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The 113th Congress is on track to be one of the least productive and most partisan in U.S. history, but Colleen Hanabusa is looking ahead — to August 2014, actually. That’s when she hopes to win Hawaii’s Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate.
Back in the islands while Congress is in recess for the holidays, the U.S. representative has been making the media rounds, explaining how the nation’s future lies in Asia and the Pacific and that Hawaii is ideally positioned to benefit from that.
She’s also reminding voters that she’s in a tight race against U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz for his Senate seat. She believes a grass roots campaign based on local values, ties, experience and leadership will help her unseat the appointed incumbent. Hanabusa also makes a case for why it’s good to have more women holding elective office, arguing that they are more effective then men in working together.
Most critically, Hanabusa believes deciding who best represents Hawaii in the Senate is a matter of faith and conviction.
“I think it is going to come down fundamentally to who the people trust, and want, and feel that represents what they hold as their vision or their view of Hawaii,” she said.
Hanabusa sat down for an on-the-record Civil Beat editorial board interview Thursday. It was set up by her campaign but largely developed into a discussion of policy and vision.
(Note: We have also extended an invitation to Schatz and are working on setting up a meeting with him soon. The Schatz campaign declined to comment for this story.)
The 90-minute interview showed the congresswoman at the top of her game, clearly relishing her time in Congress and demonstrating a broad interest of issues. Hanabusa comes off as the kind of office holder who actually reads legislation all the way through and gives a great deal of thought to how she’ll vote.
Case in point: Her explanation of her “no” vote 10 days ago on the two-year budget agreement reached between House Budget Chair Paul Ryan and Senate Budget Chair Patty Murray.
“I am certain that there will be provisions in the proposal that I like and others that give me pause, but that is the nature of compromise,” she said Dec. 10, when she congratulated the lawmakers on reaching a compromise deal. “I look forward to delving into the details and determining whether I can support the measure as a whole.”
Hanabusa did delve into the details, deeply. She ultimately decided that she could not support a measure that, as she put it, balanced the budget on the backs of kupuna, federal workers, military retirees and the unemployed.
In voting against the budget deal, Hanabusa was not only among a minority of lawmakers from both parties in both the House and Senate, she also was the lone Hawaii delegate. Schatz, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Sen. Mazie Hirono, while agreeing the bill was not perfect, concluded the compromise legislation was in the best immediate interest of Hawaii and the nation. President Barack Obama said much the same.
The budget vote could become a campaign issue. While 31 other House Democrats and 62 Republicans joined Hanabusa in voting no, not a single Senate Democrat sided with the 36 Senate Republicans who said “nay.” Hanabusa voted the same way as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, James Inhofe and Mitch McConnell — the reddest of Republicans.
The Senate is the chamber Hanabusa seeks to join. Her vote against the budget may demonstrate an independence that some voters may find admirable. But it could also become campaign fodder, as it represents a clear difference between her and Schatz. As Schatz put it in a Dec. 17 statement on the budget as it neared Senate passage, “This is much-needed cooperation in a town where compromise has become a dirty word.”
Which leads to another observation of Hanabusa: She often seems more interested in the complex business of legislating and working with government agencies than she is in playing the role of soundbite-spouting politician. While she can reference the minutiae of bills and the history of nations, demonstrating a mastery of names, dates and acronyms, it can come off as wonky and difficult for the average voter to relate to. Do voters want the smartest person in the room, or the one that makes them feel good about giving them their vote?
For example, when asked whether she worries about how her budget vote might play out politically, she gave a lengthy response that involved explaining sequestration and the Budget Control Act of 2011, categories called “unexpended” and “unencumbered,” the Republican mantra on the budget, Pearl Harbor furloughs, continuing resolutions and the danger of voting on compromise solutions that can lock one into bigger problems down the road.
Hanabusa’s main point on the budget vote was that it was not the first time she has voted the opposite of her colleagues, and that her vote was based on a matter of principle.
