Colleen Hanabusa wants to offer voters a practical choice, not big campaign promises

The five leading candidates for Honolulu Mayor sit down for an extensive job interview with six journalists from Hawaii News Now and Civil Beat.
Updated: Jul. 17, 2020 at 5:23 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Former Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa doesn’t have the glitziest messaging in her run for mayor or the most uplifting.

In a nutshell, she wants voters to know: She understands government.

On day one, she says, she’ll bring competence, experience and “the confidence” that a Hanabusa administration will do things the right way — above board, transparent and deliberate.

Read between the lines, though, and you’ll also hear this: If you’re looking for big ideas, you might want to go somewhere else.

“In order for us to succeed, we got to work together towards a new normal and hopefully it’s a better normal, we have to re-define what the economic base is for Hawaii,” Hanabusa said, when asked during a one-hour interview with HNN and Honolulu Civil Beat for one big proposal she’s using to connect to voters.

[Watch the full one-hour interview with mayoral candidate Colleen Hanabusa by clicking here.]

“One thing I want to accomplish right out of the bat is for people to believe that it’s going to be different, it’s not going to be ‘same old, same old’ as we’ve had in the past.”

Of course, many might think of Hanabusa as part of that old guard. She’s a household name in the islands and her reputation has taken a battering in recent years after several tough losses.

But she can also claim trailblazer status, as the first woman to become president of the state Senate in 2006 — and the first Asian-American woman in the country to preside over a legislative chamber.

She previously served in the U.S. House from 2011 to 2015, and then again from 2016 to last year.

In 2014, she didn’t seek re-election, instead running for Senate in 2016 and losing to incumbent U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz — who had been appointed to the seat left vacated by the late U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye.

Two years later, she ran against incumbent Gov. David Ige to give voters a “choice” and pointed to the false missile alert and other fumbles as proof the state needed a new direction.

Journalists from Hawaii News Now and Honolulu Civil Beat recap the highs and lows of their job interview discussion with Colleen Hanabusa.

Ultimately, though, Ige won handily in the primary and Hanabusa was left without a job.

“What voters have criticized her for in the past is, ‘What is your vision?’ and ‘Where do you want to go?’” said Colin Moore, HNN political analyst, following Hanabusa’s interview with HNN and Civil Beat.

“It’s a reason she lost to Gov. Ige. I think no one has ever questioned that Colleen Hanabusa is very smart. It’s the vision thing that she lacks. That’s why she has trouble connecting with voters.”

Added Daryl Huff, HNN managing editor: “She doesn’t have a track record of astounding, important projects. She’s basically saying, I’m competent. I know what’s going on and I can do the job.”

But that message might actually have some traction with voters seeking some stability amid the chaos of the COVID-19 crisis. Hanabusa has often said she won’t need “training wheels” to run the city, a jab at two of her mayoral opponents: Political newcomers Keith Amemiya and Rick Blangiardi.

During the pandemic, however, she’s struggled to get her message out. She’s also been questioned on whether her experience at the federal level actually translates into know-how in local government.

[Read Civil Beat’s profile of Colleen Hanabusa by clicking here.]

And in a recent poll, she trailed Blangiardi in support among likely voters.

Hanabusa isn’t letting any of that — or her previous losses — deter her from the goal. Those races were then. And this, she says, is a very different now. Oahu is facing record unemployment, small businesses are shuttering left and right, and there’s a growing consensus that it could take years for the state to recover from the fallout of the pandemic.

Hanabusa said she’ll bring the right balance of experience and a fighter’s spirit to city hall.

“I don’t understand why people feel that I’m ‘same old same old’ because I think my political career has shown quite the contrary,” Hanabusa told the panelists from HNN and Civil Beat during her interview. “I think if you look at the changes that have come in government, they have come when I was there.”

As Honolulu mayor, she believes she could provide models for Hawaii’s path to recovery following the pandemic that could be used by the Neighbor Islands. And she’d start with diversifying the economy.

Hanabusa also doesn’t believe in big campaign promises that she can’t deliver on. When asked if she was the mayor who would end homelessness on Oahu, she said she’d love to say yes.

“But I’m not sure that we’re ever going to completely end homelessness, and the reason is because homelessness is not a broad, a broad brush category where the resolutions for everybody is the same,” she said. “So I am the candidate, however, that understands that and recognizes that in this time of the pandemic, you have to look at it and say, ‘Hey, this has given us another opportunity.’”

On one of the other big problems facing the city — Honolulu’s beleaguered rail project — Hanabusa is quick to point to her experience as chair of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation.

And during her 15 months with the advisory group, she says she learned a lot — insight that she says could ensure the project moves forward. Voters, though, might not be entirely convinced of that.

During the HNN-Civil Beat interview, Hanabusa was asked if while on the HART board she made any substantive changes or accomplishments.

“You know,” she replied, “and I think this is the thing that people did not understand, that when I got on the HART board, first of all, there was a whole issue of how budgets were presented, and it really is transparency. I think the people who watched us would agree to one thing, transparency and understanding how and what HART had not done and what HART needs to do was a major accomplishment during the time that I was there.”

Not exactly the stuff of campaign commercials, but Hanabusa would say that’s the point.

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