Is 2nd time charm for U.S. House candidate?
By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Colleen Hanabusa, the tough-talking labor attorney from Wai'anae who takes on daunting issues and has a soft spot for the disadvantaged, is again taking a shot at a seat in Congress.
In January 2003, Hanabusa finished a distant third behind eventual winner Ed Case and former state Sen. Matt Matsunaga in the special election to replace the late Patsy Mink.
With eight years as a state senator, including the past three as the chairwoman of the high-powered Committee on Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs, as well as a less manic campaign pace this time, Hanabusa believes she'll fare better.
A fourth-generation resident of the Wai'anae Coast, Hanabusa said she understands the 2nd Congressional District better than most of the other candidates because she's one of the few who are actually from there.
"Growing up in the rural areas, and knowing what it's like ... to feel that somehow you're not getting your fair share, that's a necessary element to representing the area," Hanabusa said.
While Case has moved on to challenge incumbent U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, Hanabusa this time will go up against not only Matsunaga, but a host of other well-known challengers, including former Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono.
Former state Sen. Bob Nakata credits Hanabusa for playing a key role in shepherding through a package of bills designed to battle Hawai'i's crystal methamphetamine problem, first as co-chairwoman of the Joint Senate-House Task Force on Ice and Drug Abatement in 2003-04 and later moving the bill through the Legislature.
"She was the one, more than anybody, who put the legislation together," said Nakata, a social justice advocate. "She talked to a lot of people and put together a very good package. And she moved it through very efficiently."
Supporters said the bill toughened criminal penalties for ice offenses and promoted substance abuse treatment. But not everyone was pleased with the package. Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed the key bill in the package on the grounds that it softened penalties for some drug-related crimes, but Democrats in both houses were successful in overriding that action.
Said Nakata of Hanabusa: "She's tough, she's outspoken and, underneath it all, I think she has a good heart."
Nakata also praised her for her efficiency and transparency, noting that Hanabusa is the only chairperson of a legislative committee who issues recommendations on bills in her committee at least the night before votes are held.
"She's a trial attorney so if you're going to go against her, you better be well prepared," he said.
Sen. Fred Hemmings, R-25th (Kailua, Waimanalo, Hawai'i Kai), said he expects Hanabusa will do well in the Democratic primary.
"I admire Colleen Hana-busa," said Hemmings, who said he is endorsing fellow Republican state Sen. Bob Hogue, R-24th (Kailua, Kane'ohe), for the 2nd Congressional District seat. "She's one of the more erudite senators and she seems fairly even-handed."
But Hemmings noted that Hanabusa has also been a leader of a faction of Democrats in the Senate that has challenged the leadership of Senate President Robert Bunda. Hemmings called the infighting counterproductive for the Senate.
Hanabusa said she has demonstrated during her time on the Senate a propensity for standing her ground.
"You need someone who really isn't a shrinking violet, someone who can advocate, be a quick study and argue a point," Hanabusa said.
She points to a range of challenging issues she has thrown herself into, including co-chairing the Joint Senate-House Investigative Committee on the Felix Consent Decree that looked into how well the state was complying with a federal court mandate to provide educational services to students with mental and emotional disabilities.
She has also been in the thick of various Hawaiian rights issues, and held hearings on the potential impacts of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Rice v. Cayetano, a decision that ultimately led to the opening of elections for Office of Hawaiian Affairs board members to non-Hawaiians.
Hanabusa introduced a controversial bill to offer tax credits of up to $75 million for development at Ko Olina Resort, a move she defended as necessary to spur development for the Leeward area.
Wade Nobuhara, 45, said Hanabusa is the oldest of about a dozen cousins on his mother's side. Growing up, he said, the cousins all turned to Colleen for advice on all sorts of problems.
What makes her unique is "her ability to grasp all sides of an issue really quickly, and then being able to weigh both sides and coming up with the fairest solution possible," Nobuhara said.
Hanabusa is a patient listener and finds time to spend with nieces and nephews, said Nobuhara, a dentist. "She really does have a soft side for people and situations," he said.
As a youth, Hanabusa's grandparents — fearing she was becoming too much of a tomboy — forced her to study the art of ikebana, or Japanese flower arranging. It became a lifelong hobby and she remains a member of the Ikenobo Ikebana Society of America, Honolulu Chapter.
"You have to focus, so it clears your mind," Hanabusa said. Ikebana has taught her that if the "shin," or focus, of a plant is set properly, "the rest of the arrangement will flow. And if it isn't it will fail."
That outlook forms the foundation of her approach toward life, including politics. "If your foundation is solid, everything else will hold," she said.
Hanabusa said she most likes to arrange kiawe and weeds. "I've always felt that if you took what everybody else would discard and make that into something, that that was true art," she said.
Hanabusa's ambition in life was to become an attorney, not a politician. She said she views elected office as an extension of her duty as an attorney to use her skills to help people.
As a young labor attorney, Hanabusa helped labor icon Art Rutledge fight for the benefits and rights of Local 5 and Teamsters members. Later, she represented Leeward residents in their fight against the installation of electrical power lines.
In 1994 and again in 1996, Hanabusa served as an adviser to former City Councilman Arnold Morgado in his bid for Honolulu mayor against Jeremy Harris. It was her first up-close look at elected politics.
Hanabusa said that even as a youth on roller skates, she questioned why Wai'anae neighborhoods did not have concrete sidewalks like the areas of middle-class Kaimuki where her cousins lived.
In 1998, she decided to do something about it and took on Democratic incumbent James Aki. "I just thought (Leeward Coast residents) deserved better, that I could do better," she said.
Hanabusa views running for Congress as a natural extension of what she's doing now. "That's what Congress is — the ultimate legislature," she said.
Among her major objectives is to remove U.S. troops from Iraq. "We've got to call an end to it," she said. Not only are military personnel and their families suffering, she said, but so too are entire communities that are losing doctors and other members of society for months or years at a time.
Hanabusa is also concerned by what she views as an erosion of civil rights since the Sept. 11 attacks, and blames the administration of President Bush.
Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at email@example.com.