“I have a history of also when I feel that matters need bipartisan support, I will be the first one there,” she said. “NDAA for example. A lot of my things are in there, and that took compromise.”
She was referring to the National Defense Authorization Act, which also passed Congress this month by healthy bipartisan margins. Hanabusa said her membership on the House Armed Services Committee was key to getting support for things in the bill that help Hawaii. But election to the Senate would mean giving up that very membership and starting over as a freshman.
Hanabusa appeared upbeat about her election chances. She’s been buoyed by the recent endorsement of a major union, ILWU Local 142, and word is she may be picking up more labor support.
On Dec. 17 — the one-year anniversary of the death of Daniel K. Inouye — Women for Colleen Hanabusa held a Pacific Heights fundraiser in Honolulu sponsored by Inouye’s widow, the wives of a former senator and governor and several prominent state lawmakers.
While Schatz will likely continue to hold a large fundraising advantage and enjoy the support of national Democrats in the Senate contest, Hanabusa’s campaign feels that events like the fundraiser with women will resonate better with voters than, say, the Schatz fundraiser next week in Kahala with big time developers and New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
Hanabusa thinks Washington could do with more women in office, a message that may have appeal to a local electorate that currently is represented by three women and one man.
“I think what the difference is is that women realize more than anything else the sacrifices that goes into getting to where you are,” she said. “It’s very difficult. I tell my colleagues that have little kids, ‘I don’t know how you do it.’ I tried babysitting my nieces. I was a nervous wreck! I’d rather be in the courtroom arguing against the greatest SOB that I know than trying to make home lunch, ironing their clothes and cleaning the house. … That is a difficult job, but that is an example of what I think women do.”
As a result of the tough career choices women make, she said, “We know that we can do things if we have help, if we are able to reach out, and if we have support. We understand that; we understand fundamentally things are not I-I-I, me-me-me. We know that we have to get to the ‘we,’ and we do that by building consensus.”
Hanabusa pointed to the recent government shutdown as an example of what happens when there is no consensus. She said that the final deal crafted by Senate Minority Leader McConnell and Majority Leader Harry Reid was “a pragmatic approach” very similar to the one proposed by Republican Susan Collins but rejected.
How would Hanabusa succeed in the Senate in such a difficult climate? Through relationship building, the same way her mentor Inouye did.
Hanabusa admits that there have been some challenges in the delegation working effectively together, but she pointed to legislation where they have joined forces and pointed out that past delegations have had their tensions, too.
Hanabusa often brings up Inouye. She says she thought she knew him well but says she is continually reminded of his contributions to Hawaii.
Perhaps the most far-reaching is the pivot to the Asia-Pacific region, which Inouye worked on for decades before it became U.S. policy.
“Three of the five greatest economies, five of our seven treaties, 55 percent of the land mass, and that’s not even getting to the population,” said Hanabusa. “We are in the middle, and there is an amazing opportunity. I thought I understood Sen. Inouye’s foresight better than most, but I will be the first to admit that even I didn’t know the extent of it.”
She continued: “I think the pivot is critical, and think that’s the reason PACOM (U.S. Pacific Command) is here, and I give credit to Sen. Inouye for a lot of it. We know this is where the 21st century is going to be defined — as the president said, as to whether we live in conflict or cooperation.”
Whether Hanabusa is part of that pivot requires not only unseating Schatz but running for re-election in 2016, when Inouye’s last six-year term expires. Because Schatz was appointed to Inouye’s seat, she says voters have not had the chance to weigh in on who will represent them.
“It’s always come down to home and how the voters in Hawaii feel,” she said. “And the fundamental issue is the sense of trust. ‘Do I trust you to do what I want to keep the Hawaii that I want? Are you the one that is going to do that for me?'”
It may very well come down to one vote at a time, like the customer she ran into at Central Pacific Bank on Waialae that expressed delight that Hanabusa was also standing in line.
“People love to see that,” she said. “People want to feel they can touch you and you can hear them.”