'Rift' between Hawaii lawmakers is politically based, not personal
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
When U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie announced he would resign from Congress to devote his attention to his campaign for governor, many Democrats were startled by the response from U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye.
Inouye, the state's leading Democrat, said Abercrombie was leaving the party a vote shy as Congress prepares for major policy decisions on health care, the war in Afghanistan and a Native Hawaiian federal recognition bill.
Inouye politely thanked Abercrombie for his two decades of service in Congress and wished him well.
For party insiders wondering where Inouye stands on Abercrombie's campaign for governor, the statement appeared to settle the question.
Inouye has not made an official endorsement, but he has not disputed that he has urged Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann to run in the Democratic primary. His cool reaction to Abercrombie's resignation only strengthened the perception that the senior senator prefers the mayor.
Inouye's preference may not matter to voters by the September primary, but in these early days of the campaign, as Abercrombie and Hannemann compete for endorsements and woo potential donors, it can make a difference.
Momentum, one top Democrat said, is "harder to come by when your voodoo doll is being pricked."
John Buckstead, a party activist and Abercrombie supporter on the Big Island, recently sent an e-mail to his political circle making sure they knew Inouye has not made a formal endorsement.
"If the senator wants to endorse Mufi Hannemann or Neil Abercrombie or somebody else, I assume that the senator will do that," Buckstead said of the reason for his note. "Short of doing that, I don't think we should assume that news leaks or other kinds of vague comments constitute anything."
Any distance that exists between Inouye and Abercrombie is likely being exaggerated because of the primary, as Democrats try to dissect their relationship and how it might influence the majority party's choice for governor.
Friends and staff put most of the tension down to the natural ebb and flow of a political association that has lasted for decades between two very different men.
Inouye, 85, shaped by his combat sacrifices in World War II, is the voice of Hawai'i in the Senate, where he is a quiet diplomat and dealmaker.
Abercrombie, 71, shaped by the anti-war protests during Vietnam, is often aggressively independent, an outsider willing to speak out when others stay silent.
But in his two decades in the House, Abercrombie has been a full partner in the state's congressional delegation, earning seniority on the House Armed Services Committee that has given a small state leverage in Washington, D.C.
CAPTAIN AND COACH
With Inouye the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i, the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, the delegation is well placed to look after the state's military interests.
On Hawai'i issues, the delegation — which includes U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawai'i — almost always works as a team to enhance its power.
"I think people forget that I was a running guard on a winning football team," Abercrombie said in an interview. "I know what being a team player is.
"My thought, and I've said it to other people, is if you don't want to be a team player in the Hawai'i congressional delegation, don't run, because there is only four of us.
"And the captain of our team, the quarterback of our team, and the coach of our team is Daniel K. Inouye."
Last week, it was Inouye and Abercrombie who worked together to repair a breach over the Native Hawaiian federal recognition bill after Akaka's staff neglected to inform Gov. Linda Lingle about significant changes developed with the Obama administration.
Abercrombie took a public hit from Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee who argued that the bill was being rushed. He agreed to drop the changes, but got the bill through the committee and pointed to the House floor for a vote.
Akaka moved the revised bill through the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, but he promised to work with the Lingle administration to address the state's concerns.
"When the chips are down, when they need to come together, they definitely will," Jennifer Goto Sabas, Inouye's chief of staff in Honolulu, said of the relationship between the senator and the congressman.
Even when they may be going through a rough patch, she said, they have shown they can collaborate.
"In working this Akaka bill over the last couple of days, they were on the same page, they were talking to each other, because they knew — at the end of the day — they needed to do this and they needed to be together to do it.
"If you don't have an underlying relationship, you can't do that."
EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
Abercrombie said that when he told Inouye about his resignation, he also spoke of his profound respect for the senator and his gratitude for the senator's mentorship in Congress.
"I think there's a lot of other agendas going on," he said of those who see distance in their relationship. "This is a serious year. It's an open seat for governor. The situation is kind of unprecedented, and so everybody is quite anxious to, I suppose, gain every inch they can wherever they can.
"And so they probably tend to see it through the lenses of their own eyes, their own political eyes."
Inouye campaigned with Abercrombie during the 2004 elections, when the senator appeared with the congressman in campaign advertisements and volunteers waved Abercrombie and Inouye signs together.
Inouye privately urged Abercrombie not to run for governor against Lingle in 2006, advising him to keep his seniority in the House, a factor in the congressman's decision to skip the campaign.
In 2006, it was Abercrombie who first stepped up on behalf of the delegation to angrily denounce then-U.S. Rep. Ed Case's decision to challenge Akaka in the Senate primary.
Dan Boylan, a history professor at the University of Hawai'i-West O'ahu, thinks Inouye's reverence for the Senate is the source of some distance with Abercrombie.
Boylan believes Inouye does not understand why Abercrombie would give up his valuable seniority in the House, at a time when Hawai'i may be at its peak of influence in Washington with Island-born President Obama in the White House, to return home, let alone quit early.
"He is that body," Boylan said of Inouye and the Senate.
Boylan has been a friend of Abercrombie's since they were graduate students at UH. His son, Peter, is a spokesman for Inouye in Washington.
"I don't think there's any dislike of Neil," he said. "And I think Neil has, by and large, done his best to carry the water on the other side for Hawai'i."
Some Democrats, speaking privately because they do not want to appear to take sides, said Abercrombie's resignation may reinforce his image as an outsider willing to take bold action for change.
Abercrombie's campaign, which is trailing in fundraising, has portrayed Hannemann as the candidate of the wealthy A-list.
But, these Democrats say, Abercrombie's resignation could also play into what could be his biggest weakness, that he is seen more as a street fighter than a chief executive.
Abercrombie, a friend of the Obama family, has used Obama's theme of change to help frame his campaign for governor.
It was Abercrombie's zealous support for Obama during the presidential primaries last year that caused his most public rift with the Inouye camp.
Inouye had endorsed then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton early in the campaign and the senator remained loyal as Obama brought thousands of new Democrats to the local party and crushed Clinton in the Hawai'i caucuses.
The local Clinton and Obama forces had largely reached a public truce by the party's state convention in May 2008, stressing unity and the historic nature of the nomination fight.
Behind the scenes, though, the local Clinton and Obama camps both sought the last superdelegate slot to the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
The local Clinton camp wanted former Gov. George Ariyoshi for the slot. When that did not work out, they drafted Sabas — Inouye's chief of staff — as the reluctant stand-in.
The local Obama camp put up James Burns, a retired judge on the state Intermediate Court of Appeals and the son of former Gov. John Burns.
Abercrombie personally acted as a whip for Burns, and when the party's state central committee met at the close of the convention to decide, the congressman stayed to help make sure the vote went his way.
Burns beat Sabas by three votes.
The situation was awkward — and some believe unnecessary — since the last superdelegate slot was not that sweet of a prize.
Both sides had worked the vote, and things were said privately that left wounds.
Shortly after, Abercrombie, aware of the tension, had a trusted staffer hand-deliver Sabas a bouquet of flowers.
Sabas sent the flowers back.
Abercrombie said the experience showed how both he and Inouye regard loyalty.
"He was loyal to the end. That's the kind of man he is. That's the kind of politics he practices," the congressman said.
"So I think we were mutually respectful of the fact that we understood what the word loyalty means."