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Tucked behind the Kahala Mall in one of Honolulu’s more affluent neighborhoods is a cinder block post office with yellowing paint and oxidized metal bars covering the windows.
In 2011, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa introduced a bill to rename the building, which was originally dedicated in 1967 by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, after the late Hawaii politician Cecil Heftel.
It was one of two pieces of legislation Hanabusa authored in her nearly six years in Congress that became law. The other, introduced in 2017, authorized a new commemorative display at the Pearl Harbor memorial to honor U.S. soldiers who fought in the Pacific Theater during World War II.
Gov. David Ige, who Hanabusa is trying to unseat in the Aug. 11 Democratic primary, has seized on her congressional record as a campaign talking point.
“If you could only pass one bill in two years, I wouldn’t be so proud of that,” Ige said. “Being a congressperson does not substitute for executive experience.”
But political experts say Ige’s criticism is a gross oversimplification of Hanabusa’s legacy in D.C., where it’s nearly impossible for a Democrat in the GOP-controlled House to introduce and pass legislation.
Hanabusa instead made her mark by getting assigned to the right committees where she could fight for Hawaii’s interests. On the House Armed Services Committee, for example, she was instrumental in helping secure millions of dollars in military funding for Hawaii each year.
Hanabusa’s office and campaign declined Civil Beat’s interview requests.
Ige also declined an interview for this story after initially agreeing to speak with Civil Beat about Hanabusa’s congressional record.
Hanabusa’s congressional accomplishments, like many in the minority party, are hard to quantify.
Much of her work, as well as that of her colleagues, occurs behind the scenes or within the committees where bills are shaped and changed before coming to the floor for final passage. It’s not always easy to see the fingerprints.
By comparison, Hawaii’s other House member, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, has passed one bill in her six years in Congress. The Helping Heroes Fly Act aimed to improve the airport security screening process for wounded and disabled veterans and service members.
Colin Moore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Hawaii Manoa, said Hanabusa has been criticized about her record in previous elections, including when she ran against U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz in 2014, a contentious race decided by 1,782 votes.
But Moore said Hanabusa is a “perfectly competent” congresswoman even though she doesn’t wield much influence as a minority party member in a legislative body with 435 people.
Hanabusa has good assignments, he said, to the House Armed Services Committee and Natural Resources Committee, where she’s the ranking Democratic member on the Subcommittee on Federal Lands. She’s also on the Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs.
“It’s always a cheap shot to talk about how many bills somebody has passed,” Moore said.
“The stronger line of argument is that Hanabusa should have stayed in Congress because she was on the right committees and already had some seniority. You could say she should have hung on until the Democrats regained control of the House.”
Hanabusa is often criticized for her inability to sit still politically. She was first elected to Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District in 2010. She gave up the post to run against Schatz in 2014.
She was then appointed to the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation. When U.S. Rep. Mark Takai died in 2016, Hanabusa again ran for Congress to fill out the remainder of his term and regain her old seat. She was selected as the leader of the incoming Democratic class by her colleagues.
Moore said for a small state like Hawaii that doesn’t have much influence, the argument that Hanabusa should have stayed put carries weight with voters. Seniority is important.
“There’s this sense here, more so than in most states, that we’re a team,” Moore said. “The people in Washington need to do their part while the people at home do their part. It’s all about working together to bring the most benefits back to Hawaii.”
It takes years of continuous service for a member to gain any semblance of influence.
That’s why it was a big deal in 2012 when U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye died in office and his counterpart, Sen. Dan Akaka, announced his retirement. Between the two of them they had more than 80 years of service in Congress.
Inouye was especially important to the state because he had risen to the top of the Senate Appropriations Committee, a position that gave him influence over where the federal government spent its money.
With his seniority and power of the purse he was able to steer billions of dollars to the islands.
The current Hawaii delegation has begun to carve out its own niche in Washington.
Schatz, for instance, has become the face of young progressives in the Senate while also securing a spot on the Appropriations Committee.
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono has made a name for herself as a member of the Armed Services Committee and leader of the resistance to President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees, a position that has catapulted her onto the national stage.
Gabbard, who’s probably the most nationally prominent member of the delegation, uses her position to expound against military adventurism in the Middle East while at the same time lobbying to bring more defense money to the state.
