Where Seniority Is Still King

In case you missed it because of time zone issues, Hawai’i Gov. Neil Abercrombie has appointed his lieutenant governor, Brian Schatz, to fill the Senate seat of the late Daniel Inouye.

This surprised many mainline observers, myself included, since Inouye asked Abercrombie to let U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa to succeed him very shortly before his death. And going in that direction would have also allowed Hawaii to join California, New Hampshire, and Washington (with Maine falling off the list in January) as states represented in the upper chamber by two women.

There may have been a number of factors that influenced Abercrombie to choose Schatz rather than Hanabusa. With Mazie Hirono having been elected in November to succeed Daniel Akaka in the state’s other Senate seat, a Hanabusa appointment would have meant Hawaii would be represented not only by two women, but by two Japanese-Americans, which might have been an issue in this ethnically diverse state (though that was the situation for fourteen years when Spark Matsunaga was in the Senate alongside Inouye). Hawaii also has an unusual special election law with no primaries, so perhaps Abercrombie considered Schatz (a former state party chair) a stronger bet to keep Democrats united.

But as Brother Benen noted this morning, the factor that Schatz himself mentioned was his age: he’s only 40, whereas Hanabusa is 61. This matters because the ability to accumulate seniority is a publicly appreciated asset in this state, which quite naturally has a bit of a colonial attitude towards Washington DC that is in part attributable to its physical location and in part to the economic role federal spending (particularly defense spending) plays in the local economy. Incredibly, Hawaii has had only five U.S. Senators in its 52 years as a state, and one of them (Inouye’s predecessor Oren Long) only served for three years. Inouye’s death and Akaka’s retirement wiped out 62 years of Senate seniority, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Hawaiians are feeling a mite insecure.

Having grown up in the Deep South when seniority was still a very big deal there, I can relate. When my own boss in the Senate, Georgia’s Sam Nunn, first ran in 1972, his youth (he was 34 when elected) and therefore his capacity for seniority was a major part of his campaign message. You don’t much hear that sort of talk in the South anymore (though it may make a comeback if as appears likely the region becomes as reliably Republican up and down the ballot as it once was Democratic), but a focus on seniority seems to be alive and well in Hawaii.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.