Editor’s note: Civil Beat spoke with each of the candidates for the 1st Congressional District seat to discuss how their careers outside of politics have shaped who they are and how they serve the public. This story is the result of an interview with Democratic challenger Colleen Hanabusa. Our profile of Republican Congressman Charles Djou can be read here.
From an early age, Colleen Hanabusa was destined for a career in law.
When an evaluative test senior year of high school spit out that Hanabusa’s skills were best suited for a career as an administrative assistant, her teacher knew immediately there had been a mix-up. “That’s not right, that’s not yours,” Hanabusa was told.
She’s careful to say that there’s nothing wrong with being an administrative assistant, but Hanabusa — who was her high school’s student body president years before she became the Hawaii Senate president — likely suspected the same thing as her teacher. And when the results had found the correct classmate and Hanabusa’s true evaluation was delivered to its rightful owner, those suspicions were confirmed.
“I was high on an attorney, and the next thing about two points below that was a general, because it was not a girl-boy thing … and then about five points below that was an architect,” Hanabusa recalls. “At that point, I said, ‘Why not? Why can’t a girl be a general or be a lawyer?'”
Asked how she decided to focus on labor law, Hanabusa shrugs. “The choice in being a labor lawyer wasn’t a choice that I necessarily made, it’s sort of a choice that made me.”
Four decades later, Hanabusa is on the cusp of giving up the law for good.
In an interview in an undecorated, dim side office at her bustling Ward Avenue headquarters, Hanabusa said it would be “bittersweet” if she were to prevail in her general election challenge of Republican Congressman Charles Djou. The part-time gig of being a state senator and the willingness of opponents to work around her busy schedule have allowed Hanabusa to practice law on the side since she started representing Waianae in 1998. But a victory in November would make politics, not law, her full-time job.
Not long after the skills evaluation pointed her toward a life in law, Hanabusa was faced with a choice.
She had graduated in 1969 from St. Andrew’s Priory — the prestigious girls-only school started by Queen Emma Kaleleonalani for alii. She earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Sociology from the University of Hawaii-Manoa four years later. As she worked on her Master’s Degree there, she found herself “torn” between going to law school and pursuing a PhD in Sociology.
Her Master’s thesis studied, among other issues, the Down Payment Reserve Plan, a Hawaii program that allowed people to live in public housing even if they exceeded the maximum income level as long as the differential was put into an account for a down payment on a home. Many residents of public housing in Manoa were able to save up and move to Pearl City, Hanabusa said.
“To me that was a clear application of how law affected people. … That’s what intrigued me the most,” Hanabusa said. “You have this whole middle class being created out there because of this one law that allowed you to use the differential, and they didn’t just say, ‘You’re out of public housing at this point,’ but instead gave everybody the ability to bootstrap.”
After professor Harry Ball pushed her toward the law and away from the PhD — a suggestion that left Hanabusa feeling a little insulted at first — she entered the William S. Richardson School of Law. She graduated in 1977 and briefly ran her own shop before joining the firm of Koshiba and Young in 1980.
Hanabusa’s big break came a few years later when a partner took her off of construction litigation to represent Arthur Rutledge, a union leader for the Teamsters, masons and hotel workers, Hanabusa said. He was being challenged over pension benefits when Hanabusa, then 35, was assigned to his case in 1986.
“He looked at me and he said … ‘You know, little girl, you should be at home having babies and taking care of your husband and cooking him dinner,'” Hanabusa said. “And I told him, ‘Mr. Rutledge, you’re basically damn lucky that you have me for your lawyer … and you’ll be here at 8 o’clock in the morning because we’re walking to court.'”
Rutledge had already been active in the labor movement for decades by the time Hanabusa came to be his attorney and had already built a sizable reputation for himself.
According to the New York Times obituary published upon his death in 1997, Rutledge “was arrested many times in the course of at least 200 strikes and work stoppages, and the Federal authorities unsuccessfully tried to deport him after questions were raised about his citizenship. The United States Senate investigated his relationship with Jimmy Hoffa and the teamsters’ union, but no charges were ever filed. He was also tried on charges of attempted murder but was acquitted when a witness recanted his testimony.”
“He was just a controversial kind of guy,” Hanabusa said. “I think the word notorious is appropriate to describe him, but when you think about what he was able to do. Labor in Hawaii began almost the same time I think as the Democratic Party did. It was 1954 when we had the first major strike in the sugar area.”
Hanabusa said her mentor — who she referred to repeatedly as “Mr. R” — fought with businessman Harry Weinberg, Mayor Frank Fasi and hotelier Roy Kelley repeatedly, but called them good friends and would always go out for a bite to eat after yelling and screaming at them about one thing or another.
“That’s where you come to realize that, hey, that’s what it’s all about,” Hanabusa said. “It just showed you what I always thought were the unique values that we have. The relationships always were there. It doesn’t matter, it transcends, but you’ve got to be able to get to that point of respect.
