Obama takes sides in Hawaii’s contentious Senate Democratic primary


PALS: President Obama endorses U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz in contentious Democratic primary

By Malia Zimmerman | Watchdog.org

HONOLULU — President Barack Obama has inserted himself into Hawaii’s most contentious political race, endorsing U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz over challenger U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in the state’s upcoming U.S. Senate election.

“I have worked with Senator Schatz on the issues that matter to Hawaii. Brian’s deep commitment to the people of Hawaii and his effective leadership are why I believe it is important to return him to the Senate,” Obama said.

The president pointed to Schatz “protecting Hawaii’s values and fighting every day on behalf of middle-class families” as why he is the “right choice.”

The president’s endorsement was followed by a second endorsement for Schatz by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Appointed to the seat by Gov. Neil Abercrombie after U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye died, Schatz has served since December 2012. Schatz’s appointment was extremely controversial in Hawaii politics, and set off a war in the Democratic party.

That’s because from his deathbed, Inouye wrote a letter that was hand delivered to Abercrombie by two of Inouye’s key supporters, asking the governor to appoint Hanabusa to his Senate seat. The governor, who refused to release the letter to the media, ignored the request, instead selecting Schatz, his lieutenant governor, to fill the vacancy.

Inouye, the second-longest serving U.S. senator in history after Robert Byrd of West Virginia, and a Medal of Honor-winning World War II veteran, brought billions of dollars in “pork” to Hawaii during his nine terms in the U.S. Senate, particularly when he served as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Inouye was widely recognized as one of Hawaii’s most important economic engines.

A FAVORITE: U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye died in 2012 after nine terms in the US Senate.

Many Democrats said Abercrombie disrespected Inouye’s last wish by appointing Schatz. Inouye’s former staff and key advisers, along with Hanabusa’s supporters, teamed up to ensure she takes the seat this November that many Democrats say was rightfully hers to inherit.

In a statement, Schatz said the president’s endorsement is an “enormous boost” in a critical election and called himself one of the president’s “most steadfast allies” in the U.S. Senate.

“President Obama personally understands Hawaii’s values and is committed to making sure that everyone who works hard and plays by the rules is given a fair shot. I will work together with President Obama to continue moving Hawaii and America forward,” Schatz said.

CHALLENGER: U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-HI, received Obama’s endorsement in 2010

Obama, who spent much of his childhood in Hawaii, has inserted himself into local politics a number of times, most recently in December by endorsing Abercrombie in his race for a second gubernatorial term.

Peter Boylan, spokesperson for Hanabusa, said this election will be decided by the people of Hawaii, and pledged Hanabusa will continue to listen to the public’s concerns and work hard to provide them the representation they expect and deserve.

“Colleen is a skilled legislator with a proven record of leadership and bipartisan accomplishment and has always fought to provide for Hawaii’s hard working families while protecting our values,” Boylan said. “The people of Hawaii are looking forward to their first opportunity to vote for their next U.S. senator and we believe they trust Colleen to continue fighting for them in the U.S. Senate.”

Hanabusa has been endorsed by two retired Democratic governors, George Ariyoshi and Ben Cayetano, and former U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, but is still trailing in her fundraising numbers with a $1.6 million campaign war chest compared with Schatz’s $3.4 million to date.

Reach Malia Zimmerman at Malia@hawaiireporter.com