First it was Dan Inouye, Hawaii’s Democratic godfather who in 2012, lying on his death bed, sent a letter to then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie urging him to appoint then-Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa to serve out the remainder of his term in the U.S. Senate.

Then, Hanabusa said, it was Mark Takai who called her just weeks before his death in July, asking if she’d consider running for Congress since his pancreatic cancer had spread and he would not be able to seek a second term.

Hanabusa heeded both calls.

Colleen Hanabusa. 22 july 2016
Colleen Hanabusa said she wants to return to Congress to carry on the legacies of Dan Inouye and Mark Takai. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

She didn’t get the governor’s nod for the Senate appointment four years ago. Abercrombie chose Brian Schatz instead, and she narrowly lost her subsequent bid to unseat him in 2014.

But things have shaped up differently this time around for the House race. With a huge fundraising advantage and stronger name recognition, political analysts expect Hanabusa to easily return this fall to her old seat representing urban Oahu’s 1st Congressional District.

“It’s really hard to deal with losses of friends,” Hanabusa said, referring to Inouye and Takai. “All you can do is really carry out their legacy, their goals, as best as you can.”

Her top challenger in the Democratic primary Saturday appears to be Lei Ahu Isa, a trustee with the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs and former two-time elected member of the state Board of Education.

Lei Ahu Isa
Lei Ahu Isa. 

Other Democratic candidates include Javier Ocasio, Howard Kim, Sam Puletasi, Lei Sharsh-Davis and Steve Tataii. The winner advances to the Nov. 8 general election against Republican Shirl Ostrov, Libertarian Alan Yim and nonpartisan candidate Calvin Griffin.

Due to Takai’s death, voters will be asked to elect a short-term and a long-term representative.

Saturday’s primary decides which candidates advance to the general election Nov. 8, when voters will choose who they want in Congress for the full two-year term starting Jan. 3.

There will also be a special election in November to decide who will serve the rest of Takai’s term, which runs until Jan. 3.

Nomination papers to run in the special election will be available Aug. 15 and must be filed by Aug. 25. Hanabusa said she intends to run in the special election as well, and if things go as expected she’ll start her term almost immediately and continue serving in January.

Hawaii Elections Guide 2016

In the meantime, Hanabusa is continuing to serve as board chair for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, which oversees construction of the rail project now estimated to cost a total of $8.2 billion.

The project is $3 billion over budget and has become the central issue in the Honolulu mayoral race between incumbent Kirk Caldwell, Charles Djou and Peter Carlisle. Federal officials have also grown anxious over the soaring costs, given their prior commitment to provide a $1.55 billion grant for the work.

Hanabusa said she wants to stay on as the board’s chair at least through September to finish a recovery plan that charts a course for how HART moves forward.

‘I’m Not Scared Of Colleen’

Ahu Isa, 72, said she decided to run in late May because she didn’t think anyone else that had filed to run up to that point was qualified. Hanabusa, 65, filed June 2, five days before the deadline, which helped to keep other top-tier Democrats at bay.

“Since I’m in it, I might as well make the best of it,” Ahu Isa said. “But I’m not the kind to go out there with a big ego and rah-rah.”

OHA Trustee Leina'ala Ahu Isa talks to a member of the public during the meeting April 9, 2015.
OHA Trustee Leina’ala Ahu Isa at a public meeting in April 2015. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

She said she wants to give Hawaiians a greater voice.

Ahu Isa said she wasn’t overly familiar with Native Hawaiian issues before joining OHA’s Board of Trustees in 2014, but got up to speed quickly.

“We do not want to be an Indian tribe,” she said, noting past congressional efforts to establish a nation-within-a-nation model of self-government for Hawaiians.

“If I get to Congress, it’s a higher level that I can help the Hawaiian people,” she said.

Hanabusa and Ahu Isa served together in the Legislature during the late 1990s and early 2000s, albeit in separate chambers — Hanabusa in the Senate, which she became president of, and Ahu Isa in the House.

“I’m not scared of Colleen,” Ahu Isa said. “But I don’t care if she wins or I win or what.”

