Honolulu • Hawaii Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz on Wednesday was appointed the state's next U.S. senator, bucking the dying wishes of U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye to win the support of Gov. Neil Abercrombie.
Schatz, a 40-year-old former nonprofit CEO who ran with Abercrombie for the state's top two offices in 2010, beat out U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and Esther Kiaaina, a deputy director in the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. The three candidates were selected by state Democrats earlier in the day.
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.
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 Sen. 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."
Under state law, the successor had to come from the same party as the prior incumbent.
Inouye, by far Hawaii's most influential politician and one of the most respected lawmakers in Washington after serving five decades in the Senate, died last week of respiratory complications at the age of 88. He sent Abercrombie a hand-signed letter dated the day he died, saying he would like Hanabusa to succeed him, calling it his "last wish."
"While we are very disappointed that it was not honored, it was the governor's decision to make," Jennifer Sabas, Inouye's chief of staff, said in a statement. "We wish Brian Schatz the best of luck."
Inouye would be "very happy" with the choice, Hawaii Democratic Party chairman Dante Carpenter said. Schatz has less experience than some older politicians in the Senate but he will be building seniority, which is "critical" to the state of Hawaii, he said.
"In the words of Sen. Dan Inouye invoked more than once seniority in the United States Congress is everything," Carpenter said.
Selecting Hanabusa, 61, would have required a special election in Hawaii's 1st Congressional District. Last time that happened, Hanabusa lost to Republican Charles Djou because of a winner-take-all format that split votes between Democrats.
Abercrombie said the possibility of a special election was a factor, as well as Hanabusa's "key position" on the House Armed Services Committee. The governor said she was on her way toward establishing a senior position on that panel, and it's important for Hawaii with its four-member delegation to establish seniority in both chambers.
Schatz will serve until an election is held in 2014. He said he will run for re-election to try to keep the Senate seat until 2016 the end of Inouye's original term and would run again for Senate in 2016 if given the chance.
"I can assure you this: I will give every fiber of my being to doing a good job for the state of Hawaii," Schatz said at a news conference. "We have a long and perhaps difficult road ahead of us, but we can succeed if we work together. I understand the magnitude of this obligation and this honor, and I won't let you down."
Hanabusa 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.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had urged Abercrombie to name Inouye's successor before the end of the year. Schatz said he will be prepared to be sworn in on Thursday. That would make him Hawaii's senior senator heading into the new Congress, which begins Jan. 3.
Sen. Daniel Akaka is retiring at the end of this Congress, after 22 years in the Senate. Democratic Rep. Mazie Hirono was elected in November to succeed him.
Schatz, 40, is a former state representative and a former chairman of the state Democratic Party. He also was a leader of President Barack Obama's campaign in Hawaii in 2008.
Even before winning the 2010 general election, Abercrombie expressed faith in Schatz, saying he would put him in charge of attracting more private and federal investment in Hawaii. Other responsibilities included leading the state's clean energy efforts and Asia-Pacific relations.
In making his case before the party's central committee earlier Wednesday, Schatz said that if he was appointed, he would strive to make serving in the Senate his life's work.
First in line to replace Schatz as lieutenant governor is Senate President Shan Tsutsui, who said he planned to discuss the prospect with his family before deciding.