The Inouye Legacy
What he’s doing now to ensure Hawaii’s future
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Similarly, Inouye says, he fought for construction of a bridge to connect Ford Island to the rest of Oahu. Opponents argued that it made little sense to build a bridge to an “empty island.”
“But it’s like that movie,” Inouye says, referring to “Field of Dreams,” a movie about a baseball field built in a remote Iowa cornfield. “You build a bridge and they will go across it.”
Today, Ford Island is thriving with new military housing, a complex of historical attractions and other facilities, serving as a central anchor for local Navy activities.
Secondly, he has purposely worked to link the Islands into a single strong economic and social unit. Hawaii’s future requires integrating the Neighbor Islands with once-dominant Oahu, he says, and that means putting money and time into projects that bring the scattered Islands together.
When he was growing up, Inouye says, the Neighbor Islands (then called by an even-more-remote term, the Outer Islands) were backwaters focused on agriculture. “Oahu was the Island,” he said. “The Outer Islands were islands of plantations and working people. I remember once a year on Christmas holidays the plantation managers and their wives would come to Honolulu for their annual spree and Christmas shopping.
“I wanted to carry on activities that would bring all the Islands together.”
Inouye notes that fiber-optic links are one major way of uniting the Islands. In addition, the Maui supercomputer; the star-gazing facilities atop Haleakala and Mauna Kea; the Pacific Missile Range on Kauai (“I had to fight like hell for that and now it’s a national treasure”) and other projects were all designed with the idea of making the Neighbor Islands an important piece of Hawaii’s overall economy, he says.
So, too, are the educational facilities, particularly the community colleges, which are thriving and growing on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island. UH-Hilo is already a full-fledged four-year university. “Before I go, I want all the community colleges built up to be worthy of being called universities,” Inouye says.
The Imiloa Astronomy Center outside Hilo was created
While much attention has been focused on the observatories atop Mauna Kea on the Big Island, Inouye’s reach goes deeper. Just outside Hilo, the gleaming new Imiloa Astronomy Center (built primarily with funds obtained by Inouye) is entertaining and educating visitors and local residents alike on the importance of astronomy. Just down the street are brand-new tropical agricultural research facilities working on high-tech solutions for Hawaii and the nation’s food security – again, built mostly with federal money.
“We’re now on our road and soon we’ll have the nation’s No. 1 telescope,” he says, referring to the Thirty Meter Telescope planned for Mauna Kea.
“We’ve got,” Inouye continues, “the foundation for Maui, Kauai and the Big Island. … Hawaii becomes one state. The Neighbor Islands become an important, integral part of the overall equation. They’re no longer the ‘Neighbor’ Islands.”
“It’s not finished yet, but it’s a long-term plan.”
Caldwell speaks admiringly of this second initiative. “He’s trying to create opportunities for the Neighbor Islands,” says Caldwell, who worked for Inouye in Washington from 1978 to 1981.
In addition to the capital projects, Inouye has focused on bringing better healthcare to the Neighbor Islands’ rural population, notes Caldwell.
An Inouye theme, Caldwell says, is a deep concern for the underdog, those groups who may not receive the attention or services they deserve. Over the years, he has championed Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, people with disabilities, the nation of Israel and others.
“The Native Hawaiian community, he’s trying to figure out ways to empower them,” says Caldwell.
“Something puts him there to drive him. It pushes him toward people who need help. He stood up for the Vietnamese boat people when Japan would not accept them. He flies at the highest level but he hasn’t forgotten his roots.”
Inouye has his eye on a new effort that links the Islands and, at the same time, supports both the civilian economy and the military: A “multi-multibillion-dollar” deep-water energy cable that would link Oahu with energy-producing operations on Maui, Lanai and Molokai and, someday, the Big Island.
“To provide the energy necessary for all the Islands, we need an underwater cable,” he said. A previous cable effort flopped. That’s not going to happen this time, Inouye suggests, because there is buy-in from the state, the counties, Hawaiian Electric Co. and the military.
Beyond the physical infrastructure, Inouye has also focused on the social and intellectual infrastructure of his home. He is a staunch defender of the East West Center, which is key to Hawaii’s reputation as a meeting ground between the West and Asia. He has pumped millions into the University of Hawaii with the goal of making it a major research institution, able to attract top scholars and capable of winning national grants. And he has been a core supporter of programs such as Alu Like, aimed at bettering the lives of Native Hawaiians. That focus, in part, is to fulfill a promise Inouye says he made to his mother when he was first elected to Congress. Kame Inouye, as a child, had been hanaied by a Hawaiian family and felt a lifelong obligation for that kindness.
“The Hawaiians have been good to me,” Inouye remembers his mother saying. “You (must) do the gratitude repayment.”
Inouye’s long-term projects and ideas have created political risk, although his powerful electoral victory margins over the years suggest the risk was more than manageable.
“If I went for some of the earmark programs some of my colleagues go for, I would have done my state a disservice,” Inouye says. “So I took a risk.”
Still, the day will come when Inouye is no longer a force for Hawaii. When he does leave the Senate, Inouye has advice for his successor:
“To the extent possible, I hope they would carry out the programs I felt would be helpful in establishing a healthy economy in Hawaii,” he says. “Hawaii should be an important part of the national picture.”
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