WAILEA - U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye will turn 88 next month. And, if his health keeps holding up, the spry World War II hero said on Saturday that he will run for another six-year term in four years.
Inouye's been in Congress since 1959, is third in line for the presidency and is chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. And he still has much he wants to see done for the nation, Hawaii and Maui, he said.
So maintaining Democratic control of the Senate and his party's four-seat lead is imperative, Inouye said. "If we lose, the changes for us will be dramatic, to say the least," he said.
DANIEL INOUYE, U.S. Senator
Democrats need numbers in Congress to deal with national debt by, in part, making the top 1 percent of wage earners "pay their fair share" in taxes, he said.
Besides, Inouye said, "I'm supporting Mazie Hirono because I believe both philosophically and politically we seem to be on the same wavelength."
On Aug. 11, Hirono defeated former Congressman Ed Case for the Democratic nomination to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, 87, Inouye's longtime friend. Hirono will face the Republican nominee, former Gov. Linda Lingle, who easily won the GOP nod.
Hirono is in the midst of battle with Lingle, whom Inouye never mentioned by name Saturday during a wide-ranging interview before the Maui Economic Development Board's annual Ke Ala Hele Education Fund benefit dinner at the Grand Wailea. MEDB also is celebrating its 30th anniversary of work to broaden the island's economic base and stop the "brain drain" of the island's best and brightest students to the Mainland.
"They do good work," Inouye said.
The senator said he's also hosting a private fundraiser for Hirono today on Maui.
Another reason he said it's so important to have a Democrat keep the seat is to help him maintain his chairmanship and do his best for Hawaii, he said. A couple of his other national issues include securing future Social Security benefits and lowering medical insurance costs.
"People think it's all paradise, hula dancing and sweet music (in Hawaii)," Inouye said. "They don't understand our problems like I do, like we're a bunch of separate islands."
That's why Inouye also repeatedly stressed his support of allowing Congress to exercise its constitutional right, or "control the purse strings" and be able to deliver earmark funds for necessary local projects, such as improving transportation options.
In the post-economic meltdown world, both the president and many congressional leaders have pledged to ban or veto earmarks. But Inouye said he's quietly been working with Democrats and Republicans for more than a year to find a solution.
"I would hope I know more about Maui's problems than my good friend the president or any of his Cabinet members, no matter how extraordinary they are," Inouye said. "We got (dozens of) buses for Maui with earmarks. No matter who the president is, do you think they'd care about that? Well, I can't tell you enough how many people it's helped here."
However, critics call it "pork barrel" spending to garner votes or create legacies.
"I'll let you in on a secret: I've never asked for anything to be named after me because one of my colleagues who doesn't like me might see my name and vote no," Inouye said, smiling.
This is not frivolous spending, though, he said.
The discretionary funds make up just 1 percent of the federal budget but provide huge returns by stimulating the economy, putting people to work and satisfying dire community needs, Inouye said.
He said his priorities for Maui include expanding the University of Hawaii Maui College into a full four-year school, finishing the Lahaina bypass, constructing more flood control projects, adding support to local agriculture and clean-energy projects, improving ferry travel for tourism and building an emergency route over or through the pali, "whatever is cheaper."
Inouye also said he's committed to seeing through the controversial nearly $400 million solar telescope atop Haleakala and the new UH-Maui College Native Hawaiian astronomy program.
"These are major opportunities for jobs when we need them more than ever now," he said, adding that he does his best to personally address a project's controversy with a fair compromise.
Finally, Inouye said, "Maui is a very special place for me. My mother was born here." And after his grandparents died, a Native Hawaiian family took her in.
That's why, he said, "if it's the last thing I do," he will make sure the Akaka Bill passes. "I gave (Akaka) my word," he said.
The federal law would provide some sovereignty and other rights to Native Hawaiians. Inouye said he also wants this law "for my mother."
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.