Queen of the Senate

Colleen Hanabusa of Wai‘anae has what most Hawai‘i politicians don't: character.

Robert M. Rees

June 12, 2002

Honolulu Weekly’s first mention of a then unknown political newcomer named Colleen Hanabusa was in 1998, just before her first run for office. "By way of disclosure," I wrote, "this writer has contributed to the campaign of Hawai‘i’s single most promising new politician. … She is challenging incumbent James Aki in the Democratic primary for senator from Wai‘anae and Mäkaha."
     Today, only four years later, Gov. Ben Cayetano says of Hanabusa, "She is smart, tough and much more akamai politically than I am. Most important she has the heart of a Democrat and it shows. She has a bright future in Hawai‘i politics — either in Congress or as governor."
     When U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye called the top Democrats together on May 31 to discuss the retreat of Mayor Jeremy Harris from the Democratic primary for governor, Hanabusa was among those invited.
     What made Hanabusa such a towering politician as well as vice president of the Senate in such a short time was not just the barrenness of the surrounding landscape. It has to do with character.
Meet Dolly Kylinski

Colleen Hanabusa, the first of three children comprising the fourth generation of a Japanese-American family in Wai‘anae, was born in 1951, the year after the marriage of her parents, June and Isao.
     Today, relaxing in their home just makai of the Hanabusa auto-parts store at Farrington and Bayview, the couple reflects on their daughter’s coming of age in Wai‘anae. Says Mrs. Hanabusa, "Colleen was a fairly gifted girl. In grammar school she liked to read mysteries and even historical novels."
     The young Hanabusa, according to her mom, also possessed an unusual mental toughness. "She hardly cried at all," recalls June. "I remember just once, when she tried to pick an artificial flower."
     This mental toughness was honed at an early age. When she was only 10, a drunk driver who had just left the bar across the street killed one of her two brothers, 6-year-old Clyde, at the intersection of Farrington and Bayview. The other brother, Ritchie, was only 7 at the time.
     In thinking about this today, in the sort of wistful but wizened lament that great jazz singers belt out in the wee small hours of the morning, Hanabusa reflects, "When the sister of the young man who was killed earlier this year at Mä‘ili point contacted me, she said in her e-mail that she wondered if I knew what it was like to lose family members in traffic accidents. I told her that I did know."
     By the time she reached the sixth grade, Hanabusa was precociously intent on getting an education. She arrived home from school one day to announce, "Mom, when I get to the seventh or eighth grade, I want to go to a private school. Maybe an all-girls school."
     She took the entrance exam for St. Andrew’s Priory, and the scrappy kid from Wai‘anae did just fine even though, as it turned out, she was suffering a painful case of mumps at the time.
     At the priory, Hanabusa struck her classmates as special. "She was our student body president, and was known as one of the brains," says attorney Libby Ellett Tomar.
     Classmate Laurie Carlson, publisher of Honolulu Weekly, recalls, "She was really tough and really bright. If the priory ever produced a tita, it was Colleen."
     While Hanabusa was at the priory, her sense of social justice blossomed, as in one of the Japanese floral arrangements at which she excels, to blend with her tough-minded brilliance.
     Her father remembers that she had lots of friends, and wanted to bring all of them home to spend the holidays. Explained Hanabusa to her father, "They don’t know Wai‘anae, and they’ve heard it’s a bad place."
     Hanabusa earned early acceptance to the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, but while there began to suffer the serious asthma attacks that still plague her from time to time. She transferred to Colorado College in Colorado Springs for the air, but discovered that she couldn’t breathe at 6,000 feet.
     So, she enrolled at the University of Hawai‘i, and got a B.A. in economics and sociology, and later a master’s degree in sociology. Professor Harry Ball of the Sociology Department encouraged her to go to the university’s new law school, and she became part of its second graduating class, the group of 1974-1977.
     Hanabusa married in 1976, when she was 25, but it wasn’t the marriage so much as an encounter early in her legal career that most changed her life. While working for a law firm, she was asked to fill in at a court hearing involving labor leader Arthur Rutledge’s lawsuit to regain his $1,000 a month pension.
     When the legendary union boss and Hanabusa were introduced, Rutledge disdainfully said, "Little girl, you should be home taking care of your husband."
     Responded Hanabusa, "You know, Mr. Rutledge, you’re damn lucky I’m your lawyer. Now, let’s go to court."
     To this day, Hanabusa’s demeanor, that of an alert but innocent little girl, belies the workings of an extraordinarily shrewd mind that rarely forgets anything.
     Rutledge, after getting to know Hanabusa, decided that she was such a street-smart attorney that she must be Jewish. He decided, for no apparent reason other than its Yiddish ring, to give her the moniker of "Dolly Kylinski."
     Amongst those concerned with labor and the law, the word was out: When Dolly talks, you’d better listen.

