Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of profiles of the leading Honolulu mayoral candidates.
The last time Colleen Hanabusa ran for office, she challenged Gov. David Ige in the 2018 Democratic primary. She lost, and she says it made her consider leaving politics.
“When you lose an election that’s statewide like that, you begin to ask the question of, maybe it’s time to just hang it up,” she said. “Or, what is it that voters want?”
But then she thought of the knowledge she’s gained during her self-described “amazing political journey,” and she decided last year to run for mayor.
“It’s my way of saying thank you for allowing me to have this experience, and my way of saying: Permit me to give back,” she said.
Hanabusa, 69, is making the case that her know-how is what’s needed at Honolulu Hale to restore trust and handle the COVID-19 crisis. Hanabusa has said she, unlike some of her opponents, doesn’t need “training wheels” for the job. Two top candidates, Keith Amemiya and Rick Blangiardi, have never held elected office before.
An accomplished labor attorney, Hanabusa has been in Hawaii politics for 20 years.
In that time, she made history as the first female president of the Hawaii Senate and was twice elected to Congress. She also chaired the board of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, where she said she fought for more oversight power.
But she has also developed a reputation for being a politician who can’t sit still for very long. She left the HART board to run for Congress in 2016. And after both stints as a congresswoman, she left her seat to run for other offices, ultimately unsuccessfully.
But Hanabusa said she is surprised when people consider her a career politician.
“People have an opinion about her, and one that’s going to be tough to shift.” — Colin Moore, UH Public Policy Center
“I don’t understand why people feel that I’m ‘same old same old,’ because I think my political career has shown quite to the contrary,” she said. “If you look at the changes that have come in government, they have come when I was there.”
The Democrat said she was motivated to run for mayor after observing a lack of public confidence in Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration. After the coronavirus hit, Hanabusa said she was even more certain of her decision.
The pandemic can only really be addressed at the federal level, she said. And that’s an area she knows well.
“You need someone with experience in the federal government,” she said, adding that she made strong, personal relationships with other legislators in Washington, D.C. “I can contact them and ask them questions.”
Hanabusa has a core group of supporters and the advantage of name recognition during an election that has stifled traditional campaigning, said Colin Moore, the director of the University of Hawaii’s Public Policy Center.
“But that also means that people have an opinion about her, and one that’s going to be tough to shift,” he said. “A lot of people find she represents the establishment.”
In reports filed last week, Hanabusa came in third in campaign fundraising with $537,026. Former insurance executive Amemiya and Councilwoman Kym Pine surpassed her with $1.2 million and $754,429 raised, respectively.
The former congresswoman has a long relationship with labor unions in Hawaii, Moore said. However, the state’s largest union, the Hawaii Government Employees Association, is backing Amemiya. Other unions are supporting Hanabusa, though, including those representing teachers, laborers, dock workers and operating engineers.
In a May Civil Beat/Hawaii News Now poll, most voters were undecided, but those with a preference chose former TV executive Rick Blangiardi as their top pick. Hanabusa came in second, with 15% of respondents saying they’d vote for her.
Hanabusa grew up in Waianae, where her Japanese-American family has been for generations and her parents operated a gas station. She holds bachelor’s, master’s and law degrees from the University of Hawaii.
In 1998, Hanabusa was elected to the Hawaii Senate, representing the district encompassing Waianae, Ko Olina, Nanakuli and Kaena Point.
Just a few years later, Hanabusa set her sights higher. When U.S. Sen. Patsy Mink died in 2002, leaving open a seat in Washington, D.C., Hanabusa ran in the 2003 special election. She came in third, losing to Ed Case. Three years later, she ran for the same seat again but lost to Mazie Hirono.
In 2006, Hanabusa was chosen by her peers to be Senate president – the first woman to hold the position in Hawaii and the first Asian American woman in the nation to lead a state legislative chamber.
“When I became Senate president, the same persons who said that I couldn’t be it eight years earlier were the very ones who were supporting me to be senate president,” she told NBC News in 2016. “That really was a statement to me, that in two terms I was able to show them that I could lead, and that was important to me.”
