HONOLULU — The death of U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii leaves open a seat in the Senate to be filled by a Democrat, with U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa the immediate front-runner thanks to Inouye's wishes.
It also leaves a huge hole in terms of Hawaii's political clout.
Inouye had represented Hawaii in Congress since statehood in 1959, first in the House and for the last 50 years in the Senate. He was the longest serving member of the Senate, and he chaired the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, helping to direct federal aid and resources to build up his still-young state, where he is revered.
One day after his death, his Senate desk on Tuesday was draped in black, with flowers and a lei. He was 88. Memorial services have been scheduled for Friday in Washington and Sunday in Hawaii.
"Think about everything that's happened in the last 50 years, Sen. Inouye's had his hand on that," said William H. Warren, assistant chair of the social sciences department at Hawaii Pacific University.
Inouye's influence also extended beyond his legislative duties, Warren said.
"He was the person people went to when there was a problem that needed to be solved," he said.
Inouye's death from respiratory complications, compounded by the retirement of Sen. Daniel Akaka after 22 years, leaves Hawaii with one of the most junior congressional delegations in the country.
Three-term U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono will replace Akaka after winning the seat last month and become the first woman to represent Hawaii in the Senate, while Rep.-elect Tulsi Gabbard will be one of the youngest members of Congress, at 31. Hanabusa was just elected to her second term in the House.
Inouye, in a letter to Gov. Neil Abercrombie dated Monday, asked that Abercrombie "grant me my last wish" and name Hanabusa as his successor.
"It is with much sadness that I share with you, that I will not be able to complete my ninth term in the United States Senate," he said.
"While I understand that selecting someone to serve out the remainder of my term is fully your responsibility, I respectfully request that U.S. Representative Colleen Hanabusa succeed me, and continue the work, together with Mazie, on behalf of Hawaii in the U.S. Senate."
"Colleen possesses the intellect, presence and legislative skill to succeed in the Senate," he said. "I have no doubt that she will represent Hawaii with the same fervor and commitment that I brought to the Senate chamber since 1962."
Hanabusa is a fellow Democrat whom Inouye had supported during her 2010 House bid.
A Hanabusa spokesman declined comment Tuesday, but Hanabusa, 61, a former labor attorney and state legislative leader, is seen as the early favorite. Other names that have been floated include Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz.
Inouye making clear his wishes "pretty much decides it," political analyst Neal Milner said. "Maybe the last example we're going to have of his political acumen was the way that he arranged that before he died."
Colin Moore, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said it's unlikely that state Democrats and Gov. Neil Abercrombie would go against Inouye's wishes. But he said that also assumes that Hanabusa wants to leave her seat.
Abercrombie will choose Inouye's successor from a list of three candidates submitted by the state Democratic party before an election is held in 2014.
Party bylaws allow up to 21 days to submit the list, but Abercrombie has urged the party to act quickly. The next Congress is scheduled to begin Jan. 3. State law requires that candidates come from the same party as the prior office holder.
Whatever happens, Hawaii's four-member congressional delegation will be completely transformed.