‘Rattle The Cage’

The level of campaigning this year pales in comparison to the 2014 race, which featured several prominent Democrats fighting for the CD1 nomination in televised debates and expensive advertisements. There’s been some sign-waving and a handful of radio and Facebook ads this time around.

As of July 24, Hanabusa had spent just $28,102 of her campaign funds — the bulk of which went toward consultants to help her raise more money. She had $379,506 cash on hand, according to Federal Election Commission reports, and was continuing to solicit campaign donations via email this week.

Javier Ocasio
Javier Ocasio: “I can’t stand these coronations.” 

Ocasio, 38, was the only other Democratic candidate to file a campaign finance report with the FEC, which doesn’t require candidates to do so if they don’t reach the $5,000 threshold for reporting. He said he’s raised and spent a combined $1,000 so far.

Inspired by Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president and a meme on Facebook about open congressional seats, Ocasio entered the race in February with a mission to give voters another choice. At the time, only Takai had filed to run.

“I can’t stand these coronations,” Ocasio said, referring to the top Democratic Party brass in Hawaii essentially choosing who runs in what races.

He wants to shake up the status quo and is doing what he can with the resources he has.

“I’m not the type of person to just sit around once I make up my mind,” Ocasio said. “We’ve got to rattle the cage.”

The third-generation Army soldier was stationed in Hawaii from 2004 to 2007, then moved to California before returning to Oahu to be closer to his brother. He said his fiancee has been his biggest assistant for the campaign.

When his 4-year-old daughter died unexpectedly in 2010, he was left feeling empty.

“The only thing I’m interested in now is empowering the people and protecting the Earth,” Ocasio said.

He sees overpopulation as the root of all problems and education as the answer.

“I’m a root-of-the-problem kind of guy,” he said.

HART Board Chair Colleen Hanabusa listens to Boardmember Michael Formby1. 16 june 2016.
HART Board Chair Colleen Hanabusa listens to board member Michael Formby during a meeting in June. She plans to stay on as chair at least through September to work on a recovery plan for the beleaguered rail project. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Ocasio said Sanders’ bid for the Democratic nomination for president was billed as a progressive movement, but he thinks the Vermont senator’s positions are basic common sense, whether it’s universal health care or a higher minimum wage.

“But we can’t wait around to have 300 Bernie Sanders in Congress,” he said.

Hanabusa sees Sanders’ influence in the democratic process, including how it has spurred more people to run for office, as a good thing.

“Different ideas are always good. Choices are always good,” she said. “People have got to want to participate and feel like it’s not a futile effort to participate.”

Sanders energized a group of people who weren’t part of the Democratic Party base, Hanabusa said, “but the real challenge is to keep them engaged and to win them over to the value of keeping a party alive and healthy.”

Javier Ocasio talks to students at the University of Hawaii-Manoa while campaigning for Congress.
Javier Ocasio talks to students at the University of Hawaii Manoa while campaigning for Congress. Courtesy: Javier Ocasio

Hanabusa has been a longtime supporter of Hillary Clinton, and she continues to believe she’ll make the best president.

In 2008, Hanabusa talked to Inouye about doing the “lolo thing” — or crazy move — of supporting Clinton instead of Hawaii-born Barack Obama. 

“I believed then and believe now that she’s the candidate who should be and will be the president of the United States,” Hanabusa said.

The best thing she could fathom in a Donald Trump presidency is some “interesting coalition building” in Congress between Democrats and traditional Republicans who oppose Trump.

Colin Moore, a political science professor and director of the University of Hawaii Public Policy Center, said it’s “noble” for the other candidates to challenge Hanabusa.

“They don’t have a chance, really, in a run against one of the current legends of Hawaii politics,” he said. “But my hat is off to them. Running any sort of campaign is a tremendous amount of work, especially if you don’t have much money.”

He said the optimism they bring to their campaigns is interesting, and noted that some really are credible opponents.

“They’re doing a great service for democracy but the power of the incumbency or established candidacies is usually enough to scare off credible challengers,” Moore said. “Once Hanabusa announced her candidacy, everyone ran away from the race. That shows the power of incumbency and name recognition here.”

Learn more about the candidates in Civil Beat’s Q&As here.

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