Hanabusa was known among her colleagues and observers to be “perhaps the sharpest member of the Senate,” the Honolulu Star-Bulletin editorial board said at the time.
“Her unrelenting ambition tops off a perfect recipe for leadership,” the Star-Bulletin said.
Hanabusa made another bid for Congress in the 2010 special election to complete Neil Abercrombie’s term. (He had resigned to run for governor.) She lost to Republican Charles Djou, who served a few months in Washington before Hanabusa narrowly defeated him in the 2010 general election for a full term.
While in Congress, Hanabusa served on the Armed Services and Natural Resources Committees.
In December 2012, legendary Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye died, leaving open his seat in the U.S. Senate. In a letter to Gov. Abercrombie, Inouye said it was his dying wish that Hanabusa succeed him. In a stunning rebuke of Inouye’s recommendation, Abercrombie chose then-Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz instead.
Soon after, in 2013, Hanabusa announced she would not run for reelection in the U.S. House and would instead challenge Schatz for his Senate seat. In the 2014 primary, she lost by about 1%. The election came down to two precincts in Puna on Hawaii island that were impacted by heavy storms and a batch of absentee ballots from Maui that were not immediately transmitted.
In June 2015, Mayor Kirk Caldwell appointed Hanabusa to the HART board. In April 2016, she was elected chair of the board. A month later, though, she was planning to run for Congress again after U.S. Rep. Mark Takai announced he was resigning amid a battle with pancreatic cancer.
“I am a legislator at heart,” she said in June 2016.
But less than a year into her term in Congress, Hanabusa wanted to switch gears again. In September 2017, she announced she would run against incumbent Gov. David Ige in the Democratic primary. He beat her with 50.2% of the vote.
Since she didn’t run for reelection, Hanabusa completed her term in Congress in January 2019. Eight months later, she filed an organizational report to run for mayor.
Hanabusa says she has a lot to show for her time as a state and federal legislator.
Early on in her state Senate career, she helped expose waste and potential fraud in special education. As co-chair of an investigative committee in 2001, Hanabusa took a leading role in examining how well the state had complied with a federal mandate to improve education for students with disabilities, known as the Felix consent decree. The final report found that costs had spiraled out of control.
“The Committee finds most disturbing the fact that no one knows how much Felix is costing the State,” the final report stated.
After the investigation, Hawaii public schools came into compliance with the agreement, and the lawsuit that prompted it was officially terminated.
Hanabusa also touted her role in establishing the Hawaii Employer-Union Health Benefits Trust Fund, which eliminated the option of union-backed health plans.
Some public workers filed a class-action lawsuit in 2003 over the fund, which they said forced them to pay higher rates. Hanabusa said it saved the government money and meant the state was able to meet its obligations to kupuna who had already retired.
“We were able to keep that promise,” she said.
When she represented the Waianae Coast, Hanabusa said she also fought for air conditioning in west side schools that were overheated and infested with flies. To make a point, her staff bought fly swatters to which they affixed “god awful looking bugs.” Tags on the end of the swatters said: “Remember Maili Elementary.”
“We passed them out to everybody, including the governor,” she said. “And guess what? It worked.”
The Hawaii State Teachers Association cited her advocacy for AC in schools in its endorsement of Hanabusa for mayor last month.
In Congress, Hanabusa said she was proud to work on the Fiscal Year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, which included improvements for military facilities in Hawaii.
As with many longtime elected leaders, Hanabusa’s career is not without controversy and criticism.
As a state senator in 2002, Hanabusa introduced a bill for a $75 million tax credit that would have benefitted one of her allies, Ko Olina developer Jeff Stone. At the time, Hanabusa’s future husband John Souza was subleasing office space from Stone, and Hanabusa later moved her law office there. The tax credit passed in 2003. Within months, Stone sold a unit at the Kai Lani development to Souza, and Hanabusa moved in, the Honolulu Advertiser reported.
Hanabusa, Stone and Souza – who was the Hawaii Sheriff at the time – told the Advertiser there was no conflict, a position she has maintained when it has resurfaced periodically throughout her career.
When Hanabusa was elected to Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District in 2011, she was criticized for not living in the district she was representing, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported at the time. She now lives in Nuuanu.
