Measure's rejection could open senator's fresh political wound
|||After bill fails, Akaka vows to try again|
By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau
By Kevin Dayton
Yesterday's failure to force a U.S. Senate vote on the federal recognition bill for Native Hawaiians was stinging for U.S. Sens. Daniel K. Akaka and Daniel K. Inouye, but the four-vote loss may do more lasting harm to Akaka than Inouye, political observers said.
Hawai'i pollster and political consultant Don Clegg said yesterday's setback for the Akaka bill could be politically dangerous for Akaka in his effort to fend off the Democratic primary challenge from U.S. Rep. Ed Case.
The setback for the measure, widely known as the Akaka bill since he introduced it in 2000, could be disastrous for Akaka if it reinforces suggestions he is ineffective, Clegg said.
Time magazine this year rated Akaka as one of the five worst members of the Senate, a judgment Akaka said was unfair.
Clegg said he believes much of the support for the Akaka bill among Senate Democrats was designed to pass the measure to boost Akaka's re-election effort. Democrats in Congress, including Inouye, want Akaka to defeat Case in the primary, while Senate Republicans would rather work with Case, Clegg said.
"My take on it is, the success or failure will possibly not revolve around the substance of the bill, but rather the politics in the Senate and the politics of Congress," Clegg said. "Ed Case is not the darling boy of the Democratic hierarchy, either here or in Washington."
The bill for federal recognition of Native Hawaiians has been stalled in the Senate for six years, and yesterday's cloture vote was an effort to send the bill to the floor for an open vote. Supporters needed 60 votes to accomplish that, but the effort failed, 56-41.
The measure has strong support among most Hawai'i politicians, including the entire Hawai'i congressional delegation and Republican Gov. Linda Lingle.
Critics say the measure would create a race-based government that contradicts American ideals of racial equality, and the U.S. Justice Department notified senators on Wednesday that the Bush administration strongly opposes the bill.
Inouye also put his stature on the line yesterday, urging fellow senators to support an open vote just before the Senate rejected the idea. But Nelson W. Polsby, Heller Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, said that the loss doesn't imply that Inouye's political clout is slipping.
Polsby said the vote points more to the weakness of the minority Democrats in the Congress than any personal loss of influence by Inouye or Akaka within their own party.
"Conditions of partisanship in Congress are severe, and as universally liked and respected as I know Inouye is ... partisan bitterness is far more significant at the moment," Polsby said.
After the election this fall, Polsby said he expects the Democrats to be stronger in the Congress, offering new opportunities for the Hawai'i delegation.
"What it means is when the Senate gets closer to Democratic control, they'll probably have a good chance at it," Polsby said of yesterday's vote. "These guys, and particularly Inouye, are extremely high in status in the Democratic caucus."
There also is a large pool of voters who haven't made up their minds about the Akaka bill, and they will be relieved to have more time to consider the issue, said Ted Hong, a political science lecturer at the University of Hawai'i-Hilo.
Hong said he thinks support of the Akaka bill has become the "politically correct" position in Hawai'i, but many voters remain uneasy about the bill.
"I think a lot of people are going to be relieved that it didn't just go through because it's got Akaka's and Inouye's name on it, and the governor's name on it," he said.
People are reluctant to publicly say they oppose the measure, but many don't understand the bill, and most want the issue put to a statewide vote in some form of referendum before any Native Hawaiian government is established, he said.
Hong, who was co-chair of Lingle's 2002 campaign on the eastern side of the Big Island, said these concerns often are not being openly expressed to pollsters, which means politicians don't really know the depth of public support or opposition to the bill.
"To me, this is the political land mine in this year's election," Hong said. "People are going to campaign based on what they think the majority wants, but on Election Day that's when I think people are going to find out what the majority really wants."
Reach Kevin Dayton at email@example.com.