Just like Eddie Aikau
It was Colleen Hanabusa’s sense of social justice that led her to politics. She helped to manage Arnold Morgado’s unsuccessful mayoral campaign against Jeremy Harris in 1994, and worked for Morgado on his issues committee in 1996 when Morgado again challenged Harris. She came away believing that politics is too much packaging and not enough substance.
     In 1998, with the end of her childless marriage imminent, Hanabusa thought about running for office herself. Of her divorce and decision to run, Hanabusa says, "I guess nothing necessarily went wrong. It was just a need on my part to be me. My ex-husband would not have supported [her running for office]."
     In her first election campaign, she not only beat Democratic incumbent James Aki, a former Senate president, in the primary, but also went on to take 73 percent of the vote in the general.
     Hanabusa won without packaging. In fact, the only thing she changed for the campaign was the name of her dog, Aki. Aki is Japanese for "autumn," but some thought the name was a jab at her opponent. The fluffy white Maltese became Muttley.
     From her very first day as a senator, the scrappy Hanabusa — in the style of the late Eddie Aikau, to whom the Quiksilver big surf contest is dedicated — was intrepid. Her mother sometimes asked if it was necessary to cause so much trouble, and the response was always the same: "I’m just telling the truth. Isn’t that what you told me to do?"
     One of those who failed to recognize Hanabusa’s "Eddie Would Go" spirit was state Attorney General Margery Bronster.
     Hanabusa was appalled by Bronster’s approval of changing the ground rules for individual claims by Native Hawaiians against the state with regard to Homestead land. The brand new senator from Wai‘anae inquired of Bronster’s office, "What about those who already have made it through the process?"
     When Bronster responded through a messenger, "They’ll just have to try again," Hanabusa’s sense of social justice was outraged. On the spot, she determined to vote against Bronster’s reappointment for a second term.
     Adding to Hanabusa’s resolve was Bronster’s odd reaction to charges of voting fraud in the elections of 1998. Bronster, trying to circle the wagons around the Democratic administration, proffered to the state Supreme Court that the overvoting in Wai‘anae was a statistical aberration caused by the fact that Hawaiians aren’t educated. Hanabusa was furious.
     Hanabusa became one of the 14 senators who denied Bronster reappointment, in 1999, and the governor singled her out for special criticism. He even tried to link her to Bishop Estate trustee Henry Peters, then the subject of criminal and civil actions by Bronster.
     Later, when Hanabusa was introduced to Peters for the first time, she said to him, "Well, now I’ll have to say I’ve met you."
     Not content with wrongful allegations by the governor, and not yet realizing it had a star on its hands, the Democratic Party’s central committee, under chair Walter Heen, actually voted to express "its disapproval and disavowal of those Democratic senators who voted in opposition to the confirmation of the reappointment of Bronster."
     To Heen’s chagrin, Hanabusa took on the whole damn Democratic Party. She wrote to Heen, "It is a sad day when the party that believes in individual rights and equity would act unilaterally."
     Hanabusa was winning her battle to reverse the vote when the central committee mysteriously decided it would require a two-thirds vote to undo its violation of due process.
     Hanabusa’s "Eddie Would Go" spirit survived and thrived. During her second year in the Senate, she helped to overcome the nasty opposition to Cayetano’s nomination of civil rights attorney, Dan Foley, to the Intermediate Court of Appeals.
     During a hearing, Republican Sen. Sam Slom said to Foley, "It’s out there in the community. You’ve been identified with the rights of criminals."
     The next day, on the floor of the Senate, Hanabusa rose to chastise her colleagues, and to say, "It’s especially disturbing to hear ‘civil rights’ used as a bad term."
     The following year, 2001, it was Hanabusa who led the way for passage of Senate Bill 1044, a reform of the health-care fund for public employees. She was one of the few who understood the sleight of hand that had been employed by the unions to make nearly $90 million disappear.
     As the governor put it following the vote to pass SB1044, "Hanabusa had a lot to do with 1044. She educated the others."
     In some ways, Hanabusa became a victim of her reputation as a miracle worker. She was seen now as the godmother of legislation to whom you could take all your problems. As a result, during this year’s recently concluded session, a few liberals and progressives prematurely faulted her for not pulling the death-with-dignity bill out of a hat.
     Among them was labor activist Ah Quon McElrath. At a press conference in the Governor’s Office during the last week of the 2002 session, McElrath said to this reporter, "You’re the one who elevated Hanabusa to sainthood. So where is she on this?"
     Even as McElrath was asking, Democratic Party leaders were lobbying Hanabusa to let the bill die. Says Hanabusa, "[Party chair] Lorraine Akiba had concerns about the bill. She mentioned that Richard Port [former leader of the party’s so-called Rainbow Coalition] was concerned that it would raise the divisiveness that the same-sex marriage issue had. I think they were wrong."
     In the end, it was thanks to Hanabusa that the bill was recalled to the floor out of committee. It was defeated by only three votes in what was a fine debate. On June 1, having learned a lesson, the Democratic Party made death with dignity part of its platform.
Hanabusa’s committee blues

