Colleen Hanabusa argues that an oft-cited criticism of her campaign for Hawaii governor is actually a compliment, if in a backhanded way.

That criticism is that Hanabusa appears more interested in satisfying her ambition than serving the people of Hawaii.

This is, after all, her third run for high political office in four years — the U.S. Senate in 2014 (she narrowly lost), the U.S. House in 2016 (she easily won) and now a challenge to Democratic Gov. David Ige.

Hanabusa will tell you this pattern isn’t about personal interest, but her ambition to make the islands a better place.

“If I was just in it for me, I would stay in Congress,” she said in a recent interview in Civil Beat’s offices. “Because, why would I put myself through this type of a rigorous campaign when, with the good graces of the people of the 1st Congressional District, I could probably stay in Congress and I could run and be as effective as ever?”

Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa in the Civil Beat offices in August. She said she is coming home to run for governor because she’s worried about the state’s direction under Gov. David Ige. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The reason Hanabusa, 66, is looking to leave Washington, D.C., in hopes of living in Washington Place (the grounds of the governor’s official residence) is because she thinks the people of Hawaii have lost faith in their government, and thus have lost hope for their future.

“Government is a public trust, and we need people to believe in who it is that’s running it,” said Hanabusa.

She rationalizes that people will accept her seeking another office this way: “It’s going to be because, I would like to think, that they look at my whole political career, my political journey, and they say, ‘Of course. This is where she should be. She is the one who has proven herself to this point, and she understands how government works.’”

Hanabusa believes her time in Washington has benefitted the state. The same goes for what she considers to be her own deep understanding of the three branches of government at the local level, something she said she grasped better than anyone as a former labor attorney, state Senate Judiciary chair and Senate president.

“And that’s what’s going to make the difference,” she said, sitting back in her chair. “Hawaii is at a critical juncture right now. We have to re-establish and say who we are as a state, and we have to prove that we are the best place in the nation … So, tell the people — pundits primarily — who say that (ambition is driving her). It really is exactly for that reason that I am running.”

No Polling Numbers, Yet

Hawaii voters can be forgiven for having a sense of déjà vu. It was just four years ago that a Democratic legislator challenged an incumbent Democrat governor in the primary.

Back then, the economy was pretty good and the incumbent, while flawed, didn’t appear to have any fatal weaknesses. The unions got their pay raises. Same as now, although some economists are warning of challenges ahead and a continuing brain drain.

The big difference is that everyone knew who Neil Abercrombie was and no one knew who David Ige was. Ige is better known today, of course, but Hanabusa is a brand name. And while the severely underfunded Ige in 2014 ousted the deep-pockets career politician in an unprecedented upset, Hanabusa is certain to have major political backing.

“I think that, with myself, I don’t think people are going to vote for me — well, some people will vote for me because they don’t want David — but it’s not going to be like David when they voted against Neil,” said Hanabusa, who was considered a potential challenger to Abercrombie herself four years ago.

Hanabusa at a town hall on Oahu in April. She has been campaigning quietly for now, and is expected to make her candidacy official later this month. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Polls showed that Abercrombie was increasingly unpopular as 2014 played out, and the election results were even worse. No poll has been made public yet about the Hanabusa-Ige matchup, although Hanabusa is said by some to have been approached by certain parties last year who shared promising numbers for her. Hanabusa campaign spokesman Keith DeMello said the campaign would not comment on those rumors.

The only public assessment of the race that I know of came Wednesday, when Hawaii Business magazine published “grades” and “opinions” from 402 local business leaders of the two candidates. Hanabusa edged Ige in the survey, conducted by Anthology Research, but not by a lot.

“Government is a public trust, and we need people to believe in who it is that’s running it.” — Rep. Colleen Hanabusa

As for campaign finances, the first head-to-head comparisons won’t be made public until the end of this month, when filings are due at the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission.

Ige has held 10 fundraisers since September, not long after Hanabusa first expressed interest in running. Hanabusa has held just two fundraisers. But then, she has not formally launched her campaign, a step expected later this month.

Hanabusa acknowledges that her campaign has been quiet and mostly small meet-and-greets compared with Ige, who already has some high-profile endorsements (including Honolulu Mayor Kirk  Caldwell) and a steady presence on social media (“See Governor David Ige play ‘Tiny Bubbles’ at the 47th Annual Ukulele Festival Hawaii” from @teamdavidige).

Ige has made official trips to Japan and the Philippines, probably helping to shore up support among two important constituencies at home.

Hanabusa, by contrast, works in a city where all three branches of the government are controlled by the other party, and where policy stands for immigration reform and protection of entitlements are under fire by the majority.

On The LG, And The AG

Hanabusa considers Ige vulnerable. She does not think he has been an effective or visionary leader.

Hanabusa likes to point out that the governor actually preceded her in politics by 14 years (in 1984 for him, 1999 for her) yet seems not to have mastered the reins of power.

