Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Old guard Democrats make play for power

By David Shapiro

Since statehood, Hawai'i voters have never seemed comfortable with one political group controlling everything.

The state has been strongly Democratic throughout our history, but Democrats are broken into many factions and seldom has any one group exercised ironclad control.

Democrats who kept their distance from the party establishment, such as Tom Gill, Patsy Mink, Frank Fasi, Nelson Doi and Ben Cayetano, have always held a piece of power. Republicans such as Hiram Fong, Neal Blaisdell, D.G. "Andy" Anderson, Pat Saiki and Linda Lingle were always in the mix.

Having a little political diversity at the top helps assure that nothing too gamey happens without somebody blowing the whistle.

That could change this year if the Democratic old guard led by senior U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, Hawai'i's public worker unions, government contractors and some downtown business interests have their way.

With pivotal races for U.S. Congress, governor and Honolulu mayor on tap, Inouye and the Democratic regulars are making perhaps their most aggressive grab ever for all the reins of political power.

If they succeed in electing state Sen. Colleen Hanabusa over former U.S. Rep. Ed Case and Councilman Charles Djou for Congress, Mayor Mufi Hannemann over former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie and Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona for governor and if Hannemann's managing director, Kirk Caldwell, succeeds him, the Democrats' dominant wing will control every top office in Hawai'i as never before.

Republicans would be shut out of statewide office and could see the few seats they hold in the Legislature dwindle to the lowest number ever.

There are multiple Democratic factions in both houses of the Legislature, but they are organized more around personal power than policy, and none of the dissident groups has put forth a coherent alternate vision for Hawai'i.

Inouye has been unusually visible in the move by establishment Democrats to consolidate power.

In the 1st Congressional District, he actively recruited Hanabusa to challenge Case, an independent Democrat who got on Inouye's bad side when he ran against Sen. Daniel Akaka in the 2006 Democratic primary.

Inouye has been a major force in helping Hanabusa raise twice as much campaign money as Case and fend off a possible nod to Case by the Democratic National Campaign Committee. Despite his help, she's running a weak third in the latest Advertiser poll.

Inouye has also made no secret that he encouraged Hannemann to seek the Democratic nomination for governor against Abercrombie, who was mostly an Inouye loyalist during his 20 years in Congress but has a stubborn nonconformist streak.

Caldwell has built up a big campaign bankroll in the likely special election to replace Hannemann, some of it garnered in a fundraising trip to Washington, D.C. He's a former state House majority leader, married to Bank of Hawaii executive Donna Tanoue, who Inouye described as his "dear friend" when pushing for her appointment by President Clinton to head the FDIC.

Inouye himself is seeking re-election with little opposition this year at 85, and his fellow pillar of the Democratic establishment, Sen. Daniel Akaka, says he'll do the same in 2012, when he'll be 87.

If the political tea leaves fall Inouye's way, there'll be nobody in Hawai'i's highest offices who has shown much inclination to buck the old guard.

The question is whether voters will be willing to hand over all the power to the group that has held a good share of it as our economy, schools and social safety net have deteriorated to perhaps their worst shape ever.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net. His columns are archived at www.volcanicash.net. Read his daily blog, Volcanic Ash, at http://volcanicash.honadvblogs.com.