BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – After 22 years in the Senate and 13 in the House, U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka told supporters in a Wednesday email that he didn’t plan to seek re-election in 2012.
Akaka, widely considered the most-friendly Senator, is the 7th to announce in recent weeks that he won’t seek re-election. Others include Democratic Senators Jeff Bingaman (D., N.M.), Kent Conrad (D., N.D.), Jim Webb (D., Va.), Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I., Ct.), as well as GOP Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R., Tex.) and Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.).
Senate Democrats and Independents hold a 53-47 majority, but 21 of 33 members are up for re-election next year and maintaining their control with incumbents stepping down may be especially challenging.
Wall Street Journal Columnist John Fund said: “Since five of the retirees so far have been Democrats, Majority Leader Harry Reid has to worry if he can keep control of the body. If Republicans win the White House in 2012, they will need only three seats to take over with the tie-breaking vote of a friendly vice president. Should Barack Obama be re-elected, the GOP would now need four seats.”
Hawaii’s Senior Senator Daniel Inouye, who took Akaka under his wing decades ago, announced on February 24, that although he’d helped U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka raise “six figures” for his 2006 election bid, “circumstances have changed.”
Because he is president pro tem, chairman of the Appropriations Committee and a member of the leadership council, Inouye told PBS Hawaii that “they expect me as one of the leaders of the Senate to help all Democrats, not just one.” Akaka should raise $3 million “to be competitive this cycle,” Inouye said. “Akaka in 2012,” the re-election campaign, was formed in March 2007 and is nearly dormant by Senate standards. As of December 31, 2010, the campaign had raised $229,000 and spent all but $66,278, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
This pronouncement from Hawaii’s most powerful political leader was major news in Hawaii. Political pundits saw that as a clear message from Hawaii’s “godfather” to Akaka not to seek re-election because he is vulnerable.
A month earlier, Akaka’s peers removed the 86-year old as the Veterans’ Affairs chair and put him as head of Indian Affairs, reportedly because of his age.
But keeping Hawaii’s Congressional team all Democrats may not be all that difficult. While former GOP Gov. Linda Lingle, who had a $6 million war chest in the 2006 election, is considered a viable candidate for Akaka’s seat next election, Hawaii is one of the country’s most heavily Democratic states.
In addition, a GOP victory will be all the more of a struggle because Hawaii Democratic Party members plan to rally around President Barack Obama, a Hawaii native, as he is up for re-election in 2012.
Akaka’s announcement caused a flurry of emails from likely Senate candidates, including former Congressman Ed Case, D-HI, (2002-2007) who broke with Democratic Party tradition and challenged Akaka to his seat in the 2006 primary.
That move angered Inouye, and he made it clear that Democrats were not to support Ed Case in that election or any other election, including the 2010 Congressional race to replace Neil Abercrombie after he stepped down to run for governor.
They publicly made up when Case announced at the 2010 Democratic Convention that he would step aside and allow Inouye’s choice for Congress, Colleen Hanabusa, to take on incumbent Congressman Charles Djou, R-HI, in a two way race.
That after Djou won the three-way special election to replace Abercrombie and Democrats were concerned he would hold onto the seat through the General Election if the party did not unite.
Yesterday, Case said Akaka has served our Hawai‘i and country on Capitol Hill “capably and with integrity and humility for over 34 years.” And that Akaka’s announcement not to seek re-election 22 months before the completion of his term “provided the people of Hawai‘i with the gift of a long lead time to consider his successor and the ability to chose that person in a statewide vote.”
Case says he remains interested in serving Hawai‘i in the U. S. Senate, but wanted to allow Akaka his day before making any decisions.
Djou, who like Lingle, is a possible GOP candidate for the Senate position, said it was an honor to have served with Akaka in the Hawaii congressional delegation.
“No one better personifies the spirit of aloha in Washington DC better than Daniel Akaka. Hawai’i and America have been blessed by his gracious voice in government. As we wish Sen. Akaka well, our community can look toward a new generation of leadership in the US Senate with the 2012 election.”
Congresswoman Mazie K. Hirono, D-HI, said she has not made a decision as to whether she will pursue the seat, but she maintained Akaka has been a “powerful advocate for the people of Hawaii.”
As the WSJ’s Fund notes, there is no shortage of ambitious Democrats who might take on Lingle. Inouye listed several potential successors including Hanabusa, Hirono, Abercrombie, Case, former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz and Tammy Duckworth, an official in the Obama Department of Veterans Affairs.
Inouye said too many candidates could be problematic: “Our problem, I think, at this juncture is to try to keep it down to a workable number [of candidates],” Inouye said on PBS Hawaii. “Can you imagine if all six of them or seven of them ran? They’d kill each other.”
As to Akaka, he says he will serve out his last two years of office and then return to Hawaii with his wife Millie to spend time with their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. “I would also like to spend time documenting my life and career, and serving as a mentor to future political leaders,” Akaka said.
Akaka, a WWII veteran who worked in the Army Corps of Engineers after the war and paid his college education in part through the WWII GI Bill, has been a tireless advocate for veterans’ benefits and rights and has sponsored numerous bills to enhance the lives of service men and women.
He also spent more than a decade unsuccessfully attempting to get passed the Native Hawaiian Reorganization Act, a controversial bill that would create a nation within a nation, allowing Native Hawaiians to govern themselves in tribes in a similar manner to the American Indians.
Akaka offered some reflection: “I am proud of my accomplishments and my incredible staff in Washington, D.C. and Hawaii. They have exemplified the true meaning of being a public servant.”
And he thanked Inouye adding: “I will forever be grateful for his friendship and steadfast support.”