It’s safe to say there will likely never be another U.S. senator like Dan Inouye, the 88-year-old Democrat who died yesterday after representing Hawaii in the Senate for 50 years. He ran his state’s Democratic machine and in effect almost no one got elected to high office without his stamp of approval. He called himself the “No. 1 earmarks guy in the U.S. Congress,” and he had the numbers to back it up. In the years 2009–2010, Inouye sponsored at least 137 earmarks for Hawaii directly or indirectly, totaling over $425 million. Local pols called him the fourth pillar of Hawaii’s economy: “After tourism, the military, and construction . . . there is Inouye.”
Senator Inouye was also a genuine war hero, having lost his right arm in World War II in a grenade attack. In 1943, he joined the military just out of high school, after witnessing the attack on Pearl Harbor at age 17. In 2000, he became one of 22 Asian-American veterans to receive the Medal of Honor after their service records were reviewed.
Hawaii governor Neil Abercrombie, who must appoint a successor to serve two years in the Senate until a 2014 special election, says he got a deathbed request from Inouye that his “last wish” was that Representative Colleen Hanabusa replace him. Should Abercrombie do that, Hanabusa would resign from the House and trigger a special election this spring to fill her seat. A slew of ambitious Democrats would enter the race, while Republicans would likely run former congressman Charles Djou, who lost to Hanabusa in November by nine percentage points. But in doing so he demonstrated that Republicans would have a chance to win the seat in a low-turnout special election. After all, a special election is how Djou won his seat in 2010, and this year he ran much better than Mitt Romney who lost Hawaii by an astounding 43 points. (Djou was elected to Congress in May 2010, but lost the first of two general elections to Hanabusa that November.)
“The Inouye machine will lose power with his departure,” says Malia Zimmerman, the head of HawaiiReporter.com, the state’s largest Internet news site. “He got everything he wanted in the November election through his tremendous influence on the electorate. He was able to get two congresswomen, a U.S. senator, and a mayor of his choice into office. Now a lot of people will be fighting for pieces of his power.”
Should Hanabusa be appointed, Hawaii would join New Hampshire in having an all-female congressional delegation.