“This should be second nature to you,” she said. “He should understand the role of the judiciary, the role of his departments, the role of the Legislature.”

Instead, Hanabusa said Ige seems more mired in disputes than active in moving the state forward.

Gov. David Ige at a press conference in June. His campaign, not surprisingly, defends the administrations record. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In response, Ige campaign spokeswoman Glenna Wong said, “Governor Ige has made tough decisions and advanced the state with his ideas and accomplishments.”

Wong cited the state receiving a AA+ bond rating “giving us more tax dollars to fund our long-delayed airport improvements and other important infrastructure projects that are now underway, cooling our schools and improving our statewide education system.”

Additionally, Wong said the governor has made Hawaii “a national leader in funding for Kupuna Care and energy sustainability, and fights against President Trumpʻs discriminatory practices.”

Governor Ige has made tough decisions and advanced the state with his ideas and accomplishments. — Ige campaign spokesperson Glenna Wong

Hanabusa also faults Ige for not working with his own lieutenant governor, Shan Tsutsui. If elected, she says she will make the LG part of her cabinet.

“You simply can never be without enough talent,” she said, arguing that Ige has “wasted” Tsutsui’s talent and turned his back on the fact that many people voted for Tsutsui separate from Ige.

“He cannot turn back on how the public feels,” she said.

(Tsutsui, a former Senate president, is not running for re-election.)

Wong said Ige holds Tsutsui “in the highest regard and is appreciative of his work,” that Tsutsui was “invited to every cabinet meeting” and his staff regularly attended, and that Tsutsui was instrumental “on the visionary farm to school initiative” project.

Though Abercrombie stepped down from Congress to run for governor, Hanabusa said she will not. She believes she can balance her D.C. duties with a statewide campaign, and points to 2014 when she unsuccessfully took on U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz while already serving in Congress. Both candidates spent a lot of time campaigning in the state, including in a special election post-primary in Puna, where a storm disrupted voting.

Hanabusa does, however, suggest that Ige and his attorney general Doug Chin — the man who has led the state’s attacks on Trump — ask the state Senate whether Chin should resign since he is running to replace Hanabusa in Congress. 

“I don’t think Doug should necessarily step down, but I think both he and the governor should consider the position,” she said. “It has nothing to do with the governor. It has to do with the integrity of the office and public trust. We cannot in any way forget that our AG is not elected, although I used to advocate for that.”

Chin is unlikely to leave office early.

Speaking for the Ige campaign, Wong said, “Chin will continue to lead his office with integrity and is able to avoid any conflicts of interest.”

And Chin’s congressional campaign manager Dylan Beesley said, “Doug Chin’s focus is always fighting for Hawaii’s interests, whether it is increasing conservation lands for future generations, prosecuting corruption and internet crimes against child victims, or stopping illegal actions by the federal government that hurt Hawaii. His campaign to be Hawaii’s voice in Congress does not change this.”

Settled Field?

No other gubernatorial candidate has emerged on the Democratic side, and it could well just be Hanabusa and Ige. Several people whose names were bandied about (including state Sens. Jill Tokuda and Josh Green and Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr.) are instead running for lieutenant governor.

State Rep. Andria Tupola and former legislator John Carroll are the top contenders on the GOP side.

Much of Hanabusa’s year will be spent in Washington, where Republicans have been buoyed by approval of a major tax overhaul last month and are already looking for the next big target. Asked if she had any advice for the candidates running to succeed her, Hanabusa said:

I think the most important thing is that they have to almost forget to a certain extent how we do things in Hawaii and realize that it’s a totally different game in Washington, D.C. You have to have a different set of skills, and where you think you may be able to be somebody here, you gotta really earn your stripes, so to speak.

Hanabusa said that D.C. runs on money and the ability to raise it. To get something passed in Congress, especially as a member of the minority party, one has to work with leaders in the opposition.

“It’s a lot of eating crow,” she said. “So, eat crow.”

That observation helps shed light on why Hanabusa is running for the top job in Hawaii. But, to circle back to criticism that she is running merely to satisfy personal ambition, Hanabusa again focuses on what others have said to her.

“One person told me, and it stuck in my mind, is that people say it can’t get any worse,” she said about life in Hawaii. “And you sit there and you think, ‘So, what are you telling me?’ We are lowering our expectations because we don’t feel we have a right to expect more. That’s a common theme.”

Here’s another:

There is someone who told me that what they don’t like about government is that they don’t have a right to dream anymore. And he’s an older guy! He says, “I built my business, I did all of this, because I had dreams. I knew that if I worked hard and did this, I could have the company that I have now. I don’t feel that my kids can have that, that they can’t dream.”

She continued: “And that’s what I don’t want to see happen. So, more than anything else, that’s what I am hearing, and that just reinforces to me that coming home and running for governor is the right thing to do. Because I am afraid what we are losing in this process is a vision of Hawaii and where it can be. And I tell people, as corny as it may sound, I feel my whole political career is a journey that leads to this point.”

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