Hanabusa, meanwhile, has gained a reputation as a policy wonk and someone who dives deep into the details of legislation rather than making sweeping policy statements.
Nowhere is this more evident than on the House Armed Services Committee, where both Hanabusa and Gabbard help shape the National Defense Authorization Act, a complex bill that totals more than 700 pages.
The NDAA, as it’s commonly referred, sets the spending priorities for the U.S. military and is of critical importance to Hawaii as the state is a major hub of defense activity.
In a previous interview with Civil Beat, Hanabusa described the NDAA as the “roadmap” for the military. She also played up its importance to the state.
“Without it you can’t get the money that you ultimately want to come into Hawaii,” she said. “It also establishes the policy of the United States’ government to remain committed to the Indo-Pacific.”
Each year the government spends billions of dollars in the islands on personnel, construction and equipment, so much so that it has become the second-largest sector of the economy behind tourism.
In 2014, when Hanabusa was running for the Senate against Schatz she boasted of securing hundreds of millions of dollars for the state through the NDAA, and said in interviews that she wanted to use military spending to generate more jobs on the islands.
When the House Armed Services Committee passed the NDAA in May, Hanabusa issued a press release highlighting more than $300 million in military construction that was approved in the bill for Hawaii.
The bill also included language to bolster Hawaii’s missile defense capabilities, including for the continued development of a new radar that can better track incoming ballistic missiles.
As a member of the New Democrat Coalition, a group of pro-business, fiscally conservative Democrats, she pressed for reforms in military acquisition practices that would streamline regulations and reduce the number of burdensome audits.
Securing military funding for Hawaii isn’t the only place Hanabusa wielded her influence.
She’s also become an ally of longline fishermen and the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, also known as Wespac. In 2016, shortly before she was re-elected to office, she sided with Wespac in its opposition to then-President Barack Obama’s expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, which put more waters off limits to fishing.
Her environmental record, particularly on the monument issue, has come under scrutiny by groups such as the Sierra Club.
The nonprofit recently launched a campaign to get her to drop her support of a bill introduced by U.S. Rep. John Curtis, a Republican from Utah, that the Sierra Club says would reduce the amount of protected land around the San Rafael Swell wilderness area.
“She’s always very professional,” said Marti Townsend, who’s the director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii. “She’s smart and she works hard, but that’s not the issue. The issue is that she’s putting her smarts and her hard work toward servicing special interests.”
Representatives of Wespac and the local fishing industry were unavailable for comment.
The Almanac of American Politics described Hanabusa as “robust defender” of the Affordable Care Act and “strong supporter” of former President Barack Obama’s policies. It also noted her unsuccessful attempt during her initial stint in Congress to amend a Republican oil-drilling bill so that companies would be required to submit a “worst-case oil discharge plan.”
More recently, Hanabusa testified before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in an effort of secure federal dollars to mitigate flood risks to Waikiki, which is the state’s biggest economic driver. This year more than $300 million was set aside for the project.
Former Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie said it’s nearly impossible to track a member of Congress’ record, especially if they work in the House. Abercrombie has a unique perspective on the job. He spent nearly two decades in Washington as a congressman.
He said a lot of decisions are made in committee and during conversations no one will ever hear.
“Looking for individual glory with bills is not the way the Congress works, and it works that way with good reason — there are 435 people there,” Abercrombie said.
What’s important, he said, is to find ways to get those individuals to care about your interests, which can be tricky when your district looks nothing like theirs and is thousands of miles away.
“They’ve got their own kuleanas and their own constituencies and their own issues,” Abercrombie said. “You succeed in the House of Representatives, and especially in Armed Services, by being sensitive to other people.”
John Hart, chairman of the communication department at Hawaii Pacific University, said it’s important to keep a proper frame of reference when judging Hanabusa’s record or that of any junior member of Congress who’s in the minority party.
Those expectations should begin to shift, he said, the longer a person is in office. Hanabusa’s stints in Washington have been relatively short, especially her latest term, which began after the death of Takai in 2016.
“If she was sitting there with this record in 10 years should we be disappointed? Yes, I think we should,” Hart said.
“If you were to write her legacy today you would probably point to her work at the state level as the Senate president and her ability to herd cats and get things done as more important to the history of Hawaii,” he said. “Having said that, I don’t think her federal record is particularly disappointing. And I don’t see her losing the governorship on that record.”
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