State Senate President Shan Tsutsui said Wednesday that he was considering whether to succeed Hawaii's new U.S. senator, Brian Schatz, as lieutenant governor.
The Central Maui lawmaker was confronted with the possibility after Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed Schatz to serve in the U.S. Senate at least until 2014 to fill the seat left by the Dec. 17 death of senior Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, 88.
In a statement, Tsutsui congratulated Schatz.
Hawaii Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz speaks at the state Capitol in Honolulu on Wednesday after Gov. Neil Abercrombie announced that he was appointing Schatz to fill the seat vacated by the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye.
"I am confident that he will ably serve the state of Hawaii and honor the legacy that Senator Inouye has left behind," he said. "I understand that by law, as Senate president, I would be next in line to succeed Lieutenant Governor Schatz. I plan to discuss this prospect with the governor and my family before making a decision."
During a news conference Wednesday, Abercrombie indicated that he hoped Tsutsui would accept the job as lieutenant governor. He said state law requires Tsutsui to make a decision "promptly."
"Senator Tsutsui has to consult with his colleagues, consult with himself and with his family," the governor said. "I certainly hope he'll make a positive decision. . . . He's got it under consideration right now."
If Tsutsui were to decline the post, it would then go to sitting House Speaker Calvin Say, before falling to Attorney General David Louie.
West and South Maui Sen. Roz Baker said she would like Tsutsui to remain in the state Senate.
"I think he's more valuable as part of our Senate team," she said.
In the state Senate, Tsutsui has "more direct access and input on legislation," she said. However, "he'll be perfect in whatever role he decides. He would do a good job as lieutenant governor. He'd make a good governor someday."
State Sen. J. Kalani English, who represents East Maui, Upcountry, Molokai and Lanai, said Tsutsui will consider what's best for his family.
"I know that's going to be a big consideration," he said.
Tsutsui, 41, is married to the former Lyndelle Lee and has three daughters.
English said Tsutsui will consult with his circle of friends and fellow legislators, and "whatever he decides, he will be effective."
If Tsutsui does choose to become lieutenant governor that raises the prospect of reconsideration of the organization of the state Senate, English said.
If Tsutsui decides to stay as Senate president, the job of lieutenant governor would next go to Say as the sitting House speaker.
English pointed out that Wailuku state Rep. Joe Souki is in a leadership struggle with a faction of lawmakers led by Say, who recently dropped his re-election bid for House speaker but threw his support to House Finance Chairman Marcus Oshiro.
While Souki appears to have more than enough votes to become speaker, he won't officially be able to take the post until House members take a leadership vote on the opening day of the legislative session, Jan. 16.
If Say becomes lieutenant governor, that could clear the way for Souki's ascension to speaker and his organization of the state House, English said.
Maui Democratic Party Chairman Todd Craine was a member of the party's State Central Committee, which forwarded three names to Abercrombie on Wednesday to succeed Inouye. Those were Schatz, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and Esther Kia'aina, deputy director in the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Craine said he would have been happy with any one of the three candidates selected to replace Inouye.
"We put forth the very best possible candidates," Craine said.
Abercrombie ended up choosing Schatz "with full confidence that Brian's appointment is in the best interest of the state of Hawaii and the nation," he said.
"As lieutenant governor, Brian has demonstrated all of the qualities Hawaii could ask for in a senator: respect for our traditions and a strong sense of values, remarkably strong character and problem-solving capabilities, and above all, an abiding love for and commitment to the people of our state. Brian Schatz will do us proud," Abercrombie said.
Schatz's appointment was contrary to Inouye's "last wish" that Hanabusa be appointed to replace him.
Inouye Chief of Staff Jennifer Sabas said: "Senator Inouye conveyed his final wish to Governor Abercrombie. While we are very disappointed that it was not honored, it was the governor's decision to make. We wish Brian Schatz the best of luck."
Four days after eulogizing Inouye in the courtyard of the Hawaii Capitol, Abercrombie said he had to consider more than just Inouye's wishes in filling his seat.
"Of course, Senator Inouye's views and his wishes were taken into account fully, but the charge of the central committee, and by extension then myself as governor, was to act in the best interests of the party . . . the state and the nation," Abercrombie said.
"The law makes explicitly clear, as do the rules of the Democratic Party, that while everyone's voice is heard and everyone's view is taken into account, nonetheless, no one and nothing is preordained," he said.
The governor said that by keeping Hanabusa in the U.S. House, Hawaii will continue to benefit from her leadership there, where she holds a seat on the House Armed Services Committee "that is so vital to our state."
"Without her in that capacity, we would have no one in the House or Senate serving in this critical position," he said.
Another consideration, if Hanabusa were selected, was the need to have to hold a special election to fill her seat, the governor said.
Hawaii Republican Party Chairman David Chang said Abercrombie's action denied the GOP a chance to run a candidate to replace Hanabusa.
The Republican Party was "well prepared to field a candidate that would be a capable leader and strong advocate for Hawaii," he said. "The extreme partisan politics of the Hawaii Democratic Party serves as a reminder that a balanced two-party system is sorely needed. Governor Abercrombie has once again put partisan politics and power ahead of Hawaii's people."
Hanabusa for her part congratulated Schatz in a statement.
"Having served as chair of the Hawaii Senate Judiciary Committee when the succession law was passed, I fully respect the process and the governor's right to appoint a successor," she said.
Abercrombie said that with his appointment of Schatz, "I am confident Hawaii has the strongest, best-prepared congressional delegation to lead us today, and the strongest, most well-rounded delegation for Hawaii in the years to come."
The White House said Schatz would fly to Washington on Wednesday night aboard Air Force One, which was bringing President Barack Obama home early from his Christmas vacation as Congress considers what to do about the so-called fiscal cliff.
Schatz, 40, said he was prepared to be sworn in to office this afternoon in Washington. That would make him Hawaii's senior senator because he would be sworn in before U.S. Sen.-elect Mazie Hirono.
"I am humbled and honored by this opportunity to serve," he said. "No one can fill Senator Daniel K. Inouye's shoes, but together all of us can walk in his footsteps.
"I will give every fiber of my being to doing a good job for Hawaii. I won't let you down," he said.
Schatz will serve until an election is held in 2014. He said he would run then to try to keep the Senate seat until 2016 - the end of Inouye's original term - and campaign again for Senate in 2016 if given the chance.
"No doubt about that," he said.
His priorities include ensuring that Hawaii remains competitive for federal funding. (One of his duties as lieutenant governor was to maximize federal resources coming to Hawaii.) Other priorities include federal recognition for Native Hawaiians and global climate change.
Schatz previously served eight years as chief executive officer of Helping Hands Hawaii, one of the state's largest nonprofit community social services organizations. From 2008 to 2010, he was chairman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii. He also chaired President Barack Obama's campaign in Hawaii in 2008.
Schatz was a member of the state House of Representatives from 1998 to 2006. He was raised in Hawaii and graduated from Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. He is married to Linda Kwok Schatz, an architect. They have a son and a daughter.
* Staff Writer Nanea Kalani and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.