Process and prospects for Hawaii’s Senate seat


HILO — It won’t be easy to fill Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye’s shoes, but someone will have to fill his seat.

Inouye, 88, a Democrat, died Monday just six weeks after the last General Election, with four years remaining on his ninth six-year term.

Although federal law dictates how congressional vacancies are filled, in the case of the U.S. Senate, the Constitution leaves it up to the states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Here’s how it’s done in Hawaii: The political party of the vacating senator submits three names to the governor, who then appoints from that list. The appointee must be a state resident and member of the party for at least six months. Hawaii statutes do not set a time limit for either the party or the governor to make their choices.

The appointee serves until a senator is elected in the next General Election, in this case November 2014. The elected senator then serves for the remainder of the unexpired term, in this case, until 2016.

Nuts and bolts of the process aside, Inouye’s death could result in a reshuffling of Hawaii’s top elected officials, said Kyle Kondik, spokesman for Larry Sabato’s Center for Politics.

The retirement this year of the state’s other long-serving senator, Sen. Daniel Akaka, means there is little depth of experience in Hawaii’s legislative delegation on Capitol Hill.

The longest-serving member of Congress is now Mazie Hirono, who was elected to the U.S. House in 2006 and in November ran successfully for Akaka’s Senate seat. She and the as-yet unknown appointee will represent Hawaii in the upper chamber, a far cry from Akaka’s 22 years experience and Inouye’s position of president pro tempore, making him third in line for the presidency.

In the lower chamber, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who’s served since 2010, will be joined next month by newly elected Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. All of Hawaii’s congressional delegation are Democrats.

“Inouye was the guy who ran the Democratic show in Hawaii,” Kondik said. “There’s obviously a power vacuum now that he’s gone.”

That power vacuum could very well translate into less federal money for the Aloha State, he said.

“All that experience is gone. In terms of getting federal dollars, it is helpful to have long-standing members of Congress,” Kondik said. “While the delegation is getting a fresh start, there might be a negative effect in terms of getting appropriations and that sort of thing.”

Names that come up as possible replacements include Hanabusa and even Gabbard, who at 31, is just over the 30-year-old minimum age for a senator. Gov. Neil Abercrombie himself, with his 20 years in Congress, could also be a possibility. Former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress against Gabbard, could be a candidate, as could former U.S. Rep. Ed Case, a moderate Democrat who ran afoul of the party by challenging Akaka in 2006.

Case would likely have a tough row to hoe, said Kondik.

“He was not that well-liked by Inouye,” Kondik said, “so he’s probably not likely to succeed him in the Senate.”