HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Hawaii Democratic Party's state central committee Wednesday selected three finalists – U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, Deputy state Land and Natural Resources Director Esther Kiaaina and Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz -- to fill the vacancy in the U.S. Senate left by the death last week of U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie was expected to chose Inouye's replacement from the list of three as soon as sometime Wednesday afternoon.
Initial vote tallies came to 48 votes for Schatz, 42 for Hanabusa and 39 for Kiaaina, sources said, noting the counts could be one or two votes off, since there were voice votes. Attorney Tony Gill, who is also Chairman of the Oahu Democratic Party organization, came in fourth with roughly 23 votes.
Hanabusa, 61, was elected to the U.S. House representing urban Oahu in Hawaii's 1st Congressional district in 2010. She serves on the House Armed Services and Natural Resources committees. On Dec. 17, the day Inouye died, he sent a letter to Abercrombie asking him to appoint Hanabusa to his seat.
Hanabusa was elected to the State Senate in 1998, and served 12 years representing the Waianae Coast in the 21st district. She was elected Hawaii's first woman State Senate majority leader in 2006, making her the first Asian American to preside over a state legislative body in the country.
An attorney with nearly thirty years of experience, she has specialized in labor law. Hanabusa grew up in Waianae and graduated from St. Andrew's Priory school in Honolulu. She received an undergraduate, graduate and law degrees from the University of Hawaii.
Kiaaina, 49, ran unsuccessfully for Hawaii's 2nd Congressional district in the U.S. House earlier this year. Kiaaina, a lawyer, stepped down from her job as chief advocate for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to run for Congress.
She previously worked for U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka and was chief of staff for both U.S. Rep. Ed Case of Hawaii and U.S. Rep. Robert Underwood of Guam.
Kiaaina grew up in Guam and graduated from Kamehameha Schools and the University of Southern California. During her college years, she interned for Inouye in Washington, D.C.
Schatz, 40, was elected lieutenant governor in 2010. He ran unsuccessfully to succeed U.S. Rep. Ed Case in Hawaii's 2nd Congressional seat in 2006. Schatz served as CEO of Helping Hands Hawaii, a nonprofit social service agency on Oahu. Between 1998 and 2006, Schatz spent eight years in the state House of Representatives, representing the 25th district of Tantalus, Makiki and McCully.
In 2008, he served a spokesman for Barack Obama's presidential campaign in Hawaii. That same year, he was elected chairman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii.
Schatz grew up in Hawaii and attended Punahou School before traveling to California where he graduated from Pomona College. After returning from college, he taught at Punahou School.
"With the recent passing of Sen. Inouye, the call to arms of the Democratic Party demands a concerted effort," Dante Carpenter, state Democratic Party chairman told members of the committee as their meeting got under way shortly after 8 a.m. Wednesday in Honolulu.
Carpenter said Wednesday's meeting is of "national concern."
One by one, most of the 14 candidates who applied for the spent about two minutes speaking from a podium and gave their pitch about why they should be chosen to replace Inouye, who served Hawaii in the U.S. Senate for nearly 50 years.
Timothy Hogan, a Honolulu attorney, was the first candidate to address the committee, made up of about 75 Democrats from across the state. The candidates spoke in random order. Some of them chose to address the panel with a message via video instead of in person. U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who departed Honolulu for Washington, D.C. Christmas Day, addressed the group by video.
Hanabusa, former U.S. Rep. Ed Case and State Sen. Donna Mercado Kim told the committee their experience as lawmakers will serve the state well in the nation's capital.
Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz and U.S. Rep.-elect Tulsi Gabbard stressed their youth and their ability to build long-term seniority. Schatz is 40 while Gabbard is 31 years old.
"We need someone in the U.S. Senate who will build seniority over time," Gabbard told the committee.
The candidates' presentations ended shortly before 9:30 a.m., when the panel went into executive session to begin the selection process behind closed doors.
Each member will be able to vote for one, two or three candidates for the position. If a member chooses just one candidate, the power of their vote would essentially be tripled, since two other candidates would not get the benefit of their support.
The candidates for the position are:
- Former U.S. Rep. Ed Case, who ran for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination this year but was beaten by U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono.
- State Sen. Will Espero (D- Ewa Beach, Iroquois Point), who chairs the Senate Public Safety and Military Affairs committee.
- Former Honolulu councilwoman and U.S. Rep.-elect Tulsi Gabbard.
- Honolulu attorney Tony Gill, son of Hawaii's late Lt. Gov. Tom Gill.
- Kihei, Maui resident Antonio Gimbernat, a one-time handyman's apprentice and truck driver who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate this year.
- U.S. Rep. and former State Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, who Inouye has asked Abercrombie to appoint.
- Honolulu attorney Timothy Hogan, who specializes in commercial litigation.
- Esther Kiaaina, deputy director of the state Land and Natural Resources Department who ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic Primary for Hawaii's 2nd Congressional seat this year.
- State Sen. Donna Mercado Kim (D-Kalihi Valley, Moanalua), the Senate vice president who presided over an investigation into University of Hawaii this fall.
- Kurt Lajala , currently an instructor pilot for a defense contractor at Hickam Air Force Base and before that a longtime United Airlines and Hawaii Air National Guard pilot.
- Blake Oshiro, the governor's deputy chief of staff and a former state legislator.
- Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz, who's a former state lawmaker.
- David Tarnas, who represented the North Kona and South Kohala district of the Big Island for four years in the 1990s and currently works in government affairs for a forestry and renewable energy company based in Waimea.
- Earl Winfree, who has run for the Honolulu city council. Winfree is a commercial pilot who owns the company Winfree Aviation on Oahu.
Democratic Party leaders will pass the names of three of those candidates to the governor and state law requires him to choose from those three who will serve the next two years in the U.S. Senate to replace Inouye, who died last Monday at age 88. Abercrombie is expected to announce his decision as early as Wednesday afternoon.
Sources said anything can happen, but they expect the final three people chosen by Democratic leaders as possible replacements for Inouye to be Schatz, Hanabusa and Oshiro, the same three Abercrombie would like to see on the list he will choose from, according to people familiar with the process.
But sources said Schatz is considered the front-runner, the person expected to be selected by his boss, Abercrombie, to fill the next two years of Inouye's term.