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No Room at the Top With Octogenarian Senators

The pace of life is much slower on the Islands. And much to the dismay of aspiring politicians, so is the turnover rate for Hawaii Congressional seats.

[IMGCAP(1)]The state’s politics mostly are dominated by Democrats, who hold overwhelming majorities in the state legislature. And in a state with minimal upward

mobility, it’s not uncommon to see very crowded Democratic primaries.

Rep. Mazie Hirono (D) won her first term in 2006 in a field of nine Democrats after then-Rep. Ed Case (D) stepped down to challenge Sen. Daniel Akaka in their party’s Senate primary.

“Taking on Akaka like that was a ballsy thing to do, it really was,” said Dan Boylan, a Hawaii political analyst and history professor at the University of Hawaii-West Oahu. “But whatever Akaka’s weakness is, he is one of the nicest human beings that I’ve ever known … He’s an embodiment of Aloha, he really is. It’s hard to run against a guy like that.”

However, Akaka, who is 83 years old, isn’t the only incumbent who seems to be staying put for the foreseeable future. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D), who is four days older than Akaka, is on track to run for re-election to his ninth term in 2010.

The only wild card in the delegation is nine-term Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D), who has expressed interest in running for governor in 2010, according to sources in the state. If Abercrombie were to leave his House seat, that would open up the field for Democrats and Republicans who have been waiting their turn.

For the Democrats, state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa is on the short list of people ready to run for higher office. Hanabusa came in a very close second to Hirono in the 2nd district Democratic primary in 2006, but she could have her eyes on the governorship in 2010.

Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann also is on the top of the list of many Democrats waiting their turn. Hannemann lost races for the 1st and 2nd Congressional districts in the mid-1980s and early 1990s before being elected mayor.

Also further down that list of potential up-and-comers, according to Boylan, are some of the other names from the crowded 2006 Democratic primary for the 2nd district, including state Sens. Clayton Hee, Gary Hooser and Ron Menor, former state Rep. Brian Schatz and former state Sen. Matt Matsunaga, son of former Sen. Spark Matsunaga (D).

And in a phone interview Monday, Case said he was not ruling out running for Congress or governor some day — and could even try for his former House seat.

“I consider my departure from Congress an involuntarily hiatus, so I do want to run for Congress again,” Case said. “I think there will be opportunities in the next couple years.”

Case noted that while Inouye has said he will run for re-election in 2010, Akaka has yet to announce his plans for 2012.

And in state dominated by Democratic primaries, Republicans might have a formidable candidate to challenge either Senator in the cycles ahead. Gov. Linda Lingle (R) is term- limited out of office in 2010 and could be interested in running for her party’s nod for either seat.

“Certainly she could probably prevail over all but a very few Democratic candidates for Congressional office,” Case said. “I personally doubt that she would run against Sen. Inouye. I think she’d more likely have her eyes on Sen. Akaka’s seat in 2012.”

Boylan was less hesitant when it came to predicting Lingle’s next move.

“In 2010, she will be a candidate for either the House or the Senate,” Boylan said. “I’d bet money. I’d bet a lot of money.”

The popular Lingle has carried the banner for her party since she was elected statewide in 2002. Lingle’s heir apparent, Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona Jr. (R), has expressed interest in running for governor when Lingle steps down in 2010.

“We’ve seen more Republicans on the voter rolls, although the biggest increase we’ve seen since Gov. Lingle became governor has been the energy brought forth through this presidential campaign season,” Hawaii Republican Party Chairman Willes Lee said. “We haven’t seen membership increase like this since Gov. Lingle and Lt. Gov. Aiona came into office.”

But in a party that revolves around Lingle, it remains to be seen whether Aiona has popular appeal like the sitting governor.

“According to the polls, no, he’s not as popular as she is,” said Hawaii Democratic Party Executive Director Florence Kong Kee. “First of all, she is our first woman governor ever in the history of our state. She is likable. The people can relate to her.”

And other than the state’s top officeholders, the Republican bench is relatively shallow for Republicans at the state Capitol. The GOP currently holds four seats out of 25 in the state Senate and only seven seats out of the 51 in the state House.

Six of the seven Republicans in the state House are women, but most eyes look to Minority Leader Lynn Finnegan as the Republican pol who could continue up through the ranks and run for higher office someday.

The other Republicans who might be suited for higher office include Director of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and former state party Chairman Micah Kane.

“Micah Kane in my view, is another Linda Lingle,” said one Republican operative in the state. “He appeals across the spectrum, but has not given the indication that he wants to run for public office.”

Honolulu City Prosecutor Peter Carlisle and Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou are Republicans who also are interested in running for higher office. Djou has his eyes to run for Abercrombie’s House seat in 2010, according to the GOP operative.

“He’s decided to run for that seat, period,” the operative said. “Whether Abercrombie is there or not there, he’s going to run.”

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