Sunday, February 4, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, February 4, 2001

Senators hoping to win over Ashcroft

By Jerry Burris
Advertiser Editorial Page Editor

Given their politics, it was not all surprising that Hawaii Sens. Dan Inouye and Dan Akaka voted against the confirmation of controversial Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft.

Both senators — Akaka in particular — get big-time ratings from liberal political action groups such as the Americans for Democratic Action. Such groups were at the forefront of the fight against Ashcroft and would have been deeply disappointed if Inouye or Akaka had gone against them.

But while the vote was not surprising, it was somewhat unexpected back in Hawaii, where Ashcroft’s nomination is of far less importance than other issues — most notably the blazing struggle over Native Hawaiian programs.

There had been some speculation that the two senators might set aside their personal misgivings and vote for Ashcroft with an eye on the Hawaiian rights battle ahead.

If Hawaiians are going to win federal recognition in a way that saves existing programs such as Hawaiian Home Lands or the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, they will have to go through the U.S. Department of Justice and the current attorney general, John Ashcroft.

This will be an uphill fight by any measurement. Inouye and Akaka will need all the aloha they can get from Justice. So it might have made sense to give him a vote.

Even Ashcroft’s most sympathetic supporters would have to admit he is no fan of race-based federal programs. So anything designed to protect programs aimed at Hawaiians, and Hawai’ians only, will be a tough sell.

By all appearances, the no vote from Akaka and Inouye will make the sell just that much tougher. But there may be wheels within wheels here that offer some hope.

It was clear for some time that Ashcroft would be confirmed over strong Democratic opposition.

If the confirmation had been hanging by a one- or two-vote margin, it would have been far tougher for Inouye and Akaka to vote their conscience.

But it wasn’t, so they could cast a vote that would sit well with their civil rights-conscious constituents without causing irreversible harm to the nominee.

Veteran pols like Ashcroft or the two Hawai’i senators know how this game is played. They compartmentalize. The next time they are together, it will almost certainly be back to a "Danny" and "John" relationship.

And that will be critical. Because the appointment of Ashcroft is a strong signal that the supportive climate that many Hawaiians felt they saw in the Clinton administration is long gone. George W. may be a compassionate conservative, but he has built an administration that believes down to its very soul that programs built around race (which is how they will look at Hawaiian entitlements) are wrong.

To get past that will take more than salesmanship. It will take creative and innovative thinking; finding a way to explain Hawaii’s unique situation in new and different ways that the Ashcrofts of the world will understand and accept.

That task that will require far more than a "yes" vote on a single confirmation to accomplish.

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