In a news conference at the state capital Wednesday, Abercrombie said “nothing was preordained” as he and other state Democrats considered possible replacements for Inouye.
“I asked how best could we ensure that Hawaii remain strong in the long run,” Abercrombie said, adding that rebuilding the state’s seniority in Congress was a priority. “I made this decision with the full confidence that Brian’s appointment is in the best interest of the party, the state of Hawaii and the nation.”
For 22 years Hawaii had been represented in the Senate by the same tandem — Inouye and Daniel K. Akaka. Because of his appointment, Schatz will become the state’s new senior senator in January, after Sen.-elect Mazie Hirono succeeds the retiring Akaka.
Inouye, who had represented Hawaii in Congress since it became a state and was the second-longest-serving senator in U.S. history, died of respiratory complications on Dec. 17 at the age of 88.
In a letter to Abercrombie written just before he passed away, Inouye expressed his “last wish” that Hanabusa be appointed to succeed him, saying she “possesses the intellect, presence and legislative skill to succeed in the Senate,” and would represent the state with “the same fervor and commitment [Inouye had] brought to the Senate chamber since 1962.”
“Sen. Inouye conveyed his final wish to Gov. Abercrombie,” said Jennifer Sabas, Inouye’s chief of staff. “While we are very disappointed that it was not honored, it was the governor’s decision to make. We wish Brian Schatz the best of luck.”
Local reports indicated that Schatz, 40, was favored by some state Democrats because of his youth, positioning him to gain seniority over the course of multiple terms as Inouye had done. Schatz, a former state lawmaker and state Democratic Party chairman, is 20 years younger than Hanabusa.
More than a dozen Democrats had applied to be considered for the appointment. State law requires that the party of the previous officeholder submit three candidates to the governor for consideration. A panel of state Democratic Party leaders met Wednesday morning to review the applications and hear from prospective candidates before nominating Hanabusa, Schatz and 2012 congressional candidate Esther Kiaaina for Abercrombie’s consideration.
Abercrombie’s quick action comes after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) urged him to move quickly to fill the vacancy to ensure Democrats were at full voting strength ahead of likely consideration of a deal to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff.” Reid spoke briefly with both Abercrombie and Hanabusa before a memorial service in Honolulu on Sunday.
Abercrombie said he informed Senate leaders of his choice Wednesday afternoon.
Hanabusa has represented Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District, encompassing the most heavily populated part of the island of Oahu, since 2011. She was reelected last month, defeating former Republican Rep. Charles Djou — the winner of a 2010 multi-candidate special election — by 9 percentage points.
Abercrombie said the fact that appointing Hanabusa would have spurred a special election to replace her in Congress was a consideration. He also noted that she was in position herself to gain seniority in the House, particularly on the Armed Services Committee, which is important to Hawaii.
Hanabusa, who was in Washington on Wednesday, released a statement congratulating Schatz on the appointment.
“I fully respect the process and the governor’s right to appoint a successor,” she said. “As a member of Hawaii’s congressional delegation, I will continue to work to serve the people of our state, and support our delegation’s efforts.”
Schatz said he would leave for Washington on Wednesday night, and would be in position to be sworn in Thursday.
“No one can fill Sen. Dan K. Inouye’s shoes. But together, all of us can walk in his footsteps,” he said.
Schatz will serve through 2014, when a special election will be held to determine who will complete Inouye’s unexpired term, which runs through 2017.