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A profound ripple effect often shapes Hawaii politics, frequently starting with an announcement that can be unexpected, tragic or both.
On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Mark Takai, a first-term Democrat, let the public know that he will not seek another two years representing urban Oahu’s 1st Congressional District because his pancreatic cancer has spread.
That news set up the current moment of anticipation for his successor. It’s like waiting for stones to hit the pond, but the question is who throws first.
For the time being, all eyes are on Colleen Hanabusa, who preceded Takai, serving two terms in Congress. She now chairs the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, which oversees construction of the 20-mile rail project.
Elected officials and others are waiting to see whether she’ll seek her old seat this fall. If she does, political analysts say, the race will be as boring as it was when Takai was expected to run — essentially a shoo-in.
But if she doesn’t, then the race could see a tough primary fight among several candidates. Some names have already surfaced, including past candidates for the office, like Sen. Donna Mercado Kim and former Honolulu City Councilman Stanley Chang, and newcomers such as current Honolulu City Councilman Trevor Ozawa.
That’s what happened in 2014, when Takai bested six other Democrats and went on to win the seat for the first time. (Hanabusa had opted to run for the Senate, a race she narrowly lost.)
With the primary election Aug. 13 and the general Nov. 8, there’s not a lot of time to raise money and mount a serious run — especially for candidates without much name recognition, campaign infrastructure or experience in elected office.
That’s one of the major factors shaping the race. Another is the job itself. With Congress so polarized and Democrats expected to remain the minority party in the House, the position has become less alluring. Then there’s the reality of 5,000-mile commutes between Hawaii and Washington, D.C.
The top three vote-getters after Takai in the Democratic primary two years ago said in separate interviews Monday that they would support Hanabusa if she decides to run for Congress.
Kim, who finished second after Takai, said that she’d given thought to another congressional run but decided against it.
“I will probably sit it out and not run,” she said. “My campaign has been relaunched for my re-election, and I believe Colleen is interested in running. In the interest of the party, I think we should try to get behind one candidate.”
Kim represents state Senate District 14, which includes Kalihi, Kapalama, Moanalua and portions of Aiea. She has a Democratic primary challenger this year in Carl Campagna, who’s seeking his first four-year term in the Senate.
“It becomes a domino effect if my seat opens up,” Kim said. “It gets crazy after a while.”
She noted that while she still has campaign materials from her last congressional run, the window is so short that raising money is difficult. Campaign finance laws don’t allow state or county candidates to use money from those races for a federal election instead. She also noted the hardship of traveling back and forth between D.C. and the islands.
“It’s a lot to consider,” Kim said.
Chang came in third in the last primary race for Congressional District 1. He wouldn’t rule out going for it again this year, whether or not Hanabusa runs.
“I’m just focused on working hard for the people of east Honolulu,” he said, adding that he wishes the Takai family the best.
When asked if that was a “yes” or “no” on running for Congress this fall, Chang repeated the statement.
Chang filed in March to run for state Senate against longtime Republican incumbent Sam Slom.
“I think Colleen Hanabusa has done a fantastic job fighting for the people of Hawaii here and in Washington,” Chang said. “I look forward to seeing her giving back to the community in whatever way she sees fit.”
Honolulu City Councilman Ikaika Anderson, who finished fourth in the congressional race two years ago, said he plans to seek his final two-year term on the council this fall.
“To all of a sudden switch gears now and have to raise half a million dollars, that would be tough,” he said. “If Colleen were to run, this would be her race to lose. And if she does run, I would be happy to support her.”
Colin Moore, a political science professor and director of the University of Hawaii Public Policy Center, said Hanabusa would be the obvious front-runner if she decides to run.
“She’ll have to explain to voters why she wants the seat back after giving it up once to run for Senate, but I don’t think that will be a very difficult claim for her to make,” he said.
University of Hawaii political science professor emeritus Neal Milner said with Takai’s departure, Democrats lose the advantage of incumbency, which is worth a few points in any election.
But he said it’s one of the safest Democratic districts in the country; Democrats haven’t lost a general election race for this seat since the 1980s.
“The Republicans have a pretty shallow bench, if any bench at all; that can be formidable in getting votes and who can step forward in a hurry to do this,” Milner said.
Republicans have only sent three of their members to Washington in 57 years: Charles Djou, Pat Saiki and the late Hiram Fong. Former Gov. Linda Lingle lost badly to Hirono in the 2012 election for U.S. Senate.
“The Republicans have a pretty shallow bench.” — Neal Milner, UH political scientist professor emeritus
An appealing argument, however, might be that a Republican could best represent Hawaii in a GOP-controlled House — especially should Republicans keep control of the Senate and win back the White House.
That’s the tack Djou took during his last campaign. He’s considered among the most likely candidates to try anew; but he may be disinclined to square off with Hanabusa again after losing two previous elections against her, political analysts said.
“It’s hard to think of candidates who would be attractive enough to overcome the Democratic advantage and who can raise enough money to put up a fight — the national party committees don’t like to give money to significant underdogs,” Milner said. “It’s a microcosm of how elections are played out here.”