On an afternoon in mid-May of this year, Hanabusa arrived late for an interview in Wai‘anae. It was a happy 7-year-old Muttley who signaled that her car had finally pulled into the driveway.
     She was late, unusual for her, because she had been summoned to the Attorney General’s Office for a press conference on the criminal indictment of an individual accused of billing the state for unperformed Felix v. Waihe‘e services. Attorney General Earl Anzai attributed the indictment to the efforts of the Senate-House committee investigation, led by Hanabusa and Rep. Scott Saiki.
     Hanabusa was gratified by this turn of events, and told her parents what she had said at that afternoon’s press conference: "It validates the work of the committee."
     The fact is, however, that the committee’s performance has so far been of limited value. The committee, authorized by a Senate Concurrent Resolution that followed two harshly negative reports from the Legislative Auditor, from the start has been mired in the quicksand of bureaucratic-speak and obfuscation.
     When state Schools Superintendent Paul LeMahieu and Department of Health Director Bruce Anderson testified on Aug. 20, 2001, Hanabusa and the committee let both engage in verbal stunt-piloting. Said LeMahieu to Hanabusa, "We’re trying to explain to you why it is we can’t tell you what it is you want to know."
     Later, when there were revelations that LeMahieu had been involved romantically with an outside supplier to whom he had awarded a contract — he maintains the contract was issued before the affair began — the committee, against Hanabusa’s strong recommendation, voted not to subpoena him. The feeling, says Hanabusa, was that "he and his family had suffered enough."
     LeMahieu contacted members of the committee with an offer to testify "informally," but not under oath. Hanabusa said there would be no such deal, and LeMahieu later maintained in a half-truth that the committee had declined to hear his side of the story.
     The attorney for LeMahieu during these proceedings, Jim Paul, is highly critical of Hanabusa. "Before the hearings," says Paul, "I thought about Hanabusa that here’s someone who should go a long way. Then I thought, ‘What the hell’s going on here?’
     "It was disappointing. The committee must have been getting bad advice. Its ground rules were narrow and ineffective. No one could come in to just talk."
     Hanabusa scoffs at this, and notes that LeMahieu could have talked all he wanted. All he had to do was promise to tell the truth.
     Also on the Felix front, Hanabusa got into a battle with U.S. District Court Chief Judge David Ezra. Ezra presides over the Felix consent decree, and without him Hawai‘i would still be in the Dark Ages on providing education for disabled children.
     When Ezra announced he would invalidate subpoenas issued by the committee to potential witnesses who were agents of the court, he, like Bronster before him, couldn’t have anticipated Hanabusa’s capacity for rejoinder.
     On Dec. 14, 2001, the committee filed a motion, "To Disqualify Judge David Ezra." The motion listed a damning bill of particulars, including Ezra’s untoward comparison of the committee to "Senator McCarthy during the fifties. …"
     The motion to disqualify was denied by Ezra’s colleague, Judge Samuel King. However, Ezra retreated, and turned the subpoena of witnesses over to Magistrate Barry Kurren with the comment, "So, I’m going to let Judge Kurren take charge of the caboose … and I’m going to run the train."
     Ezra headed off the track again when the investigative committee announced its findings. In January of this year, Ezra, demeaning the committee and the AG’s Office at the same time, stated he was going to ask the U.S. Attorney to look into the "rather sensational allegations" made by "the so-called investigative committee."
     All of which explains why our AG’s Office rushed to indict a petty thief, and to inordinately praise Hanabusa and the committee. On May 15, it announced the indictment of a lone provider, Susan Puapuaga, formerly a therapeutic aide with Alaka‘i Na Keiki, accused of billing for $1,800 worth of services not performed.
     Eric Seitz, an attorney for the Felix class who has had numerous conflicts with Hanabusa over the investigation, got it right not only about the indictment but about the entire investigation so far when he commented, "It has nothing to do with Felix or Felix oversight or Felix implementation. You’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars that have been spent, and they’ve come up with $1,800."
     The record is mixed. Under Hanabusa’s leadership, the committee took on a federal judge to defend the right of the state to investigate a state system run amok. On the other hand, the committee missed the central point of the inquiry, the state’s and the Board of Education’s miserable failure to cope with educating children.
     The life of the committee has been extended, and it began a new round of hearings on May 30. Hanabusa says she plans to subpoena LeMahieu if he’s in Hawai‘i.
Pure Hanabusa

