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After Inouye: Hawaii's most powerful representative is gone. What happens now?

Predictions of fiscal doom abound in the wake of Sen. Daniel K. Inouye’s death, but how realistic are they? What should Hawaii’s newest senators do to start regaining the stature held by Inouye and the recently retired Sen. Dan Akaka?


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For Hawaii, that triangle is gone and won’t be back for a long time, if ever. But then, Inouye himself did not suddenly go from chopped liver to powerhouse. He accrued power in calculated ways, over time. Inouye first came to Congress in 1954, as the Territory of Hawaii’s only member of the U.S. House of Representatives. One of the first things he did was look for influential mentors, and he chose the chairs of the committees that had jurisdiction over statehood. He also sought out Sam Rayburn, the Speaker of the House, who was one of the most powerful politicians in the United States at that time. Inouye loved to tell the story about Rayburn reassuring the rookie legislator that Rayburn would always remember him, because, as Rayburn put it, how many other one-armed Japanese legislators were there? Inouye told these stories in the modest, self-deprecating way he liked to talk about himself, but the stories had a greater significance for him. They were object lessons about the importance of making connections.

Brian Schatz was appointed to fill Inouye’s seat until 2014, over Inouye’s preference for Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.

Photo: Courtesy Office of Brian Schatz

Inouye followed the same strategy when he moved to the Senate, soon catching Lyndon Johnson’s eye. Early in his career, Inouye had the ears of two of the most powerful politicians in America, not bad for a still-young guy from Hawaii.

Throughout his career, Inouye mastered what Donald Matthews, in his book U.S. Senators and Their World, called the Senate’s “folkways,” the things that make senators influential over time: Freshmen senators should be seen but not heard. Focus on nitty-gritty legislative work and do it out of the spotlight. Specialize. Show courtesy—don’t make political disagreements personal. Be reciprocal—trade votes and exchange favors. Institutional patriotism—be loyal to the Senate as an institution. Dampen any larger political ambitions that you might have.

Those norms defined Inouye’s career, as they did Byrd’s. Byrd and Inouye were very different people, but they were both recognized as senators through and through who fully embodied those folkways. Each became what you might call a Senate Person. Today’s Senate is more partisan, less civil and clubby than it was when Matthews wrote about it. Nevertheless, these old folkways remain strong.

Inouye’s career offers these lessons for the state’s new senators: (1) getting influence is a long-term project that you have to begin on day one; (2) without making a big fuss about yourself, seek out influential mentors; (3) set becoming a Senate Person as your goal; and 4) remember that, if you do these things, you will begin to have influence well before you have much seniority. Let’s hope that Hawaii’s senators have already begun to abide by these lessons. The strategies will not have immediate, dramatic payoffs. They are investments for the future.

Neal Milner is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii. He is a political analyst for KITV.


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Honolulu Magazine April 2020
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