The Inouye Legacy
What he’s doing now to ensure Hawaii’s future
Sen. Daniel Ken Inouye has long been Hawaii’s most powerful and influential individual, a man who has brought billions of dollars into his home state and forged or supported industries in astronomy, high-technology, the military complex, research, agriculture and education.
Critics complain that Inouye is a master of earmarking budget items and pork- barrel spending, in effect wasting national resources on parochial issues. But Hawaii’s senior senator brushes off such criticism, even brags about his mastery of the earmarking process. He argues that every one of his projects can stand the litmus test – as important both for Hawaii and for the nation.
On a recent visit home, Inouye told an audience on the Big Island, “I’m the No. 1 earmarks guy in the U.S. Congress.” That remark produced a round of tongue-clicking and commentary from groups who seek to control government spending and stifle earmarks. Whether Inouye is No. 1 or not depends on how you measure things.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group focused on the influence of money on politics, Inouye ranks No. 5 in total Senate earmarks secured in fiscal 2009. His $450.5 million puts him behind Sens. Thad Cochran, Roger Wicker, Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley. Hawaii’s junior senator, Daniel Akaka, was way down the list.
But those are total earmarks, including earmarks co-sponsored by more than one member of Congress. In solo earmarks, Inouye is indeed near the top at $220.7 million, far higher than any other member of the Senate save Robert Byrd, his predecessor as chair of the Appropriations Committee.
“Without him,we would be in deep kim chee.”
– Walter Dods
This is nothing new. From the moment of his first election to Congress right after Statehood in 1959, Inouye has been a one-man industry for his home. Inouye, who entered the Senate after the 1962 election, is currently the second most senior senator, after Byrd, and the third oldest, behind Byrd and Frank Lautenberg.
But Inouye downplays the suggestion that he alone is a key economic player for Hawaii and that the state will be in dire straits when he retires. “I hope that’s not the case,” he says soberly when presented with that proposition.
Yet other leaders, some of whom started their political careers in his Washington office, see Inouye in a dominant and crucial role.
“He is probably one of the state’s largest industries right now,” says Kirk Caldwell, managing director for the City and County of Honolulu. “He’s a growth industry at a time nothing else is growing.”
Walter Dods, former CEO of First Hawaiian Bank and a close confidante of Inouye’s for decades, calls him “our biggest secret weapon.”
“Over the past dozen years or so, he has really looked to help Hawaii once he ultimately leaves the Senate,” says Dods, who recently chaired a campaign that raised more than a million dollars for the senator’s war chest.
“His legacy has been that he has always been out there ahead, trying to fund projects that have a lasting impact.
“There’s a method to his madness,” Dods continues. “Without him, we would be in deep kim chee.”
When Inouye runs for his ninth senatorial term next year, he can point to the deep-draft harbor at Barbers Point, the Pacific Missile Range, the Maui supercomputer, Camp Smith and many other projects that have propelled one of the nation’s smallest states into an important post for the military and a national model for a sustainable energy future.
In his Honolulu office, Inouye is both assured and almost self-deprecating about his role in Hawaii’s economic future.
“I assure you my decisions are not haphazard,” he says. “They are part of a plan, if you can put it that way.”
“Many of my projects are not just for the next 10 to 20 years,” he says, but for the very long term.
When Inouye steps down, Dods says, “there will be a significant impact on Hawaii.” He mentions a recent meeting where the senator gathered people to discuss the next 50 years. The meeting was private and its results have not been published, but Dods says it is typical of Inouye’s long-range thinking.
“He doesn’t have the quarter-to-quarter mentality of most Americans,” Dods observes.
While he appears politically invincible, Inouye is keenly aware that his age could play a role in the coming campaign. He noted that he will turn 86 on Sept. 7, just days before next year’s primary election. “I can see my opponent buying up time on the TV stations just to say: ‘Happy Birthday, Dan! You made 86,’ ” he says with a laugh.
Dan’s long-range plan
During his five decades in Congress, Daniel Inouye has long had a specific plan as he worked to secure Hawaii’s long-term economic stability and security. It’s a plan not always obvious in the daily controversies over federal spending, earmarks and pork barrel politics.
