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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Does Sen. Akaka, Mr. Nice Guy, belong?

By David Shapiro

Time magazine's designation of Hawai'i's Daniel Akaka as one of the five worst U.S. senators brought to mind a commentary I wrote in 1981 when Akaka was a third-term congressman and I was a reporter in Washington.

Akaka had been appointed to the House Appropriations Committee, an influential post that gave him a voice on most federal spending.

But his initiation was to have fellow Democrats, who controlled the House then, embarrass him by rejecting a $100,000 appropriation for the Falls of Clyde because of staff opposition.

It was most uncommon for panelists to show up a colleague on so small a local matter not only out of political courtesy, but because an Appropriations member had many ways to get even on their own home-state projects.

Equally unusual was how Akaka meekly took the disrespect without a fight, leaving Sen. Daniel K. Inouye to rescue the money.

"Daniel Akaka is without doubt one of the nicest people in Congress," I wrote in an assessment that's still true.

Also true is what I added next: "While the Mr. Nice Guy demeanor is perhaps Akaka's greatest political asset, it can also be a severe liability for a fellow operating in a legislative arena filled with wolves and vultures."

Akaka responded by writing the nicest attack on my work I've ever received, saying he still considered me a good reporter despite my "fanciful article."

It made me feel rotten for saying anything bad about him.

The nice vs. effective issue remains relevant today as voters decide whether Akaka deserves another term at 81 or if it's time to turn the job over to his younger and more aggressive challenger, Rep. Ed Case.

After 30 years in a cynical business, Akaka remains the gracious gentleman he always was, an admired embodiment of what's good about Hawai'i.

But that doesn't necessarily translate to respect in a rough-and-tumble legislative environment, and that's where there's some truth to Time magazine's criticism.

While ranking Akaka among the worst five is arbitrary and subjective, his signature bill for Native Hawaiian recognition is a good example of what separates Akaka from the most effective senators.

The Akaka bill has gone nowhere for six years, stymied by opponents such as Republican Sen. John Kyl of Arizona, who was named one of the best senators by Time.

Akaka could have struck back by using the same delaying tactics against the pet projects of opponents, but that's not his style and his bill foundered.

Finally in 2004, Kyl needed his support for a GOP energy bill and Akaka extracted a reciprocal promise for a vote on his bill by August 2005.

That vote never happened, and Akaka has been typically nice about excusing the double-cross.

The bottom line: Kyl got his energy bill without ultimately giving up anything on the Akaka bill, while Akaka ditched fellow Democrats on the energy bill only to gain little on his own measure.

Kyl didn't play nice, but he showed the difference in results between a top-ranked senator and a colleague on the bottom of the heap.

Inouye takes care of Hawai'i's business so well that our junior senator doesn't have to carry much of a load.

But Inouye is the same age as Akaka, and Case wants voters to consider whether we can afford to have Akaka as our top man in Washington if Inouye leaves office first.

Case hasn't been in Congress long enough to establish whether he's capable of picking up for Inouye.

But he'll never be accused of being too nice a guy for the job after the way he blind-sided Akaka with his surprise decision to run against him.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net.