The death of Hawaii Sen. Daniel K. Inouye marks the end of an era for this state.
Inouye’s mettle was forged in battle, honed in law school and then tempered in the arena of politics. And as the final pages of his life are turned, so, too, ends an impressive chapter of Hawaii’s political history.
At 17, he enlisted in the U.S. Army where he served in the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for charging Nazi machine gun nests atop a hill in San Terenzo, Italy — an action that cost him his arm.
The honor and leadership he showed carried him through George Washington University School of Law and into the the U.S. House, following Hawaii’s statehood. In 1962, he was elected to the Senate, where he served until this week.
Inouye was among the Democratic Party leaders who organized and changed the political landscape of the state in 1954, ending years of Republican control. His position as a party stalwart in Hawaii was cast, just as his rise to prominence in the Democratic Party in Washington was so forcefully bolstered by his leadership in the Senate Watergate investigations, actions that ultimately brought down Republican President Richard M. Nixon for wrongdoings surrounding his political campaign activities.
Political ascendancy leads to an ascendency in power, at home and in Washington. That power grew with his tenure, as he rose to lead the Senate and its powerful committees.
What this influence translated to was a windfall for the state, as Inouye showered pork funds on our isolated island home. Hundreds of millions of appropriations dollars landed on our shores that would have gone elsewhere — had Inouye not been in the position he held.
When we lost our senior senator, we lost our influence in Washington and the money that comes with it. By recent reports, Alaska lost 75 percent of its federal funding after the death of its senior senator, Ted Stevens. Hawaii stands to lose as much or more, despite any appointment made to fill Inouye’s seat or election of freshman Sen. Mazie Hirono. They will not have the political juice to funnel funds our way. No one will — for decades.
Inouye’s pork is evident everywhere in Hawaii, from defense projects on Oahu to hundreds of millions appropriated for Native Hawaiian health and education projects. On this island, we see his influence from the Natural Energy Lab of Hawaii to the Hele On buses added to our public transportation fleet, or the realigned and improved Saddle Road project (the funding for the last leg of which might now be in jeopardy without his support) and projects in Hilo. His legacy is projects spread throughout the state, on every island.
Some appropriations, like the Gateway Center at the Natural Energy Lab, may epitomize to some the essence of pork funding — millions spent with little or no public benefit. Others, like his proposed mulitmillion dollar funding for Jewish schools in North Africa, created political chafing in Washington. But in the end, he did what so many politicians seek to do: He brought the money home.
He also held and pulled the strings of the Hawaii Democratic Party. It was an ambiguous situation, good and bad. His hold on the party was complete; when former Rep. Ed Case broke away from the party game plan and marching orders set by Inouye, his punishment was all but banishment from the party, a political exiling that played out in the last election when Inouye said he would not endorse a candidate in the primary that pitted Case against Hirono, but he added he would cast his vote for Hirono. Case remains a party outsider.
What this political control created, however, was a structure that relied upon one man to determine ascendency within the party, to select and elevate some individuals over others and to chart out the party’s path and future. The problem, however, is now, in his absence, the party has no leader, the pool of prospective leadership is shallow and there are no obvious bright, shining stars for the party to elevate. Even replacement of Inouye’s seat may pose a problem, as there are few young enough with a demonstated political strength and fortitude to establish a tenure and influence anything like Inouye achieved. Tulsi Gabbard is untested, Brian Shatz has done well, but in background roles, Mufi Hannemann has the strength but brings with him an obvious degree of controversy. Colleen Hanabusa hasn’t earned her chops in Washington, while Hirono will be casting about, looking for someone to provide her direction.
Look forward to a melee of sorts within the party as it no longer heeds Inouye’s strong, level voice to provide direction and intent. Aama crabs in the bucket will be busy climbing.
We have lost more than a senator with Inouye’s death. We have lost political leadership and a serious flow of money into our small island state. A fixture in Hawaii and Washington, a man who left his mark, Inouye, and his influence, will be noticed for years to come.