Hanabusa: To Run, Or Not To Run

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - July 13, 2011
| Del.icio.us

U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa. File photo

Will Colleen Hanabusa run for the U.S. Senate next year? I asked her last week, and she gave me a straight-forward “I don’t know.”

Why, after unsuccessful attempts to win the 2nd Congressional District seat in 2003 and 2006, and after two hard-fought and expensive campaigns last year in which, after an initial defeat, she finally won the seat in the 1st District, would she possibly consider an expensive three-way 2012 Democratic Primary for an opportunity to meet a well-financed Republican ex-governor in Linda Lingle?

Hanabusa’s answer? Because in the 2012 Senate race Hanabusa sees a remake of the 2002 gubernatorial election.

“Mazie Hirono and Ed Case batter each other in a contested Democratic primary, then the survivor meets and loses to Lingle in the general election. I think I’d make a better candidate against her. I served in the state Senate throughout the eight years of Lingle’s governorship. I know her decisions.

“Many people assume that with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket, whoever gets the Democratic nomination will win the Senate seat. I think they’ve forgotten how good Lingle is as a campaigner.”

Hanabusa believes she understands the legislative process and the issues better than Lingle or her announced and unannounced opponents in the 2012 Democratic Senate primary.

She may be right.

Hanabusa stood out in the state Legislature from the day in 1998 she took her oath as the newly elected senator from the Waianae Coast’s 21st District.

Part of her prominence was based on pure ambition. Early in her first term, Hanabusa led a coalition of five in an effort to reorganize the Senate. They failed, and four of the five lost their seats in the next election.

Not Hanabusa.

During her dozen years in the Senate, she would chair the Senate Judiciary Committee, serve as Senate majority leader and, in 2007, become the first woman chosen as president of the Hawaii State Senate.

Now, however, Hanabusa sits far from the seats of power. Republicans control the U.S. House of Representatives. And as one of only nine in the House Democrats’ frosh class of 2010, Hanabusa sits almost out of sight on the back bench of House Armed Services Committee and on the far right of the first row of the Natural Resources Committee lost, if you will, among the 435.

Washington has other drawbacks.

“You don’t have the ability to touch your constituents,” says Hanabusa. “Too often you’re asked to make decisions that don’t relate to a place. In Hawaii, every issue is connected to a face, to someone, to Auntie Soand-So and her problems. I think that’s why people don’t care about what goes on up there. There are no connections.”

Still, Hanabusa, as a freshman must, puts the best face on things.

“It’s all about the coalitions you build,” she says, and she thinks she’s serving on the right committees for coalition-building. “The Armed Services and Natural

Resources Committees are the most bipartisan in the House. It’s a new challenge, and I’m still in the process of learning how to maneuver. In a legislature, it’s all about the relationships you develop.”

It’s also about style.

It doesn’t require much exposure to Hanabusa to understand that she’s first and foremost a lawyer. Lawyers are hardly rare

birds in a legislature, but lawyers of Hanabusa’s skill are. She practiced high-powered, award-winning lawyering for 20 years before she ever ran for office.

It’s her strength: as an advocate for her client, her issue or her constituent.

But it’s also her political weakness. Hanabusa, in the eyes of some, comes off too tough.

“I practiced construction litigation and labor law,” she says. “Those fields are dominated by men, and as a woman I had to convince them I was as good as the guys. In maledominated legislatures, it’s the same thing. If you’re too warm and fuzzy, they think you can’t do the job.”

For Hanabusa, in 2012, the question remains: “What job you wanna do?”



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