By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times
HONOLULU — In primaries across the country — in Idaho, Kentucky, Mississippi and other states — Republicans are locked in a heart-and-soul battle between purists and pragmatists clashing over what it means to represent the party, its philosophy and core values.
Here in Hawaii there’s a similar fight over power and purpose, but this one is between Democrats. It’s a fight for a U.S. Senate seat, a rare enough prize in a state that has elected just six people senator since statehood in 1959. But it is also a battle over age and gender, over ethnicity and identity, over old grudges and new tensions.
Rivalries and historical resentments often surface in Hawaii politics — sometimes years later, like a bottle cast to sea — and the fierce contest between appointed Senator Brian Schatz and his fellow Democrat, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, is no different: The two ran against each other in a 2006 congressional primary, and they both lost.
The latest contest arises from the death of Democratic Senator Daniel K. Inouye in December 2012, less than a month shy of completing his 50th year in the Senate. Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie ignored what was presented as Inouye’s dying wish, that the senator’s protege, Hanabusa, be named his successor, and instead appointed Schatz, the lieutenant governor and a former head of the state party.
In choosing, Abercrombie cited seniority as an overriding factor. Schatz is 41 and Hanabusa is 62, which suggests — actuarially speaking — he could serve many more years and gain more clout for a state that has counted for decades on a generous ladling of federal largess, thanks to Inouye’s power and longevity. After tourism, the U.S. military is Hawaii’s biggest source of income.
“Go to Washington, bring federal dollars home,” said Randy Perreira, head of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the state’s largest and most powerful union, which has endorsed Schatz. “That’s the game.”
Abercrombie’s mention of age led Hanabusa to accuse the governor of sexism, suggesting his comments insulted women who devote themselves to family and start their professional careers later in life. (Hanabusa has no children but practiced law for several years before launching her political career.) “We make choices,” Hanabusa said in an interview. “We have to.”
Another fault line is race and ethnicity. Asians make up the largest segment of the population, about 4 in 10 residents, followed by whites, at just over 25 percent. Nearly a quarter of the population identifies itself as being of two races.
A generation of Japanese-American World War II veterans, including Inouye, helped break down long-standing economic and social barriers that had once favored white plantation owners and businessmen and, with the help of organized labor, converted pre-statehood Hawaii from a Republican-leaning territory into today’s Democratic stronghold.
Within the party, however, there has long been a divide between pragmatists and a smaller group of activists, typically younger, whiter and more ideological. For years, Inouye and Abercrombie represented those wings; now, it’s Hanabusa and Schatz.
They took opposite sides in the bitter 2008 Democratic presidential contest: Hanabusa, like Inouye, backed Hillary Rodham Clinton. Schatz, like Abercrombie, was an early and ardent backer of native son Barack Obama and ran his successful Hawaii campaign.