Published December 20, 2015
Before the final debate in Hawaii's top political race, a photo of the late Sen. Daniel Inouye lingered on television screens, a reminder to viewers this election is about more than the two Democrats running for the seat -- it's about who ought to succeed the beloved, political icon.
Inouye's legacy has hovered over the tight primary race between incumbent U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and U.S. Rep Colleen Hanabusa, and questions about his dying wishes over who should take his place are not far from voters' minds.
"His spirit still lingers," said Edoardo Imperial, a Honolulu actor, who voted for Hanabusa during early voting ahead of Saturday's primary. "He will always be a part of Hawaii."
Before his death in December 2012, Inouye asked Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie to appoint Hanabusa to replace him in the Senate. Instead, Abercrombie chose Schatz, his lieutenant governor at the time -- a move some believe was disrespectful to the World War II hero.
The race to officially fill the rest of Inouye's term has divided many Democrats on the islands. Hanabusa, who like Inouye is Japanese-American, has attracted many of his dedicated supporters, while other voters have been attracted to Schatz's more progressive message.
"As much respect as I had for the late senator, I don't believe that people should be able to bring their power to the grave," said Denny Pomeroy, a 70-year-old Honolulu security director who voted for Schatz.
Throughout the campaign, Hanabusa has played up her connections to Inouye and doesn't shy away from bringing up his name. One campaign ad, titled "Inouye," features photos of her with him.
It's not just another election, Hanabusa said in a recent debate: "This is an election that people will have the first opportunity to say who should succeed Sen. Inouye."
Schatz, meanwhile, has downplayed how he got his Senate promotion, instead touting his endorsement earlier this year from another Hawaii heavyweight, President Barack Obama, and his work in Senate since joining 20 months ago.
"I am proud to be one of the president's most steadfast allies in the U.S. Senate," Schatz said after Obama's endorsement.
Both Schatz, 41, and Hanabusa, 62, have emphasized something else Inouye was known for doing -- bringing federal money back to the islands.
During his more than 50 years in Congress, Inouye secured up to $2 billion in federal dollars for Hawaii especially as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. After his death, many Democrats feared the islands could fall off the "Inouye cliff," even as the climate in Washington made it more difficult for lawmakers to get federal funds for projects in their states.
"He sort of set the tone so to speak in terms of credibility and service and years in office," said Dante Carpenter, former chairman of Hawaii's Democratic Party. "When one has been in service for over 50 years, there are all kinds of attachments made."
Hanabusa cites her work as a member of the House Armed Services Committee on the federal defense budget bill, which includes $400 million in Hawaii military construction. Schatz claims responsibility for restoring $16.7 million for the East-West Center, an organization promotes relationships between Asia-Pacific countries and the United States.
"I've been able to build relationships across the country and across the aisle, and that accrues to Hawaii's benefit especially in the appropriations process," Schatz said in a recent interview.
Schatz has outspent Hanabusa by more than $1 million during the campaign and his ads are dominating the airwaves, but observers haven't counted Hanabusa out of the race, which is a special election to fill the remaining two years of Inouye's term. The winner of Saturday's primary will face one of four Republicans and two non-partisan candidates in the November general election, but in heavily Democratic Hawaii, it's expected whomever Democrats pick on Saturday will win.
Inouye's aura this election has extended beyond the Senate race. Abercrombie is being challenged in a Democratic primary by state Sen. David Ige, who suggested in a debate that the appointment may have hurt the governor politically.
At one point, Abercrombie questioned whether Inouye really wrote a letter from his death bed recommending Hanabusa, which angered some in Hawaii's political establishment but resonated with others.
"To say that the good Sen. Inouye, on his death bed, picked her, frankly I'm not sure that was ever true at the outset," said Carpenter, who has voted for Hanabusa in previous elections but would not say who he was voting for in the Senate race. "It's up to her if she wants to ride on his coattails. That's her prerogative, but it seems to me going forward there are more important things."