Congress candidate Hanabusa a power player in Hawaii politics National group may stop state ads
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
Colleen Hanabusa has power.
The labor attorney from Wai'anae, who began her political career more than a decade ago as a dissident in the state Senate, became the first woman ever to lead a chamber of the state Legislature as Senate president.
She has earned the confidence of U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, the state's leading Democrat, and the respect of Gov. Linda Lingle, the state's top Republican.
She has won the endorsement of every major public and private-sector labor union, and many of the state's influential lobbyists and political insiders stand behind her.
But at a time when she needs that power to help her, in a special election for Congress in urban Honolulu's 1st Congressional District, it has been turned from a strength to a liability.
Hanabusa is the establishment candidate in a year when many voters are not happy with the establishment.
"If you want Hawai'i to be able to move forward, and also to be able to sustain the kind of support we've been able to enjoy, you need someone who you know can be a team player, who can bring people together," Hanabusa, D-21st (Nānākuli, Mākaha), said in a conversation in her campaign headquarters off Ward Avenue. "No one person can do it alone."
Hanabusa, 59, believes she is the only candidate who has had the responsibility of leadership. Former Congressman Ed Case, a moderate Democrat who prides himself on independence, had a brief and rocky stint as state House majority leader. Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou, a Republican, has been an isolated voice of opposition on the council.
Hanabusa sees herself as a collaborator, a problem-solver who can navigate in a Congress she has for years described as the "ultimate legislature."
"It's easy to say I'm an outsider, or I'm going to vote 'no,' and everything is wrong with the system, but that's just jargon," she said. "How do you fix it?"
Hanabusa's strategy was to chip away at Case's higher name recognition with voters in the months leading up to the September primary, and then bank on her grassroots support from traditional Democrats.
But when former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie resigned early to focus on his campaign in the Democratic primary for governor, triggering a special election to fill out the remainder of his term, the campaign changed tracks.
Hanabusa has trailed Djou and Case in public and private polls and her allies have had to fight suggestions from national Democrats that she cannot win and is splitting the Democratic vote.
On Wednesday, Hanabusa called a news conference to quell speculation that she might drop out.
"I'm in this race for the people who have supported me, who have made phone calls, who have knocked on the doors for me, who have waved signs for me, who have donated to the campaign in many, many forms," she told friends and supporters.
Inouye's endorsement — along with the backing of U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i — should have been a prize for her campaign. But it has been used against her by detractors, who claim she would follow the senior senator's orders and serve as another lever of his influence in Washington, D.C., and the Islands.
Inouye had told several Democrats that he wanted to do something to help Hana-busa after she and her staff developed a closer relationship with the Inouye camp during the 2008 presidential campaign.
Inouye and Hanabusa had both endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton over Barack Obama in the Democratic primary, which turned out to be an unpopular pick in Obama's birthplace, and they stayed with Clinton when it would have been more politically convenient to quietly stand down.
Inouye explains his reasons for supporting Hana-busa as more than just loyalty: He is impressed by how she operates, he trusts her, and he believes she is by far the best candidate for Congress.
"Colleen understands that times are tough and local families are struggling," he said in an e-mail. "I know she will work to bring resources home to Hawai'i to help jump start the economy, create jobs and provide better educational opportunities."
Her colleagues in the Senate — where she presides over competing factions of majority Democrats — describe her as intelligent and capable, a hands-on leader heavily involved in shaping legislation.
Hanabusa has taken the lead in the Legislature on several difficult public-policy issues, such as the investigation of the state's compliance with a court order to improve special education at public schools and the state's response to the surge in crystal methamphetamine abuse.
In 2004, Hanabusa had to explain her ties to developer Jeff Stone after supporting a $75 million tax credit for an aquarium project at the developer's Ko Olina Resort & Marina. The Advertiser reported at the time that Hanabusa and her fiance — now husband — lived in a luxury Ko Olina townhouse purchased by her fiance from Stone. Hanabusa's law firm occupied Downtown office space subleased from the developer.
"Honestly, I think she is a very capable individual and legislator," said state Sen. Robert Bunda, D-22nd (North Shore, Wahiawā), who was ousted as Senate president by Hanabusa in 2006.
"She's an ambitious individual and running for Congress, I think, fits her ambition, fits the kind of person that she is around the Legislature."
BEHIND THE SCENES
Despite that ambition, he said, Hanabusa has accepted the broader responsibilities of the Senate presidency.
"You have to represent the institution. It's not about you. It's not about your feelings. It's not about putting your thoughts into every issue," Bunda said. "You have to represent the rest of the body."
One of the things Hanabusa cited when she urged her colleagues to replace Bunda was what she saw as his inability to craft a well-defined message for the Senate to contrast with Lingle's. Some of her skeptics now say much the same thing about her.
Her leadership style is to guide senators toward consensus, or work the undercurrents that exist between factions to move the majority in her direction, rather than dictate. While several senators praise her approach, others say it can let issues drift without a clear resolution.
"She's not the type of leader who steps on peoples' necks," one Democratic staffer said.
Hanabusa could have sought to use the past session at the Legislature for political advantage — by trying to get in front of issues such as civil unions, teacher furloughs or the budget deficit — but she mostly stayed out of the fray and gave other Senate leaders and her committee chairmen the spotlight.
"That's my job," she explained. "My job is for the Senate to come out looking as good as it can in these difficult times," she said. "It's not for me to use it to grandstand."
Her skill set could be an asset on Capitol Hill, where she would have to work within a House chamber of 435 lawmakers, but it does not translate as well for voters in a 60-second campaign advertisement or a meet-and-greet in Mō'ili'ili.
Hanabusa has struggled to articulate her strengths as Senate president during the campaign, while Case and Djou have messages that are fluent and instantly recognizable for voters.
Hanabusa has conveyed, however, that she would be more in line with the state's congressional delegation than her opponents. She supports the current version of a Native Hawaiian federal recognition bill because she believes it would treat Hawaiians equally to American Indians and Native Alaskans, other indigenous people who have sovereign rights. Case and Djou oppose the current version.
Hanabusa also would maintain the Jones Act, the federal maritime law that protects the domestic shipping industry, which she believes is important for national security and for a reliable pipeline of goods to the Islands. Case and Djou favor an exemption for Hawai'i, arguing that the law has stifled competition and raised consumer costs.
Hanabusa, like her opponents, said she would focus on the economy and job creation if elected. She said she is also interested in Wall Street reform, citing the state's troubles with Citigroup over $1 billion in state money locked up in investments in auction-rate securities that have dropped in value.
Hanabusa believes her background and record in the Senate more closely reflect the majority of Hawai'i voters, particularly middle-class workers concerned about issues such as public education and economic recovery.
"I think that's what the fundamental bottom line's going to be," she said. "What are you going to do for me? Who can do the most for me, or my family, and that's going to be the determining factor."