Hanabusa rode a ripple effect into office when she was first elected to the U.S. House in 2010.
Neil Abercrombie, who’d held the seat for 19 years, announced in December 2009 that he would resign from Congress to run for governor of Hawaii. He went on to win.
Djou, then a member of the Honolulu City Council, won a three-way special election in May 2010 to serve the remaining seven months left on Abercrombie’s term. Hanabusa and Ed Case split the Democratic vote.
When she faced Djou one-on-one in the general election that November, Hanabusa won with 53 percent of the vote. She beat him again two years later with 55 percent.
Djou went for the seat a third time in 2014, but lost to Takai by a 4 percent margin.
“If he does it, he’s doing it because he’s eternally optimistic and because the party talked him into it,” Milner said of Djou, noting that he ran a good campaign and still came up short.
The candidate filing deadline is June 7.
Political analysts aren’t sold on Hanabusa wanting the House seat again though. Some suspect she’s waiting to announce her plans this weekend at the state Democratic Party convention, or in the days leading up to it.
She has not responded to Civil Beat’s calls seeking comment.
Moore and Milner pointed at the work she’s doing since being appointed in April to chair the HART board of directors, and to future political aspirations.
“There’s talk that she wants to run for governor,” Moore said, “and being a very junior member in the minority party is not particularly fun.”
Hanabusa, 65, was raised in Waianae on Oahu’s Leeward Coast, humble beginnings she has often cited in her many campaigns. She earned a B.A. in economics and sociology and an M.A. in sociology from the University of Hawaii Manoa.
She also holds a J.D. from UH’s William S. Richardson School of Law, and she has worked as a labor attorney for more than three decades.
In 1998, Hanabusa was elected to the state Senate in a district that covered Waianae, Ko Olina, Nanakuli, Maili, Makaha and Makua.
She later served as Senate Majority Leader and in 2006 was named by her colleagues the Senate president — the first woman to lead the chamber in Hawaii history, and the first Asian-American woman to preside over a United States legislative body.
Hanabusa has been a candidate for Congress several times since her first try in 2003, losing narrowly in some cases. The races often featured a similar pool of candidates.
In January of that year, she finished third behind Case and fellow Democrat Matt Matsunaga in a winner-take-all race to represent Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, which covers the neighbor islands and rural Oahu.
Case had won a special election in late November 2002 to fill out the remainder of the term of Democrat Patsy Mink, who died in office.
In 2006, Hanabusa finished second to Democrat Mazie Hirono to replace Case, who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka. Schatz placed sixth in that election, which featured 10 Democrats. Hirono went on to win the general.
A similar ripple effect shaped the last two congressional elections.
On Dec. 17, 2012, U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye died at age 88. He had represented Hawaii in the Senate for nearly five decades, chairing the powerful Appropriations Committee in his final years.
It was his expressed desire that Hanabusa take his place, but Abercrombie chose his own lieutenant governor, Schatz, over Hanabusa. Both had been on a short list of candidates approved by the Democratic Party of Hawaii.
Instead of seeking a third term in the House, Hanabusa ran against Schatz in the 2014 primary to complete the final two years of Inouye’s six-year term. Hanabusa lost by a mere 1,782 votes with two Big Island precincts voting a week after Election Day to due to damage from tropical storm Iselle.
Some speculated that Hanabusa would seek a rematch with Schatz in 2016, but that did not happen.
She kept her name in the news, however, through appointments to the board of directors for Hawaii Gas, as an attorney representing the Hawaii State Teachers Association and by being named the UH Manoa and Daniel K. Inouye Visiting Scholar.
The HART board appointment last year, made by Mayor Kirk Caldwell, has been her most prominent. She became the board’s chairwoman last month.
Key factors to winning will be name recognition and experience — which Hanabusa has — and financial resources, something that Hanabusa has access to through deep contacts within her party.
As of Monday, Hanabusa had not filed with the Federal Election Commission to report finances for a 2016 House race. But her April quarterly filing with the FEC for her Senate campaign shows she had only $27,000 in cash on hand.
Takai’s April candidate committee filing shows him with more than $600,000 in cash on hand. Under FEC rules, he can only transfer up to $2,000 each for the primary and general elections to Hanabusa’s House campaign, if he so chooses.
Since he is no longer a candidate, Takai must return his general election contributions to donors. He could urge them to contribute to a candidate such as Hanabusa.
Takai also has his own political action committee, Mahalo PAC. FEC records and the Center for Responsive Politics show that the PAC has $16,400 in cash, of which $2,700 each could be directed to Hanabusa for the 2016 primary and general.
The race to replace Takai will be one of the dominant topics at the Democratic Party’s state convention in Waikiki this weekend. Oddly, it barely came up at the Hawaii Republican Party’s own convention last weekend. But two of the GOP’s top leaders, Djou and former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona, were in attendance.
“The announcement is the way that things often change in Hawaii politics,” Milner said. “The irony is those turn out to be the most interesting and exciting races because it comes as a surprise and the incumbent isn’t around.”