By OSKAR GARCIA
HONOLULU — The widow of longtime U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye in Hawaii is endorsing U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa as she challenges the man appointed to fill Inouye’s shoes after he died.
Irene Hirano Inouye said in a statement Friday that she looks forward to supporting Hanabusa on the campaign trail as she challenges U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz in a Democratic primary.
“Shortly after she was elected president of the Hawaii State Senate, Dan recognized that Colleen was more than capable of succeeding him and he began to mentor her,” Hirano Inouye said. “His last wish was that Colleen serve out his term because he was confident in her ability to step into the Senate and immediately help Hawaii.”
The presence of Inouye’s wife in the race assures the late senator — who had a dominant influence on state politics while alive — a key role in guiding Hawaii voters in the first election since his death in December.
Inouye pushed for Hanabusa to replace him, even sending Gov. Neil Abercrombie a letter dated the day he died requesting the appointment, but Abercrombie picked Schatz instead.
Hirano Inouye said supporting Hanabusa honors one of her husband’s last requests.
Schatz said during a campaign stop later Friday that he’s not sure how much Inouye’s legacy will influence the race.
“I’ll leave it to political analysts to try to determine what are the various strains that will influence the campaign, but for my part, Hawaii voters get to choose what kind of future they want,” he said.
“Hawaii voters have an opportunity to make a change,” Schatz said. “Hawaii voters have an opportunity to think about their kids and grandkids and that’s what our campaign is going to be about — it’s going to be about the future.”
Schatz said in a campaign statement earlier in the day that he respects Hirano Inouye’s decision.
“I realize it may be unusual to comment on an opponent’s endorsement, but I have great respect for Irene Inouye and her husband’s legacy to Hawaii,” Schatz said.
Schatz said he called Hirano Inouye when it became clear Hanabusa would run. He said she told him graciously that she would be supporting Hanabusa.
“I told Mrs. Inouye that I understood her decision and assured that, as Hawaii’s Senator, I will continue doing everything in my power to honor Sen. Inouye’s memory and accomplishments,” Schatz said.
Hirano Inouye said Schatz had politely asked if she would remain neutral or endorse him.
While Hirano Inouye’s blessing gives a boost to Hanabusa, Schatz has about $1 million in campaign cash, the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and roughly 20 endorsements from key local groups.
The primary election is in August 2014, with the winner moving on to a general election against a Republican or other opponents. No other major candidates have stepped forward. The winner of the seat will serve through 2016, the end of Inouye’s original term.
Oskar Garcia can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/oskargarcia