Gov. Neil Abercrombie upended conventional thinking Wednesday, and assumed considerable political risk himself, when he appointed Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz to finish out the last two years of the late Daniel K. Inouye's term in the U.S. Senate.
According to those conventions, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, with two years in Congress following a long tenure as state Senate president, stood out as the most experienced of the three candidates nominated by the Democratic Party of Hawaii to succeed Inouye. That, and the fact that Inouye had asked for her appointment in his last days, made her the presumed front-runner, ahead of Schatz and former U.S. Capitol staffer of many years Esther Kiaaina.
At 40, Schatz is the youngest of the three but has built a credible record as a lawmaker, politician and community leader. He will need to draw heavily on the networking he's done to demonstrate he's capable of the position he has just won. He will have to prove that he's earned the spot between now and the 2014 midterms; that, rather than campaign fundraising, will have to be his focus, and given the challenges of running for statewide offices these days, that's a tall order.
Technically, Schatz will become Hawaii's senior senator by virtue of the fact that he is to be sworn in ahead of the rest of the freshman class. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asked Abercrombie to name the replacement as soon as possible because of the critical votes on fiscal matters due in the next few days.
As a result, there are sure to be competitive tensions to overcome among the state's two senators and two representatives -- Sen.-elect Mazie Hirono was voted into office and thus can't be enthralled with her new junior status.
Clearly, however, if Hawaii's new delegation of recent arrivals is to rebuild any kind of successful strategy on Capitol Hill in the post-Inouye era, overcoming them must be the prime directive. And Schatz, who spoke admiringly of Inouye's staff, did so with full knowledge that he will need their help to hit the ground running. Bruised feelings aside, the staff owes it to Hawaii to have his back.
There were partisan considerations for the choice, of course. Although the governor did not expound on them in his announcement, he did acknowledge that the interests of the Democratic Party had to be considered.
Connecting the dots for those who don't follow local politics that closely: Hanabusa's appointment would have left an opening in the U.S. House to be filled in a special election. Party leaders realized that competition among Democrats for that spot would have split the vote, making it likely that a single GOP candidate could win the seat with a plurality, as Republican Charles Djou did in the 2010 special election for the same House seat; he served the months remaining in former Congressman Abercrombie's term.
Eliminating that prospect was no small consideration, to be sure.
Schatz's own credentials include election to four terms as a state legislator, where he served as majority whip and economic development committee chairman. He formerly served as chairman of the Hawaii Democratic Party and as head of President Barack Obama's campaign in the islands. Outside the state Capitol, he worked in the nonprofit sector as chief executive officer at Helping Hands Hawaii.
In his acceptance speech Wednesday, Schatz underscored his ongoing support of Native Hawaiian federal recognition and initiatives to counter global warming, which he cast as his generation's leading issue.
However, it's his work in the state's No. 2 spot as federal liaison, identifying sources of federal aid for the state, that should serve the delegation the most. It will take a team approach by all four delegates to start building the relationships in both chambers of the U.S. Capitol, in the interests of their home state. Hawaii is about to find out whether any or all of them have the right stuff for that job.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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