill that would recognize native Hawaiians as an indigenous people with the right to form their own government. The senator has said the bill, known as the Akaka Bill in his honor, would treat Hawaiians the same as American Indians and Alaska natives.
The bill has passed the House but has stalled in the Senate, mostly because of opposition from conservative Republicans who view it as race-based discrimination. Republican gains in the Senate in last November’s elections make it unlikely the bill will advance, and many observers believe Akaka missed an opportunity when Democrats had more control and an ally in Hawaii-born President Barack Obama.
Akaka was replaced by his colleagues this year as chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, moving to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which is considered a less influential post. He is also a leading member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is important to Hawaii’s military interests, and has an oversight role over government management, the federal work force and the District of Columbia.
While Akaka, like Inouye, has rarely sought national attention, he has been a consistent liberal voice on national issues. Akaka was among the minority of senators who voted against giving President George W. Bush the option to use military force against Iraq. He also warned ominously about the lack of planning for reconstruction and a clear exit strategy just before the U.S. invasion in 2003.
His critics, however, have questioned his effectiveness and the absence of many distinct accomplishments as he worked in the shadow of Inouye for the past two decades. With Inouye also 86 — and at the height of his power as president pro tempore and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee — even some loyal Democrats have questioned the wisdom of having two octogenarians representing the state in the Senate.
Former Congressman Ed Case raised the issue of age and the importance of leadership transition in his primary challenge to Akaka in 2006. But establishment Democrats in Hawaii and Washington sided with Akaka, helping him with fundraising and tactical support that allowed him to hold off the younger Democrat.
Through the past few months, several Democrats have publicly and privately discussed whether Akaka should run for another six-year term, worried that he might not be able to withstand a difficult campaign. Several prominent Democrats, including Inouye, expressed alarm about Akaka’s slow fundraising.
Inouye said in an interview on PBS Hawaii last week that he would likely not be in a position to help Akaka with raising money next year as he had in 2006.
Former Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican with proven fundraising ability, has said she will consider a Senate run. Lingle would likely be able to match the record $6 million she raised for her re-election campaign in 2006.
Case, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono, Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz and former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann also have been mentioned as possible Democratic successors. But all of these Democrats have practical or political challenges. Case finished a deflating third in a special election for Congress last year. Hanabusa was just elected to Congress in November. Hirono lost to Lingle in the governor’s race in 2002. Schatz was just elected lieutenant governor in November. And Hannemann suffered a staggering loss to Neil Abercrombie in the Democratic primary for governor in September.
"I raised the issues. I think people considered them and decided not to make that change," Case said yesterday of his campaign against Akaka in 2006. "Now the change is going to be made, and I think the focus has to be on who can best pick up where Sen. Akaka is leaving off."
Case said he has been interested in the Senate but, like other Democrats, added that the moment was to recognize Akaka’s service, not speculate about the future.
Dylan Nonaka, the executive director of the state GOP, said the party believes it has candidates who can be competitive even if Lingle does not run.
"This is obviously exciting for us," he said, "and we’ll be looking to field a strong candidate and compete for the seat in 2012."
Inouye, in a statement, called his partner, whom he affectionately refers to as Kaniela — Daniel in Hawaiian — as "a true ambassador of aloha."
Abercrombie said Akaka’s soul is Hawaii. "The words aloha and Akaka are interchangeable," he said in a statement. "Daniel Akaka is Hawaii."
Obama said Akaka’s voice in the Senate will be missed. "Michelle and I would like to join the people of Hawaii in saying ‘mahalo’ to Danny for his lifetime of service and offer both him and Millie our best wishes for the future," he said in a statement.
Dennis "Bumpy" Kanahele, a Hawaiian sovereignty activist who disagreed with the senator over the Akaka Bill, said he always considered Akaka as a kupuna first, not a politician.
"He’s done what he could," he said. "I think he’s done what he thought was right."
Akaka said he and his wife plan to return to Hawaii when his term is up and spend time with family.
"I would also like to spend time documenting my life and career, and serving as a mentor to future political leaders," the senator said. "I have always strived to serve the people with much love and aloha, never forgetting my humble beginnings, and it is my hope that they, too, will continue this tradition.
"We must never forget that we, as political leaders, work for the people of Hawaii and not the special interests."
"Danny spent his career fighting for our troops, veterans and their families and for the rights of native Hawaiians. He worked tirelessly to reform Wall Street and to make sure that consumers and small-business owners are treated fairly in our system. His voice in the Senate will be missed."
» President Barack Obama
"I want to thank Sen. Akaka for his service to Hawaii and the nation. … He is a tireless advocate for Hawaii’s residents and a true ambassador of aloha. He has been a willing and loyal partner and we have worked very well together over these many years. We have much more to do and I look forward to working with him over the next two years."
» U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye
"His soul is one with Hawaii. His love for Hawaii and ours for him is as one. He is a true son of Hawaii that we welcome back home with hearts full of the aloha that is Daniel Akaka. The words aloha and Akaka are interchangeable. Daniel Akaka is Hawaii."
» Gov. Neil Abercrombie
"I would like to thank Sen. Akaka for his lifetime of public service – and for all he has done for the people of Hawaii. He is an example of how one can be a great leader with humility and grace."
» U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Urban Honolulu
"For the past 35 years, Sen. Akaka has been a powerful advocate for the people of Hawaii. I am grateful for his life of service to Hawaii and our nation."
» U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono, D-Rural Oahu, neighbor islands
"Sen. Akaka has served our state honorably for nearly 22 years and has been a strong representative of the aloha spirit to his colleagues in Washington, D.C. I worked closely with the senator to gain support for the Akaka Bill and I still have hopes that this important legislation will come to fruition during the remainder of his term."
» Former Gov. Linda Lingle
"We will miss his understanding hand, wise counsel and gentlemanly demeanor when he retires. … While some may be curious, there will be plenty of time to discuss my own personal plans in light of his announcement. Today, however, is a day to sing Sen. Akaka’s praises. And there is much to sing about."
» Former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann
"No one better personifies the spirit of aloha in Washington, D.C., better than Daniel Akaka. Hawaii and America have been blessed by his gracious voice in government. As we wish Sen. Akaka well, our community can look toward a new generation of leadership in the U.S. Senate with the 2012 election."
» Former U.S. Rep. Charles Djou, R-Urban Honol