Colleen Hanabusa is running for reelection to the Senate, and wants to be its next president. "That position," she notes, "will be very important, especially if Lingle becomes governor."
     She also readily acknowledges that someday she wants to serve in Congress.
     For the moment, Hanabusa sees Hawai‘i on the brink of succumbing to the foibles — cronyism, self-seeking, lack of courage — that can make local government so mediocre. She has been disappointed by some of her colleagues — perhaps by most of them — but sees the Republicans and Linda Lingle as the worst of all alternatives.
     In spite of her idealism, she is a street-smart and independent woman who sees clearly what has to be done — from air-conditioning Mä‘ili Elementary to safeguarding the rights of Native Hawaiians — and she plays what the governor calls hardball to get those things done.
     She doesn’t always win, but she comes close. Recently, because of what she saw as its economic importance to the Leeward Side, Hanabusa played tough with regard to tax credits for the development at Ko Olina. She got it through the Legislature, but couldn’t convince the governor to sign it even though she spoke to him and to some of his closest associates.
     When I last met with Hanabusa, and related to economic development for Leeward O‘ahu, she was furious about the Department of Health’s apparent willingness to allow the city another extension for use of Waimänalo Gulch in Nänäkuli as a landfill. The city — building a mountain of garbage — asked for an increase in the cap of from 400 to 430 feet.
     DOH Director Anderson, whom Hanabusa believes to be incompetent, responded by indicating that he believed the city was operating "in good faith."
     The very next day, with her visions for economic development of the Leeward Side at risk, Hanabusa wrote a hardball letter to Anderson in which she accused the city, because it is forcing lower-income and minority communities to disproportionately bear the risks of environmental protection, of "environmental racism."
     It was a grand letter. Tough-minded. Intelligent. Based on a fine sense of social justice. Pure Hanabusa. Only she would have sent it.