Seeking a say from beyond the grave

Greg Nash

Candidates can come back to haunt the races to succeed them even after they’ve passed on to that great voting booth in the sky. 

And in this election cycle, several lawmakers no longer with us could have an impact on, or have already tried to influence, races in Hawaii, Florida and New Jersey — even from beyond the grave. 

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But with the public increasingly down on Congress, the weight voters give to dead politicians’ last requests could be mixed. 

The biggest test of this cycle comes in Hawaii, where Sen. Brian Schatz (D) is fighting to keep the seat Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) appointed him to over the dying wishes of Sen. Daniel Inouye (D). 

The revered senator’s deathbed request was that Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D) take his place. “Colleen possesses the intellect, presence and legislative skill to succeed in the Senate,” he wrote to Abercrombie on the day he died. “I hope you will grant me my last wish.”

The governor did not, and instead appointed Schatz, his lieutenant governor, citing the seniority the 41-year-old would be able to build as opposed to the 62-year-old congresswoman. Now, Hanabusa is giving up her safe seat to mount a campaign against Schatz, and she has the enthusiastic blessing of Inouye’s family and his widow, Irene Hirano Inouye. 

Many Hawaii Democratic observers think Hanabusa will be helped by the fact that Hawaiian voters will want posthumously to grant their longtime senator’s dying wish. The same emotion could also come back to haunt Abercrombie, who has seen his approval ratings tank and is facing a primary himself. 

“It’s wrapped up in a bit of grief,” one state Democrat said. “It’s one of those things that could have been very possible to extend his dying wish. Now, it’s voters’ jobs to grant him that.” 

There are many other factors at play in the race — ethnic divisions will take a central role, progressive and environmental groups have lined up behind Schatz, while EMILY’s List is backing Hanabusa. 

Whoever prevails though, Republicans have no chance of winning in the heavily Democratic Hawaii.

That’s not the case on the other end of the country, in Florida, where a House seat is at stake in next Tuesday’s special Republican primary to succeed the late Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.). 

Bitter family battles after and during a funeral are nothing new — something I know well, as the daughter of a mortician. But the Young family feud has taken internecine grudges to a height rare even in the cutthroat world of politics. 

After his October death, Young’s widow, Beverly, said her husband’s dying wish was for his former aide, David Jolly, to succeed him. Their son may have missed that memo though — Bill Young Jr. has backed state Rep. Kathleen Peters in the Jan. 14 contest. That family schism spurred Beverly Young to tell her son he had hurt her “beyond belief.”

But that mother-son spat pales in comparison to a bombshell story in the Tampa Bay Times last weekend that detailed how Young had kept his first family hidden after he married Beverly Young, his former secretary, and how they were largely kept away even from his funeral. 

Even with the airing of the family’s dirty laundry, Jolly looks likely to win the GOP nomination, but Democrats are eager to tar him for his lobbying background. The better test of how far Young’s legacy may extend will be in the March special general election. Young was respected and won easily every other year, but it’s a swing district, and Republicans find themselves banking on a backlash against ObamaCare to defeat a strong Democrat, former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink. 

“If I were Jolly, I would stick with ‘I’m the hometown guy who will fight against ObamaCare and protect your Medicare and continue Bill Young’s legacy,’ ” Florida GOP strategist Rick Wilson said.

Hearkening back to a late lawmaker’s legacy didn’t work last year in New Jersey, though. After his June death, the late Frank Lautenberg’s family tried to stop Newark Mayor Cory Booker from taking the Democratic senator’s place in Congress. 

There was especially bad blood between the two after Booker announced his campaign for Senate even before the 89-year-old Lautenberg announced his retirement. That didn’t sit well with the longtime lawmaker or his many loyal allies in the state. 

Lautenberg’s family threw its weight behind Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), and alluded slightingly to Booker’s taste for the media limelight by saying Pallone would be a “workhorse, not a showhorse.” They added that Pallone knows “gimmicks and celebrity status won’t get you very far in the real battles that Democrats face in the future.”

But in a divided and abbreviated primary race, Pallone and others were no match for Booker’s fame or fundraising. Lautenberg loyalists in the state still think that if it was a one-on-one fight between Pallone and Booker, it could have been more competitive. 

“They always looked at Pallone as a natural successor for the work that Lautenberg had done,” one New Jersey Democrat said of the late senator’s family. “We may be moving away from the anointed successor.” 

The new political reality may be that in an environment where being an incumbent no longer carries with it the benefits it used to, even dying wishes may not be sacrosanct anymore.

Taylor is the campaign editor for The Hill.