ANCHORAGE — Alaska lost an unwavering advocate when Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye died on Monday. In the 1970s, he cast crucial votes that made the Trans Alaska Pipeline possible and passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. In recent months he backed measures to bring health care to veterans in rural Alaska and clean up debris from the 2011 Japan tsunami now reaching Alaska shores.
"Sen. Inouye always championed Alaska issues as if he was a part of our Alaska delegation," said Alaska Sen. Mark Begich in a written statement.
"He really listened to the needs of Alaska Native people," said Alaska Federation of Natives President Julie Kitka. "And he always acted. I can't think of one time when he didn't step up and help when the Alaska Native people needed it. He went the extra mile on everything. When we asked him for help on an issue, he'd make it happen. We'd go back to thank him and he'd always say, 'What else do you need?'"
He was a guest at AFN conventions and was honored by the organization with a special award in 2007.
In an interview Monday, Kitka said Inouye's contributions to Alaska were rooted in his close friendship with the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. The two repeatedly called each other "brother." Despite being of opposite political parties, Democrat Inouye campaigned for Stevens and Republican Stevens contributed to and raised funds for Inouye.
In Washington, D.C. they pursued common goals for the 49th and 50th states, often alternating chairmanships of important Senate committees depending on which party was in power. In 2005, Stevens took over the chairmanship of the Defense Appropriations Committee, which Inouye had previously headed. Usually the senior committeeman from the minority party is called the "ranking member," but Stevens made Inouye "vice chairman."
"In the years since President Reagan left office," Stevens said in 2004, "either Sen. Inouye or I have been Chairman of Defense Appropriations."
"They were such an example of bipartisanship," Kitka said. "We learned so much from how they did their work."
In addition to crossing party lines to support Stevens on the pipeline, Inouye also sided with him on votes to allow oil development in ANWR. He argued for the necessity of Eielsen Air Force Base when the of Defense Department recommended steep cuts. With Stevens, he led the way in stationing Stryker brigades in Alaska and Hawaii, in upgrading tsunami warning systems, reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which created the 200-mile exclusive economic zone, and investigating the effect of climate change on coastal villages.
He fought for funding for Native villages and tribal groups and proposed legislation to require federal land managers to enter into agreement with Native groups to manage fish and wildlife.
"He studied and read histories about Native Americans," said Kitka. "So he made informed decisions."
When Stevens was indicted on corruption charges, Inouye stood by his colleague and was the first character witness for the defense. "Ted Stevens remains my friend," he said. "I believe in him."
Stevens was convicted, but the conviction was overturned before his death in a plane crash in 2010. At Stevens' funeral, Inouye said, "I knew it, we all knew it. He was not guilty. And he was vindicated, cleared of all charges."
The line drew the loudest applause of the day.
Stevens' death did not end Inouye's association with Alaska. He was in the state this spring for two fundraisers for Sen. Begich. Begich spokesperson Amy Miller said, "Sen. Inouye adopted Sen. Begich when he came to the Senate pretty much immediately and served as a mentor to him." She believes the one day visit in May was the last of Inouye's many trips to the state.
"He was an outstanding leader, a statesman, a very big-hearted, caring person," said Kitka. "It's going to be really hard to find anybody to fill his shoes. We loved him. We really did."
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.