Hanabusa says she has ‘good ground game’ in Senate race

WAILUKU – During a recent campaign stop on Maui, Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa acknowledged that she’s the underdog in her bid to succeed her political mentor, the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye.

On his deathbed more than a year ago, Inouye wrote a letter urging Gov. Neil Abercrombie to tap Hanabusa as his replacement. Instead, Abercrombie appointed Brian Schatz, then his lieutenant governor.

Next year, a special election will be held to determine who will serve out the remainder of Inouye’s six-year term, which runs through 2016.

Schatz, 41, is vying to keep the seat, and, Hanabusa, 62, officially announced in May that she would challenge him.

In a nearly hourlong interview this month at The Maui News, Hanabusa often invoked Inouye’s memory, referring to him respectfully as “senator” and discussing initiatives he began and she would continue, such as support for high-technology education and enterprises on Maui.

While Schatz has more than twice the campaign financial resources of Hanabusa, she remains upbeat and appears to relish the challenge of trailing her rival more than half a year before the Aug. 9 Democratic primary election. Without a strong Republican contender for the seat, that primary election will likely settle the matter. The general election is Nov. 4.

The election for the Senate seat “is a very important time for Hawaii,” she said. The election “is going to set, I believe, the direction of where I believe the state is going to go and also define what we believe is the future of Hawaii.”

For now, though, the tide of campaign money is flowing to Schatz.

From Jan. 1 through Sept. 30 of this year, Schatz’s campaign reported net contributions of nearly $2.67 million. For the same campaign spending reporting period, Hanabusa received a little more than $1.16 million. Schatz spent $682,760, while Hanabusa’s expenditures were $447,384.

At the end of the period, Schatz reported cash on hand of $2,016,777, while Hanabusa had $771,459.

Hanabusa said that while campaign funding is important, money isn’t everything in elections.

“Money will always buy more TV or whatever else,” she said, adding that much of Schatz’s money comes from Mainland donors. “The only way you make up that difference is by having people who support you, people on the ground, in other words have a good ground game, the grass roots is what we traditionally call it.”

Hanabusa was asked whether her race with Schatz reveals a schism in the Hawaii Democratic Party, with Inouye’s loyal allies supporting her and Abercrombie’s supporters backing Schatz. She said: “I think that a lot of it has to do with different perspectives.”

She went on to point out that she has won the early support of former Govs. George Ariyoshi and Ben Cayetano, as well as retired U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, former Hawaii Supreme Court Justice Ronald Moon and former Kamehameha Schools President Michael Chun. She said that Ariyoshi and Akaka usually remain neutral in party primaries.

Hanabusa said that she has garnered support because of her experience and ability, and the “bottom line is, I believe, that many of them feel that I am the best candidate.”

In terms of factions within her party, “the Democratic Party is a big tent with little pup tents,” she said. “We have always given the people of Hawaii choices. In every major race, Democrats have a contested primary.”

Inouye died Dec. 17, 2012, triggering a political chain reaction, keenly felt on Maui. Schatz’s appointment left open his seat as lieutenant governor, which was filled by then-Central Maui Sen. Shan Tsutsui. Then, the governor chose Kahului Rep. Gil Keith-Agaran to fill Tsutsui’s seat, and Justin Woodson was picked to replace Keith-Agaran.

Now, if Hanabusa harbors any resentment toward Abercrombie for not granting Inouye his dying wish to appoint her, she doesn’t show it, although she did reveal her determination to seek the Senate seat.

“Neil had every right to do what he did,” she said. “But what he doesn’t have the right to expect is that everybody’s going to go lock step with him because he’s the governor of the state of Hawaii. That’s not the way Democrats are. . . . The party has different views. That’s what you’re seeing. You’re seeing the differences in the views and the disagreements, and just because you’re governor you’re not above being challenged.”

Although Hanabusa and Schatz were first elected to public office at the same time, in 1998, with Hanabusa in the state Senate and Schatz in the state House, Hanabusa contends that her “skill set” as a legislator is superior to Schatz’s.

“I believe that I’m a very good legislator,” she said.

In her first year in the state Senate, she was picked to chair the Committee on Water, Land and Hawaiian Affairs, the “fourth highest committee,” behind the Judiciary; Commerce and Consumer Affairs; and Ways and Means committees, she said.

She admitted that “it wasn’t because they were impressed with my credentials coming in.”

Rather, it was because Native Hawaiian issues were at the forefront and because she represented Waianae, a West Oahu area with a large population of Hawaiians.

Later, in 2000, the Rice v. Cayetano ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court came down. That decision provided that the state could not restrict voting in Office of Hawaiian Affairs elections only to Native Hawaiians.

Hanabusa led statewide hearings on the Rice v. Cayetano decision, and “that was the first time we had official hearings out of the state Capitol,” she said. “It was tackling that issue, and really trying to assuage a lot of the fears people had as a result.”

Then, Hanabusa became vice president of the Senate and vice chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee. Later, for four years, she served as both the Senate majority leader and chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee.

In her last four years in the Senate, she was Senate president, the first woman to head either house of the Hawaii Legislature.

“What that shows I believe more than anything else is the skill set that one needs to be an effective legislator, which is what the Congress, the Senate of the United States, is all about,” she said.

Efforts to contact Schatz or his campaign for comment were unsuccessful.

* Brian Perry can be reached at