In 2015, Hanabusa represented three Honolulu City Council members – including Ann Kobayashi, who is now chairing her mayoral campaign – against ethics charges. The members had been accused of accepting gifts from lobbyists in violation of city law.
“All parties agreed that the council members were wined and dined by lobbyists representing special interests with important matters pending before the council,” Ian Lind reported for Civil Beat at the time. “And the gifts were not disclosed before the council members cast votes on matters impacting the lobbyists.”
Hanabusa got the ethics charges dismissed, and the Ethics Commission never explained its rationale.
That same year, when Hanabusa was chair of the HART board, a high-level employee reported concerns about improper use of federal funds. This was before the agency revealed that it was under federal investigation for potential criminal activity in its real estate transactions.
Hanabusa reviewed a report describing the employee’s concerns but decided not to investigate further. She told Civil Beat last year that the HART board had little oversight power, and she assumed the Federal Transit Administration or the Corporation Counsel’s office would’ve flagged anything they found problematic.
“I understand clearly why people would say, ‘Hey, what did the board do?’” she said last year. “But the board also, in fairness to the people who served on it, they were clearly told that you have no right to question or to raise these issues.”
The first thing Hanabusa would do as mayor is seek out federal funds to respond to the pandemic.
“Recovery isn’t going to happen without money,” she said, adding that she envisions directing money to construction and infrastructure repairs.
Even though the city could be facing diminishing property tax revenues, Hanabusa said now is not the time to cut spending. She pointed to Gov. Linda Lingle’s so-called Furlough Fridays during the Great Recession. In some ways, the state has yet to recover from that, Hanabusa said.
“You need to have the income in the economy for us to recover,” she said.
Hanabusa stopped short of saying she wouldn’t raise property taxes but said any increases would need to be done “so it doesn’t hurt the working people.”
“You can’t have them start working and then take money away from them,” she said.
Instead, she said she would look for other revenue options, like increasing taxes on short-term vacation rentals.
On homelessness, Hanabusa said Oahu doesn’t have sufficient shelter space and should build more, especially now that COVID-19 has encouraged some people to seek shelter who had been resistant previously. She cited a recent ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that found homeless sweeps without the offer of shelter to be cruel and unusual punishment. COVID-19 presents an opportunity the city shouldn’t waste, she said.
“Unless a person wants to be helped, you almost can’t force them,” she said. “I’m hoping what the mayor and the city is doing is using this time to actually get people accustomed to (shelter) and then moving them along.”
The rail project will be key to building the affordable housing the island so desperately needs, Hanabusa said. Transit-oriented development is necessary to provide housing for young adults, who Hanabusa said don’t want to be a “slave to a mortgage” or own a car.
But when it comes to the rail itself, Hanabusa said there is something “fundamentally wrong.”
“This rail is almost three-quarters of the way done, and we still don’t know what we’re doing,” she said. “That is unacceptable. That is why it should finish.”
HART is now planning to finance the last phase of rail’s construction through a public-private partnership, but Hanabusa said she doubts the agency will be able to pull it off. Assuming the contract goes through — and the rail project survives — Hanabusa said she would look at dissolving HART, folding its functions back into the city to bring greater accountability.
“What people want to know is that there’s going to be a mayor who’s going to be responsible and not say ‘It wasn’t done on my watch’ or ‘It’s HART’s fault’ or ‘The city’s fault,'” she said. “It’s got to stop. The buck’s got to stop somewhere.”
In the Department of Planning and Permitting, Hanabusa said she would look to separate it into two departments like it used to be. It could also become a self-funded agency like the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, which gets its revenue from its own operations. Right now, DPP’s revenue from fines and fees goes into the general fund.
“They’re losing a lot of money,” Hanabusa said.
Hanabusa said the DPP spends too much time reviewing plans when, at the end of the day, architects and engineers are liable for errors. Instead, the city should move its efforts to inspections, she said.
Overall, Hanabusa said it’s her constituents’ needs that would drive her priorities as mayor.
“Government is not business,” she said. “The people need help. Only government can do that.”
Read other profiles in this series:
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