They are both Japanese-American women in their early 60s, married Buddhists with no children who represent the state of Hawaii 5,000 miles away in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Until last month, each also lived in the other’s district.
Thursday evening, at a Young Democrats Pau Hana Forum at Ward Warehouse, several dozen likely voters and campaign volunteers heard the two congresswomen talk about energy, education and the future of Hawaii.
They also got a preview of sorts should these two top Democrats vie for a once-in-a-generation Senate seat.
The Pau Hana was not overtly political.
Hanabusa and Hirono shared a dais with Gene Awakuni, chancellor of the University of Hawaii-West Oahu, and Mark Duda, president of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association.
But politics was in the room.
Earlier that day, Hirono had emailed supporters a last-minute plea for donations to bolster her take during the federal fundraising period that ended at midnight. (Primary opponent Ed Case has done much the same.)
Hirono’s bid was bolstered by the (very) early announcement this week that EMILY’s List had endorsed her. The well-funded PAC helped Hanabusa defeat Republican Charles Djou just 10 months ago.
National observers like The Daily Kos worry that Hanabusa’s and Hirono’s similarities — they are both liberal Democrats — will draw from the same pool of voters and hand the primary to Case, a moderate Blue Dog Democrat.
Hirono was poised, in command of issues both local and national.
She deplored the contract impasse with the state and the Hawaii State Teachers Association, praised President Obama and Governor Neil Abercrombie for embracing her top priority of early childhood education, noted that she went to Kaimuki High School with Awakuni, dropped the name of the beloved Patsy Mink and pointed out that she met her future husband when she was president of Young Democrats way back in the day.
Her answers to audience questions were tight, crisp and soundbite ready.
“On the House side, what the Republican majority wants is ‘Drill, baby, drill’ — it’s as simple as that — and $4 billion in tax credits for Big Oil, which is making money hand over fist.”
She sometimes talked like the wonky lawyer she is, speaking on complicated issues as if she were talking to others who know as much as she does but actually don’t. (Felix Consent Decree? What was that all about again?) Hanabusa also has a habit of using acronyms that are not commonly used among common folk (e.g., ARRA, CIP, HUD).
Put another way, Hirono sounded like someone who has spent the last five years in Congress and knows the score while Hanabusa sounds like someone who has spent the last six months in D.C. and is still getting used to jet lag.
It’s an early snapshot of a competition that may never happen. But if it does, there will be many more such forums to come.