Is Sen. Dan Inouye Out of Touch With Hawaii?

Adrienne LaFrance/Civil Beat

Ben Cayetano's recent criticism of longtime Sen. Dan Inouye — that he's out of touch with his constituents and doesn't listen to them — is still reverberating.

Pro-rail group Pacific Resource Partnership, which represents Hawaii carpenters, has launched BeNiceBen.com and is pushing a petition to urge Cayetano to "refrain from these kinds of mean-spirited personal attacks."

On Sunday, The Washington Times ran an opinion piece by a Hawaii resident who argued that Inouye shouldn't be offended by Cayetano's suggestion that Inouye "go down to McDonald's and talk to the retirees."

Whether Cayetano's denunciation of Inouye will hurt — or help — his chance to be elected Honolulu mayor won't be known until the Aug. 11 primary at the earliest.

But the former two-term Hawaii governor did raise a legitimate point: Exactly how connected is Hawaii's nine-term senior senator with his home?

After all, Inouye, who will turn 88 this September, has lived and worked in Washington, D.C., since 1959, the year Hawaii became a state. According to census data, two-thirds of Hawaii's 1.3 million people have never known Inouye to not be in Congress.

Criticism of being "out of touch" is nothing new in politics, and it can pack a punch. Just ask Richard Lugar, the Republican from Indiana, who was heading to a likely defeat on Tuesday after 36 years of distinguished service in the U.S. Senate.

A look at Inouye's activities as reported in the press and online from January through early May of this year show a senator hard at work — leading Senate Appropriations committee hearings, meeting with high-level officials (but also Hawaii high school students and mayors), giving interviews to a wide range of media (including local media) and traveling across the country and attending a variety of events (including in Hawaii).

His activities while at home are familiar, like eating at his favorite Zippy's Restaurant, complaining about traffic to Oahu's West Side and honoring veterans at Punchbowl Cemetery.

And, in spite of the blowback against congressional earmarks, Inouye still works to bring money home to Hawaii. It includes the announcement just last week that three health centers will split $10 million to expand services and fund renovation and new construction.

But Dan Inouye is not just any senator, and his life and career reflect that.

As the longest-serving member of majority Democrats, Inouye is president pro tempore — the second-highest-ranking official of the Senate and third in line to the presidency.

He has a federal security detail that accompanies him everywhere, including to homes in Bethesda, Md., Los Angeles and Waikiki. He travels frequently and treats constituents to a meal at restaurants where he sometimes rings up a hefty tab.

And he's a war hero whose many decorations include the Medal of Honor and Distinguished Service Cross. He has received honors from France, Japan and the Philippines and numerous honorary doctorates from American universities.

As Cayetano put it, Dan Inouye is very much "up at the 30,000-foot level, dealing with national and international affairs."

The senator was in transit Monday and unable to immediately comment to Civil Beat for this article.

But Peter Boylan, the senator's deputy chief of staff for government and external affairs, describes his boss as a very hands-on lawmaker and political leader, eager to hear from constituents and making the time to do so.

According to Boylan, that includes email and letters — the letters are signed by Inouye; the autopen is used only for mass form mailings — and calls multiple times a day to Hawaii. Those on the other end of the phone include field representatives in all four counties providing him with fresh information.

And, while he doesn't personally email, the senator does go online to view local television and online news. His staff gives him a morning and afternoon update on current events back home, Boylan says.

But Cayetano still has his doubts.

Told of the "in touch" description of Inouye, Cayetano told Civil Beat that he does not follow Inouye's activities closely, adding that he usually only sees him at formal events.

But he also said he tried to arrange a one-on-one meeting with the senator earlier this year. Told by staff that he was out of town, Cayetano was advised to email Inouye instead.

Cayetano said he did, and that in his email he told Inouye he respected him but disagreed with him on rail.

"I gave some reasons and attached renderings of what the stations would look like," he said. "I never got a response. I am a former governor of this state, and I thought I would get a courtesy reply."

Cayetano added that he did not think Inouye had met with prominent rail critics like Cliff Slater, Randy Roth and some Honolulu architects.

Boylan's response to Cayetano's comments, via email: "He did not call the office. He requested a meeting and the Senator was in Washington. He was encouraged to email or call the office. He sent an email saying he was opposed to rail and he was running for office, there were no renderings attached."

As for the meetings, Boylan wrote, "He may not have met with Ben and his cadre of rail opponents but he has met with many constituents and public officials who support and oppose the project."

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