By BECKY BOHRER
HONOLULU — Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie faced a backlash Thursday for choosing his lieutenant governor to succeed Daniel Inouye in the U.S. Senate, revealing discord between Democrats in a state where the party has dominated for decades with Inouye at the helm.
Abercrombie went against Inouye’s dying wish in appointing Brian Schatz to the post. Schatz was sworn in Thursday, a day after beating out two other finalists, including Inouye’s choice, Democratic U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa of Hawaii.
Shortly after Schatz took his oath, outgoing U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka — who supported Hanabusa — called for unity in a speech on the Senate floor. He said Inouye is a legend in Hawaii who will never be replaced, but “we must honor his legacy by working together for the people of Hawaii.”
“While there were other talented leaders in Hawaii who stepped forward and who would also have been excellent appointees, I know that my colleagues will join me in supporting Sen. Brian Schatz for the good of Hawaii,” said Akaka, who met with Schatz for more than an hour Thursday.
Akaka said the state’s congressional delegation has been unified throughout his 36 years in Washington.
“We have always put Hawaii first, before our individual ambition,” he said. “We must continue that.”
Back home in Hawaii, some praised the pick, while others expressed anger toward Abercrombie for going against Inouye.
Angry comments were plastered on Abercrombie’s Facebook page following the announcement of his decision Wednesday, with some predicting he would be a one-term governor and saying he disrespected Inouye with his choice. One post read: “impeach!”
Abercrombie said Thursday during a news conference to announce Hawaii’s new lieutenant governor that he hadn’t personally heard any of the criticisms.
He said there obviously were people who had a favored candidate who may have been disappointed with this pick. “But this is the Democratic Party. Our diversity literally defines us, rather than divides us, and everybody is pulling together now,” Abercrombie said.
He said Hawaii residents could be seeing the beginnings “of a new generational change, a transition really into the 21st century.” Schatz is 40; incoming U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is 31; and Hawaii’s new lieutenant governor, former Senate President Shan Tsutsui, is 41.
Abercrombie said when he announced Schatz as his pick that Inouye’s wishes were taken into account. But the governor said his charge is to act in the best interests of the Democratic party, the state and nation. State law calls for the successor to come from the same party as the prior incumbent — Inouye was a Democrat.
“The law makes explicitly clear, as do the rules of the Democratic Party, that while everyone’s voice is heard and everyone’s view is taken into account, nonetheless, no one and nothing is preordained,” Abercrombie said Wednesday.
Abercrombie faces re-election in 2014, and speculation already has started about whether Hanabusa might challenge him. Hanabusa wasn’t talking Thursday but has said she respects the selection process and Abercrombie’s right to appoint a successor.
Inouye’s chief of staff expressed disappointment with Abercrombie’s decision Wednesday while wishing Schatz the “best of luck.” His office declined further comment Thursday.
Two political analysts said Thursday they doubt Abercrombie will suffer any long-term political damage, chalking up the anger in part to the still-raw emotions surrounding Inouye’s death last week. In a letter to Abercrombie dated Dec. 17, the day of his death, Inouye asked that Abercrombie grant his “last wish” and appoint Hanabusa.
Colin Moore, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said the political benefits for Abercrombie in choosing Schatz outweighed the cost.
Had Hanabusa been selected, there would have been a special election to fill her seat that could have been vulnerable for the Democrats, he said. That point was underscored by the chairman of Hawaii’s Republican party, who accused Abercrombie of putting “partisan politics and power ahead of Hawaii’s people.”
With Schatz, Abercrombie chose someone with whom he has had a good working relationship, while Hanabusa, who was re-elected to a second term in November, can continue to build seniority in the House, Moore said.
Seniority has been the political buzzword here since Inouye’s death. Inouye was by far Hawaii’s most influential politician and one of the most respected lawmakers in Washington after serving five decades in the Senate. With his death and Akaka’s pending retirement, Hawaii will go from having significant pull to one of the most junior delegations in Congress.
Inouye’s death also blew open the state’s political landscape, leaving it with no real kingmaker. For years, Inouye’s endorsement was coveted by candidates and carried weight with voters.
Schatz, in making his pitch to fellow Democrats for the Senate seat, talked about the importance of building seniority “over decades and decades,” and said if appointed, he would try to make Senate service his life’s work. Schatz will serve until an election in 2014, and has said he will run to try to keep the seat.
Schatz is one of the youngest currently serving senators and is just the sixth senator from Hawaii. Only one of those, Democrat Oren Long, one of Hawaii’s first senators, served less than 10 years.
“Realistically, if you’re a Democrat in this state and get in office, you can be around for a long time,” said political analyst Neal Milner, alluding to the dominance of the party in Hawaii politics.
Moore said part of Hanabusa’s disappointment with getting passed over could stem from knowing it would be difficult to mount a strong challenge to Schatz. He said it is hard to see positions on which she differs much from Schatz.
Moore said the possibility of Hanabusa challenging Abercrombie in 2014 was more likely but still a “remote possibility.”
Associated Press writer Audrey McAvoy contributed to this report.
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