The twin pillars of Inouye’s bedrock plan are:
To integrate Hawaii’s Islands into one economic unit, bringing the often-ignored Neighbor Islands fully into the mix;
To make Hawaii as indispensable to the nation as possible.
Whether it is the Barbers Point Deep- Draft Harbor, the Maui supercomputer, the Saddle Road on the Big Island, the sprawling network of fiber-optic cables that serves both the military and civilians, or the new high-tech headquarters for the Pacific Command at Camp Smith, Inouye says, his projects always serve those two purposes.
While many of Inouye’s appropriations are focused on the military, it would be a mistake, he says, to see his efforts only through that lens. Still, there is no doubt that military spending is the foundation of the money (“pork” to his critics) he has secured for the Islands. And make no mistake: Those in the Armed Services here are more than grateful.
“Sen. Inouye has been a consistent, staunch supporter of initiatives to keep the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard active, serving the Pacific Fleet, and to support the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands, whose invaluable presence sustained Kauai following Hurricane Iniki in 1992,” noted Rear Adm. Dixon Smith, commander of Navy Region Hawaii.
Although Inouye hasn’t always spoken about long-range goals, over 47 years in the Senate he has carefully and relentlessly built the infrastructure to solidly establish, for decades to come, two visions for his home state.
First, he has worked to establish Hawaii as a place of national importance – as indispensable as it can be. Without such attention, he points out, these small and remote islands could easily be overlooked. Or worse – ignored.
Take the new Pacific Command Center at Camp Smith overlooking Pearl Harbor. No question there was a need to replace the antiquated facilities housed in a former hospital. But the push to build the new Nimitz-MacArthur Pacific Command Center was about far more than simply keeping the military happy, Inouye says.
“The (White House) was not too keen about building a massive state-of-the-art Pacific Command building,” Inouye said. “But I made that one of my major goals.
“It demonstrates the importance of Hawaii as the command center of our security activities in the Asia-Pacific region.” Once the building was completed and staffed, Inouye chuckles, “it would be difficult for succeeding CINCPACs to give it up.” In short, the physical facility cements Hawaii’s importance to the military and virtually guarantees its presence here for a long time.
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.
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.”
Some of his biggest projects
Here is a sampling of the many Hawaii projects Inouye has pushed through Congress in the past several years.
The Maui High Performance Computing Center was created in 1993 to support the Department of Defense and to stimulate technology development on Maui and throughout Hawaii. The MHPCC has received more than $60 million in support, providing access to parallel computing hardware, advanced software, high bandwidth communications and high-performance storage technologies to researchers.
Saddle Road on Big Island:
Hawaii annually receives about $130 million in federal highway formula funds to support the state and the four counties. On top of that, dollars have been specifically set aside for priority projects on all Islands. For example, the federal government has invested $200.4 million over the past 10 years in the construction of the Saddle Road to ensure the safety of public motorists and military users.
Pacific Missile Range improvements:
PMR features the military’s latest technology in protecting both Hawaii and the U.S. from ballistic missile attacks. More than $944 million has been invested in and around the range – the largest industrial and technology employer on Kauai.
Imiloa Astronomy Center:
Located at the foot of Mauna Kea in Hilo, Imiloa is a celebration of Hawaiian culture and Mauna Kea astronomy – combined to bring a vibrant educational experience to Hawaii’s youth and demonstrating that science and culture are not mutually exclusive. Thanks to nearly $15 million in federal funding, there have been more than 120,000 visitors since it opened in 2006.
Agricultural research on the Big Island:
The Pacific Basin Agriculture Research Center in Hilo provides research support for the transformation from plantation agriculture to a diversified agriculture in Hawaii and America’s Pacific territories. About $48 million in federal funds helped complete Phase I; plans and about $15 million in funding for Phase II construction are ongoing.
Camp Smith Headquarters:
Since 2000, nearly $90 million has been appropriated to build a state-of-the-art headquarters for the Pacific Command overlooking Pearl Harbor. The command has jurisdiction over a sweep of the Pacific and Asia reaching nearly to the Mid-East.