Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie. (Audrey McAvoy / Associated…)
Four days after questioning a deathbed letter at the center of Hawaii’s heated U.S. Senate race, Gov. Neil Abercrombie apologized to the widow of its ascribed author, the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, and others he offended. But he stuck to his key assertion Inouye told him the choice of a successor was his alone to make.
"I apologize to the late Sen. Inouye, his wife, Irene, his family, friends, and former staff for the comments I made concerning the letter," Abercrombie said in a statement issued late Monday. "I regret that my comments were interpreted as hurtful and disrespectful to them. That was certainly not my intent. Sen. Inouye was, without a doubt, one of the finest leaders in Hawaii's history, and a mentor to me.”
Under Hawaii law, Abercrombie had the choice of three candidates to succeed Inouye, a fellow Democrat, who died unexpectedly in December 2012. He spurned Inouye’s favored successor, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, and selected his lieutenant governor, Brian Schatz.
Hanabusa and Schatz are now running neck-and-neck in the Aug. 9 Democratic primary.
Overhanging their contest is the drama surrounding a letter delivered to Abercrombie seeking Hanabusa’s appointment. It was presented as Inouye’s final wish, dispatched from his deathbed.
But in an interview Thursday at his Honolulu campaign headquarters, Abercrombie repeatedly questioned that depiction, saying the letter attributed to Inouye arrived half an hour before he died. “Whether or not this could be construed as Sen. Inouye’s dying wish — let me put it this way — is problematic,” he said in the interview.
The circumstances were “far from the drama … with which it’s been characterized,” Abercrombie added later. “I think it was kind of created.”
He did not question that the letter reflected Inouye’s preference. But, he said, the senator privately told him in more than one conversation that the choice of a successor was ultimately up to him, based upon what Abercrombie considered best for the state. (The conversation related to an anticipated opening when Hawaii's other U.S. senator at the time, Daniel Akaka, planned to retire.)
The governor reiterated those comments in his apology, issued not long after Inouye’s widow, Irene Hirano Inouye, put out her own statement calling his interview "hurtful" and "disrespectful." A Hanabusa spokesman said earlier the letter reflected Inouye's sentiments, written in his own words.
“The selection of Sen. Inouye's successor was one of the most difficult decisions of my political career," Abercrombie said. “ I had three worthy nominees from the Democratic Party to select from. In my discussions with Sen. Inouye, it was clear that he preferred Colleen Hanabusa. In the end, however, he told me, as governor, you have to make the decision you think is best for the people of Hawaii."
For his part, Schatz issued a statement Friday saying, “I do not question the authenticity of Sen. Inouye’s letter.”