“He was just fascinating,” she said of Rutlege. “When you meet someone like that and you know that he left such an imprint on the whole labor movement.”
Originally dismissed as a “little girl,” Hanabusa eventually earned Rutledge’s respect. At one point, she said, he went to temple to pray and talk with God about whether she was qualified to represent him.
“‘The voice said that I was absolutely correct and your real name was Dolly Kalinski,'” Rutledge said, according to Hanabusa. “So from that day forward, I was Dolly Kalinski, and from that day forward … I started to do labor law.”
After the case, the firm offered to make Hanabusa a partner “because I was the only one they thought could really talk to this guy.” She stayed at Koshiba and Young until 1990, when she left to start a private practice that she runs to this day.
Representing Rutledge was a defining moment in her labor law education, but Hanabusa points to other cases that shaped her as an attorney and, eventually, as a legislator.
There was the temporary restraining order filed just days before New Year’s to stop a new law that would have made lifeguards mandatory contributory members of the state pension system. There have been fights over the sufficiency of Environmental Impact Statements and pro bono cases about landfills, issues that are among Hanabusa’s passions.
In more recent years, after Hanabusa joined the Senate, there was the controversial lawsuit to invalidate vetoes because there had been insufficient notice. Among the bills vetoed was a $75 million tax credit for an aquarium project at Ko Olina Resort that opponents have said would benefit developer and Hanabusa political ally Jeff Stone. The bill and the subsequent lawsuit did not come up in the interview for this story.
But the case that Hanabusa was quickest to bring up and happiest to discuss at length, the one that taught her the most, was one that hit close to home.
Hawaiian Electric had decided to build overhead 138-kV lines from Campbell Industrial Park to Waiau in Pearl City in the early 1990s. Hanabusa, born and raised on the Waianae Coast, represented some of Leeward Oahu’s elected officials in a challenge that started with asking the Public Utilities Commission to put the lines underground. The fight ended in the Hawaii Supreme Court, she said.
She lost the case, and the overhead lines eventually went up despite community objections. But Hanabusa said the experience helped her understand how the Public Utilities Commission works and how the electric company sets its rates. She learned about the limits of the H-POWER facility and the concept of peak demand.
“That case taught me the most about the structure of a utility and the concept of need and also the whole idea of a grid and the idea of redundancy in the provision of service and at what point would people be willing to give up uninterrupted service in exchange for not burning as much fossil fuels,” she said.
But the thing that sticks with Hanabusa 15 years later is the fact that there will never be a 138-kV line in Manoa, she said, because the issue boils down to which communities band together and which ones don’t have the resources to fight.
The case taught her about environmental justice — “When one portion of this island community bears the burden of the rest of the community.” Leeward Oahu has hosted landfills, electricity generation facilities, live fire military exercises and a disproportionate share of the homeless, she said.
“This is one of the cases that, for me, I think it helped me realize the interaction of laws with the community and the long-term effect and how people truly define themselves when they’re looking at a situation like this,” Hanabusa said. “When you have to weigh the benefits of a community at large versus a particular constituency, how do you weigh that, and how you balance that, and what is fair, and what is just?”
Hanabusa, who had been honored as one of Hawaii’s top attorneys, began to understand the limitations on her power.
“One of the things that it taught me was as much as lawyers think we can effect people and we can effect change, it’s always for a limited person or a limited issue. But the only way you can do anything generally to effect the change or you want people to look upon whether undergrounding (electric lines) should be standard or not, really is legislatively. The greatest lessons were the lessons that I learned in the litigation process of it, but I also learned the critical issue was that it was the legislation.”
It wasn’t long before Hanabusa found herself on the campaign trail in a run to represent District 21 in the Hawaii Senate.
“The reason I decided to run in 1998 was really because very little changed in the place that I grew up,” she said. “We always got a bum rap and I decided I wanted to try to make a difference. It sounds corny, but that’s exactly what it is.
“I’ve always thought, even back then, that the two successful elements for anyone is the concept of pride and the concept of really having hope, and I just saw that we were losing that, and I wanted to go there and see if there was something I could do about that.”
She wasn’t sure her campaign would gain much traction, but Hanabusa did prevail in that 1998 election and quickly moved up the ladder in the Hawaii Legislature. Over time, she was named vice president of the Senate, chair of the Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee and Senate majority leader. In 2006, she was tabbed as president of the Hawaii Senate, the first woman to be so honored.
Through 12 years in public office, Hanabusa never stopped being an attorney. Her affair with the law started with curiosity spurred by a high school skills evaluation, survived a flirtation with sociology and grew into love under the guidance of a “notorious” labor leader.
The journey has weathered too many fights to count, but Hanabusa carries the experiences into her fight for a seat in the U.S. Congress.
“You take with you all the different kinds of things that you’ve learned along the way. So I tell people who are young, people who look at law and want to be lawyers, I tell them there’s probably no better discipline, because what they teach you more than anything else, I think, is how to think, how to frame an issue,” she said.
“But what you do with it is something that no one can take away from you. You will always have that with you.”