Hanabusa Makes Her Case

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - February 22, 2006
| Del.icio.us

In the 2003 special election to fill Hawaii’s second district congressional seat, state Sen. Colleen Hanabusa of Waianae finished a poor third. She won 8 percent of the vote, far behind Ed Case’s 43 percent and Matt Matsunaga’s 30 percent.

Yet she had spent a quarter of a million dollars in her quest, enjoyed a reputation as one of the state Legislature’s most powerful members, and received more adulatory press coverage during her first Senate term than all the rest of the senators combined.

Why did she lose so badly? “In that election, I learned the value of name recognition,” says Hanabusa. Compared to Case, who had just spent a year running for governor, and Matsunaga, who had just spent a half-a-year running for governor and owned one of the best known monikers in Hawaii Democratic Party history, Hanabusa was a relative unknown.

In this year’s contest to replace the U.S. Senate-seeking Case, Hanabusa expects to do much better. The 54-year-old respected labor lawyer feels her legal skills make her the best candidate for the congressional seat: “Because I am a good lawyer. I’m a good advocate. I know what my client base is, and I’ve done the best job I could of representing my senatorial district at the Capitol. Now I want to switch those skills to the second congressional district.

“People know I’m not afraid to express an opinion, yet as an independent I’ve learned that you have to respect others. No one will know a legislative issue better than I will. No one will marshal the facts better than me. It’s second nature for me. There are those in the Senate who may not like me, but they respect what I stand for. They know I’m not coming off the wall.”

Hanabusa cites Senate hearings she conducted on the Felix consent decree, the ice epidemic, the Kamehameha Schools, and the Akaka Bill as examples of her diligence in marshaling “the facts.”

The Akaka Bill remains the primary piece of unfinished congressional business facing Hawaii’s Washington delegation. Hanabusa feels that adds to her congressional attractiveness.

“No one understands the Hawaiian issues better than I,” she says. “I’m had to learn them. My constituent base on the Waianae Coast is 60-65 percent Hawaiian, and the district includes the largest Hawaiian homestead in the state.”

Few would accuse Hanabusa of bragging - or of a lack of ambition. From the day she arrived in the Senate in 1998, she set out to make her presence felt. With four other freshmen senators, Hanabusa repeatedly challenged the leadership of Senate President Robert Bunda. All four of her confederates lost their re-election bids in 2002. An unchastened Hanabusa survived. She continues to attempt a coalition to unseat Bunda and put herself in the president’s chair.

Says one Senate veteran: “Colleen leads the Senate by default. Bunda is treading water.

Through her closeness to Brian Taniguchi, the chair of the Ways and Means Committee, and her own position as Chair of the Judiciary Committee, she influences the two most powerful senate committees. She can get legislation passed.”

Hanabusa acknowledges her power - or rather, that of the senate faction with which she is associated. “The Brian Taniguchi group survives because we do a good job,” she says, “but we’ve never been in the majority.”

Hanabusa identifies herself as more liberal than departing Congressman Case on labor issues. Where Case supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq and passage of the Patriot Act, Hanabusa opposed both. She says she’s “not sure I’m as liberal as Patsy Mink,” but says that she is certainly an advocate of women’s rights and gender equity.

Born and reared on the Waianae Coast, Hanabusa’s family owned and operated an auto parts store on Farrington Highway. Her parents still reside in a home behind the store. Hanabusa attended public schools on the coast and graduated from St. Andrew’s Priory. She attended college at the University of Hawaii, where she studied sociology and eventually received her law degree.

Hanabusa now resides in the new Waianae - in a condominium apartment at Ko Olina with her fiancé, John Sousa.

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