Professor and political reporter Dan Boylan recently retired from teaching history at the University of Hawaii—West Oahu campus; but there’s no rest for the politico this election season. Boylan, who writes a political column for Hawaiian magazine MidWeek and moderates PBS Hawaii’s Insights program, has been kept busy covering campaigns for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District, a competitive and sometimes nasty Democratic gubernatorial primary, and the inevitable re-election of untouchable local hero, Senator Daniel Inouye.
Boylan spoke to CJR assistant editor Joel Meares earlier in the month about island politics, the local media, and today’s Hawaiian primaries, the last in the country before the midterms. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.
When I hear Hawaii, I don’t immediately think politics. Can you give us a primer on what politics is like in the Aloha State?
It’s the most unique politics in the country, I think. And it’s mainly because of the enormously diverse population. No single ethnic group here has a majority. Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Samoans, Caucasians, you name it; nobody constitutes fifty percent by themselves. And there’s an enormous amount of intermarriage. So no one can make a blatantly ethnic appeal; if you do, you’re dead. There are certain districts that may have more Japanese people, for example, and so if you have a Japanese surname you have a better chance of winning. But blatantly racial appeals are pretty hard to do here.
And yet black, white, yellow or purple, everybody seems to love your senior senator, Daniel Inouye. Why has he proven so popular and untouchable?
He’s been around forever; he broke into politics in 1954. He’s a one-armed Medal of Honor winner, a certified American hero who lost his arm running up a hill in Italy fighting Germans. Plus, he’s articulate, he’s crafty, and he has tremendous loyalty among people who work for him. He is enormously popular and the Republicans don’t usually attempt to put anyone up against him of any weight. He wins with seventy or seventy-five percent of the vote, always. He’s had one scare when someone accused him of sexual harassment in the early ’90s, and he had a down vote, but generally he’s overwhelmingly supported.
His ethnic group, Japanese Americans, constituted about forty percent of the population back in 1950s. Now they’re down to about seventeen or eighteen percent, but he has delivered for practically everybody. He is enormously good at getting things for Hawaii—federal money for Pearl Harbor, for military housing, grants for native Hawaiians, for education, for the university. You name it; Danny can find a dollar for it in the federal till. He’s been on the Appropriations Committee for a long, long time; he and Ted Stevens practically ran the whole thing. Now it’s just Danny.
He’s very approachable. He’s eighty-six years old and you can still call him “Danny.” He’s a smart guy and loyal. Loyalty might actually be his greatest fault. While the rest of the state was going gaga over its native son, Barack Obama, when he was running for president, Danny had made a commitment to Hillary Clinton and he stuck by it until the bitter end.
Did it damage him it all?
No [laughing], you can’t damage Inouye.
Senator Inouye recently found himself at odds with Democrats in Washington over his support of Colleen Hanabusa in the special election for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District—a seat again up for grabs this November. D.C. leaders seemed to want Ed Case to take the seat, and the Democratic vote ended up being split between the two, giving the seat to Republican Charles Djou. Why did Inouye go against the mainland Dems?
He didn’t like Ed Case very much, mainly because Case challenged Danny Akaka, Inouye’s mate, in the Senate primary in 2006. So he supported Colleen Hanabusa, who is our senate president.
The problem in the race between Hanabusa and Case was that when Case was in the U.S. House between 2002 and 2007, he cultivated the Hill papers and the media. And Ed Case is a Caucasian fella who talks real well and is media friendly and he’s smart. So the DNC says, ‘Smart guy!’ Colleen Hanabusa is a local girl, a local born-and-reared Japanese American, smart as hell, but she’s not a media hound and the DNC doesn’t know her. But Danny Inouye is for her. She ran second four years ago in our Second District race, and I think if she had have had a couple more weeks she would have won that one and she’d be representing our Second District. It’s more confusing than it appears.
Was Djou’s win in that district a sign of the GOP gaining ground in Hawaii?