The State of Aloha

Televised tributes and newspaper articles have all dutifully reported the death of Sen. Daniel K. Inouye. National media have finished publishing moving biographical pieces of the man who served his country in battle and at home. After lying in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda and here at home, Inouye has been respectfully laid to rest in the Punchbowl Crater.

This is a post-Inouye Hawaii. So what happens now?

Make no mistake: An era has ended in Hawaii politics. Inouye was our last public official from that storied generation of Japanese-Americans who fought in World War II. The contributions of his generation are so dominant in Hawaii’s history that we still have not found the vocabulary to describe the immediate period that has followed.

Inouye’s generation revived a moribund Hawaii Democratic Party, pushed hard for recognition of labor unions, promulgated legislation that would benefit the working and middle classes, and finally brought about statehood. For Inouye’s generation, entering the Union was a significant and great turning point.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Inouye’s generation took on leadership positions in every branch of the new state government. Gradually, that generation entered retirement after decades of public service – except for Inouye. From our entry into the Union up until his death late last year, Inouye never left the Congress. For many people – including President Barack Obama – Inouye has always been one of our senators.

It is only now that he is no longer with us that we will truly start to feel his absence and fully grasp his influence. Inouye’s death coincided with the retiring of another longtime senator, Daniel Akaka. So now we start from scratch. Both of our senators are absolute beginners.

The slightly less junior senator, Brian Schatz, sworn in only a few weeks before the new Congress, is still new to the U.S. Senate and Washington altogether. And even though Mazie Hirono has been in just about every other office, she starts as a junior senator. (Curiously, Schatz is the one with a bit more seniority since he was sworn in a few weeks before Hirono.). In an institution where the political capital is seniority, our senators may be hard up.

The rest of the delegation also is getting used to Washington. Tulsi Gabbard has never been a congresswoman before, and Colleen Hanabusa has been holding her seat for only about a year.

So what’s going to happen? We always knew that Inouye was very influential and powerful in the Senate. He was proud of earmarking legislation for projects to bring back to the islands. He believed strongly in bringing federal money and other benefits to our state.

Inouye also was extremely active in supporting candidates for office. His endorsement could make or break a primary race. And even when Inouye wouldn’t support a candidate, that became news too.

What is it going to be like without him? Will the funds from Congress run dry? Maybe. Will we have to rely on other sources of income? Perhaps. The full extent of Inouye’s influence is too early to tell.

On the other hand, changes aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Today’s congressional delegation looks an awful like the first men and women we sent to Congress after statehood. Political giants like Republican Hiram Fong, Spark Matsunaga, Patsy T. Mink, Thomas Gill and, of course, Inouye were freshmen once upon a time.

As for political influence, it’s clear that the post-Inouye politicians are finally coming to the fore. The death of Inouye has already led to some dramatic changes in the Democratic Party. It’s caused a ripple of vacancies and appointments that are still making news. Former state Senate President Shan Tsutsui became the first Neighbor Islander to hold the office of lieutenant governor, which allowed Gov. Neil Abercrombie to select Justin Woodson, a fresh face to the state House.

It could give us the chance to reconsider our trajectory. Maybe it’s time to rethink our dependence on the military economy? Perhaps we could finally take on the monumental task of diversifying our economy or maybe even our dependence on shipping lines and imported foods and goods?

The passing of Inouye confirms that something new is happening in Hawaii politics. A new generation is here. We may have to start from scratch in Washington, but we’ll get the hang of it. Seems like everyone is eager to move ahead. It’s just too early to tell where we are going.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”

The State of Aloha

Ironically, the so-called “Steven Tyler Act” needs a better press agent. It’s really too bad the media (and the Legislature itself) decided to call it the Steven Tyler Act in the first place. Extremely wealthy people who own private jets, fly out to Maui and hang out at exclusive estates and homes aren’t the most sympathetic folks.

But that doesn’t mean the bill itself is a waste of time. These days, it’s not hard to fall victim to invasions of privacy. With smartphones running rampant, a plaintiff doesn’t need to be a celebrity at all. Could it perhaps be used by anyone who finds an embarrassing picture from the beach or the backyard on Facebook? I’d bet that no one would like a personal photograph or an awkward birthday photo to become an overnight Internet meme.

People are ridiculed, pranked and bullied relentlessly by others on the Internet. In some instances, it could easily be considered an invasion of privacy and actionable under the new bill.

I can’t help but wonder about a very different Tyler. Remember Tyler Clementi? He was not a rock star or anybody who made a career out of being famous.

Clementi was a student at Rutgers University in New Jersey until his roommate secretly recorded him kissing another man in his room. After his roommate posted that footage on the Internet, Clementi tragically jumped off the George Washington Bridge. Arguably, Clementi’s estate could have used something similar to the Steven Tyler Act to pursue punitive damages.

Despite the smirking and ridicule from the public, the state Senate has approved the bill with overwhelming support. Its fate now lies in the House.

So maybe when it gets there, the bill could be recast as a different kind of measure. Maybe it could get some good PR this time around and become an effective tool to stop online bullying and harassment. In that sense, all of us could become celebrities.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”