Both myself and Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa lost elections in August rather than in November, providing us a particularly lengthy period to ponder our departures from office.
In this exclusive interview with Civil Beat, Colleen and I discussed, among other things, what it is like to be a very lame duck for a very long time.
Colleen was obviously upset with the way the election was handled. She was encouraged by others to challenge the results and continue the fight. Ultimately she decided not to challenge or contest the election results because it brought closure to the election and, in my opinion, Colleen may have realized she needed closure well.
In my case, I had never lost an election so I was confronting uncharted territory. A few days before the Honolulu mayoral primary it became obvious from published poll numbers it was likely that I would be defeated. Despite this knowledge I was still disappointed when the ax fell.
During the weeks after the loss I was offered many condolences and heard a multitude of disparaging comments about my opponents. I must confess these comments produced a melody that was not at all unpleasant to my ears.
I talked to members of the cabinet, staff and others and told them that we still had work to do. I made it clear that my goal was to secure funding for the rail. I also told them I understood they would and should take whatever steps necessary to remain employed or find work elsewhere for the sake of their future and their families.
From that point until my departure it was pretty much business as usual with the added burden of closing up shop and realizing that the people that I had taken such pleasure in working with were scattering to the winds and a city hall that was not partisan nor practiced the same old politics as usual would be lost for years to come. The other big burden was to cart all the items that had been given to me during my elected years to a house that had scant space to accommodate it all.
I think Colleen is finding herself in the same situation.
“For me, right now, it’s a question of what more I can accomplish with the time I have left,” she says. “Congress still has important issues to deal with, like the situation in the Middle East, immigration reform, and the budget. I don’t how much the House will actually take up after the election in November, but I’m still in office until January, so I’ll keep working.”
In my case, I had never lost an election so I was confronting uncharted territory.
Still, that inevitable day will come and Colleen says her staff is working to shut down the Washington, D.C., office in a few weeks; the Honolulu office will remain in place for a bit longer.
“The district office spends the majority of its time doing case work,” she says, “helping people deal with things like military benefits, Social Security and Medicare, and immigration questions. Hundreds of cases. But most people don’t realize that we can’t pass those cases on to the next person who holds the office. We need to close them all out, or the constituents have to agree to pass them along to one of the senators’ offices. So we’re doing a lot of that.”
The August primary loss was especially tough for Colleen. Sen. Brian Schatz barely squeaked out a win and that only after what some have criticized as election irregularities resulting from the way the Office of Elections handled a make-up vote for people who couldn’t get to the polls during Tropical Storm Iselle.
“Of course, I had many, many people telling me that I should contest the results,” she says. “But in the end, no matter how close the results, we have to have closure. The voters need to have a final result that they can have faith in. So I decided that it was important to accept the results and let everyone put their focus on the general election.”
Here’s a recap, edited for space, of my interview with Colleen:
Have you looked back on the past campaign and asked what you could have done differently? Is there anything you would have changed?
“Yes, I’ve thought about it. Losing is disappointing, and in a situation like this where the result was so close, it’s impossible not to ask yourself, ‘What could we have done to make up that difference? Where could we have pushed more?’
“I think in this race, money made a big difference. You and I both know that it’s much, much easier to raise money as an incumbent. I was outraised three or four to one, which makes it tough.
“I try to demonstrate that I care and I understand people’s needs by doing the work.” — Rep. Colleen Hanabusa
“In the final days, the hurricane certainly made a difference. Turnout on the Big Island was far lower than expected, because a lot of people, even if they could physically get to the polls, had other things on their minds. And then, or course, there were the issues in the areas where they were not permitted to vote on election day, but then really didn’t have all the time they needed to stabilize their lives and get to the polls on the make-up voting day, not to mention the confusion about whether there would be walk-in or mail-in voting.
“But that was all just the reality of this election. Voting happens on the real world, and that was the situation we found ourselves in.”
You’ve served almost 15 years in elected office now, progressing from serving a district in the Leeward Coast to Senate President to being a member of Congress. Do you think you’ve changed over the years?
“I remember when I first ran for state Senate in my district on the Leeward Coast, I asked a man I met what I could do for him. And he said, ‘Don’t make promises. They all make promises and then they forget. Just don’t forget about us, and don’t forget where you came from. Show us that you care.’ And so I never forgot.
“I think it helped that I had grown up in that district so I knew what the community was concerned about and what they wanted done. I first ran because I felt our state senator at the time wasn’t really concerned about our district. So I really focused on the unique needs of the Waianae Coast.
“As Senate President I had to have a broader view, but still, my main concern was what’s good for the state? I never lost my commitment to my district in particular, but then looking more broadly at what Hawaii needs.
“Then in Washington, I needed to also consider the nation. So I was serving Hawaii, but for all Americans, what is our direction and what should our priorities be? So over the years I’ve been encouraged to take a broader and broader view of what people want and need. At the same time, I have never forgotten where I come from.
“I’ve never been one for photo ops and big pronouncements. I’ve been asked over and over again why I don’t introduce bills just so I can say I introduced them, no matter whether they can pass or not. I let other people do that. I try to demonstrate that I care and I understand people’s needs by doing the work. That hasn’t changed.”
Is there anything you feel is being left undone, something you would like to see more progress on after you leave Congress?
“I worry about the future of Native Hawaiian self-determination, what we have called the Akaka Bill. I look back at 2009, when we had a majority in both chambers of Congress and we had the White House, and we still couldn’t get it passed. That doesn’t detract at all from the hard work Senator Akaka, Senator Inouye, and our whole Congressional delegation put into it, but the process of getting a bill through Congress is challenging under any circumstances. So I think congressional action just may not be possible.
“After that, we need to consider administrative action, action by the president, or judicial action. We saw some administration action this year, and, as we witnessed, the process still is not simple by any means. And as far as judicial action goes, as an attorney you know what kind of challenges lie in that direction. But I think many, many people, smart dedicated people, are looking at every possibility, and I think we may see some progress. I will certainly keep an eye on it and offer whatever help I can. But I think it will take more work, and a different kind of effort, than we may have seen in the past.
“I am also concerned about how the federal budget will affect Hawaii. I was talking to someone shortly after Senator Inouye passed away, and he told me that while most people were worried about the ‘fiscal cliff,’ he was more concerned about the ‘Inouye cliff.’ With all of his seniority, his connections, and his skill at working in the Senate, Senator Inouye directed a lot of federal funding to Hawaii. Transportation funding, funding for programs like the East-West Center, and of course military funding. It will be very difficult to even come close to matching that kind of success, and I worry about how it will impact the state.”
What do you hope people will remember about your time in public office?
“You know, I wasn’t a life-long politician. I already had a successful career as a lawyer before I ran for office. But I think I put a lot into it, and I hope people remember that I brought not only skill but a deep concern and commitment to serving in office. And I hope a lot of young women will look at my career and say, ‘Here was a girl who grew up in Waianae, working in her family gas station, pumping gas and cleaning windows, and she made it to Congress. If she can, I can.'”