WAILUKU - Maui Democrats had kind words for U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka on Wednesday after he announced his decision not to run for re-election in 2012.
And party members started looking ahead to who might carry their party's banner and fend off an expected Republican challenge from former Gov. Linda Lingle.
"He's been an excellent senator . . . He served us with great honor and distinction," said state Sen. Roz Baker, who serves residents of West and South Maui. "I've been privileged to know him and call him a friend."
Wailuku Rep. Joe Souki expressed some distaste with what he judged was some pressure for Akaka not to run. Last week, U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye said that while he would continue to support Akaka if he were to run in 2012, he warned that he may not be able to help Akaka as much with fundraising.
Souki said he has been close with Akaka since the late 1960s.
"I go back, way back with Danny. I'm sorry it has come to this," he said. "I'm especially sorry for the pressure that came about, that I think kinda hurried his decision not to seek re-election. For that, I don't think it was very appropriate, a lot of comments that were made - not having enough money and those kinds of things. I think that all led to an early announcement that he had to retire. And for one who served the state so well for all these years, I think it was very unnecessary."
When asked who Democrats would put forward to fill Akaka's seat, Souki said: "I really don't want to get into that at all. We're going to have a flood of names coming out, especially from the major ones, and I think we all know who they are. They're probably all jumping for joy right now . . . The field's wide open.
"I don't see a front-runner, with the possibility of Linda at this point . . . It's a long way to go," Souki said.
Maui County Democratic Party Chairman Lance Holter said Akaka's announcement was unexpected.
"It's a surprise. No one knew about it," he said.
But Akaka's decision does create opportunities for other Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono.
"I think it's a great opportunity for Mazie to go into the Senate," Holter said. "Mazie definitely knows Congress."
He said the party should have a candidate knowledgeable about Congress, and "Mazie stands to have the most experience . . . She'd be a great fit. She's the kind of leader that Hawaii likes. She certainly would be considered a veteran."
Former Maui County Democratic Party Chairman Jonathan Starr said Akaka is "the embodiment of aloha."
"I just feel proud that he served us and brought that aloha spirit to the Senate," he said. "I'm also really glad that there are many really competent and dedicated Democrats who will be eligible to take over."
Asked whom the Democrats might put forward to replace Akaka, Starr said U.S. Reps. Hirono and Colleen Hanabusa, as well as former U.S. Rep. Ed Case and state Senate President Shan Tsutsui were all possibilities.
"I think it'll be interesting to participate in the process to see who will carry the torch forward," he said. "It's exciting times to be a Democrat in Hawaii."