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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, January 18, 2007

Women in leadership after Senate shake-up

 •  Lawmakers target economy, housing
Video: New Senate president talks about her top post

By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Government Writer

Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, the new Senate president and first woman to lead either chamber of the Legislature, says she wants her actions to be judged on whether they are good for the state.

GREGORY YAMAMOTO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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When the state Senate reorganized in November, lawmakers were thinking about effective leadership, not making history.

However, once the dust had settled, it became clear Hawai'i had its own part to play in the rise of women in politics nationwide, a rise that included the first woman speaker in the U.S. Congress, California Rep. Nancy Pelosi.

In Hawai'i, where Gov. Linda Lingle was recently elected to her second term, the shake-up in the Senate has put women in three of the most powerful positions: Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, who became the first woman to lead either chamber in the Legislature; Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, who remained vice president; and Sen. Rosalyn Baker, who heads up the Ways and Means Committee.

The fact that women have ascended to power "is really a reflection on our male colleagues," Hanabusa said. "The fact that I was the first woman never surfaced.

"After it was done, then it sort of put things in perspective."

Hanabusa has received national attention in USA Today as a trailblazer in the Senate, prompting an e-mail from a former Hawai'i resident who said she was amazed that Hanabusa was able to break through the "koa ceiling" in the Legislature.

Although Hanabusa touts her Wai'anae roots and Asian-American ancestry over her gender, she realizes the significance of what she's achieved. When she was first elected, she said an old-timer told her no woman would ever lead the Senate.

Now that she's overcome that barrier, she hopes it encourages young girls and women to enter politics and become a stronger force in the Senate.

"We're a far cry from 50 percent," she said. "It's time to get more women in."

The leadership in the Senate stands in contrast to the leadership in the House, where almost half the committees are chaired by women, but many of the most powerful assignments went to men.

Rep. Sylvia Luke, once part of the majority leadership and now without even a committee vice chairmanship, said that the House previously made efforts to put women in leadership roles, recognizing that women bring a different perspective and dialogue to the table.

However, the current atmosphere of collaboration and bipartisanship she sees in the Senate is lacking in the House today, she said. Luke and others unsuccessfully challenged House Speaker Calvin Say for leadership.

"If you truly want to represent the people of Hawai'i, then I think the House needs to recognize women as leaders," she said.

House Majority Leader Kirk Caldwell agrees that more women need to rise in the House, but noted the Democratic majority put women in charge of seven of 18 committees, more than ever before.

"I definitely think there should be women in leadership positions throughout our country. I think we should have a woman president, to be quite frank," Caldwell said.

As for the state House, "I'm sure one day in the future we'll have a woman speaker. I would support that," he said.

For Hanabusa, being the first woman Senate president is a burden as well as an honor, since she wants to be judged by whether her actions are good for the state.

"You can't have people waiting in the wings saying, 'Ah, that was a typical woman thing to do,'" she said.

"It's great that I'm the first woman, but it shouldn't matter. If people think I'm a good president, it should be because I'm a good president, not because I'm a good woman president."

Reach Treena Shapiro at tshapiro@honoluluadvertiser.com.