News of Sen. Daniel Inouye’s death rippled across the Big Island Monday, prompting political leaders to solemnly reflect on the man they considered a mentor.
“I think all of us in Hawaii have been incredibly blessed to have had a leader who cared so much for all of us,” said Mayor Billy Kenoi.
“We’ll probably never see a leader like Dan Inouye again in our lifetime.”
The 88-year-old senator and World War II veteran was Hawaii’s senior Congressman, being first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1959, and his death marked the end of a generation of postwar leaders who laid the state’s political foundations for decades to come.
Inouye was also a strong advocate for the state, known for his adeptness at securing federal funding for the University of Hawaii system and a host of other issues and projects, from Saddle Road improvements to health care for Native Hawaiians.
“He was just a wealth of knowledge, a wealth of power,” said former South Hilo Rep. Jerry Chang.
“It’s going to take a lot of time for our next senators to get the kind of seniority he did.”
Rep. Clift Tsuji, D-Hilo, said he was at lunch on Oahu with six colleagues when they saw he news on TV.
Each one was stunned, he said.
“My prayers go out to the family of this great American who so unselfishly continuously strived to improve our quality of life,” Tsuji said.
State Sen. Malama Solomon called Inouye the “real driver” of the state’s Democratic Party philosophy, and credited him with helping establish the party’s dominance by promoting “diversity and equal opportunity for all.”
“I would say he really was a famous orator,” said Solomon, D-Hilo, Hamakua, Kohala, Kona. “He could speak to bring the issue into the proper perspective, what it meant to be an American.”
Hawaii County Democratic Party Chairman Steve Pavao said Inouye remained influential in party politics and would be looked to for input.
Solomon said Inouye was a family friend and she got to know him over the years as a “very compassionate person.”
Inouye also wasn’t Oahu-centric, and advocated for all the neighbor islands, she said.
Inouye’s success at directing federal funds to the state made him a staunch defender of Congress’ spending authority and earmarks, prompting criticism for some as a proponent of pork.
In an interview with the Tribune-Herald last July, he defended earmarks as being instrumental in getting hundreds of millions of dollars for projects such as the Saddle Road realignment and the Imiloa Astronomy Center.
“Earmarks played a major role at the University of Hawaii at Hilo campus,” he said then. “If it weren’t for earmarks, you wouldn’t see a school of nursing, a school of pharmacy and all of that, with all this construction.”
Solomon also defended the earmarks, saying Hawaii’s small delegation would be ignored otherwise.
“Without his guidance, it’s going to be hard for Hawaii to bring home the dollars,” she said.
Kaiu Kimura, Imiloa’s executive director, said the center would not have been possible without him.
“He was a big advocate and supporter of the mission of our center, which is to bring the community together around advancing the culture and astronomy at Mauna Kea,” she said. “Not only did he provide the financial support through federal dollars … but I think he really laid the foundation of the mission and work of the center.”
In a statement, UH-Hilo credited Inouye with securing funds for the pharmacy school and Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center.
Dan Kama, Hawaii Island Veterans Parade chairman, said he had a sense of responsibility typical amongst those who served.
“We’ve got to follow in his footsteps,” Kama said.