Hawaii U.S. Senate Smackdown: Colleen Hanabusa vs. Brian Schatz


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U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz square off this year to fill the last two years of the six-year term of powerful political icon Daniel K. Inouye, who died in 2012.

Both are popular Democrats who have enjoyed the support of many of the same voters in the past. Most of the polls published this year describe this race as too close to call in the Aug. 9 primary election. Though there are challengers in the general election, one of these Democrats will almost certainly win. We sat down with both of the candidates to talk about their core issues and give our readers insight into this important race that will be decided next month.

Hanabusa and Schatz philosophically agree more than they disagree. And yet the race to succeed Inouye—so well-known that his campaign bumper sticker for years simply read “Dan” in a circle—is an emotional one. Hanabusa has earned the endorsement of the late senator, both in a death-bed letter and from his supporters.

Schatz has the support of Gov. Neil Abercrombie, whom he served as lieutenant governor, and who appointed him instead of Hanabusa to fill the seat until this election.

 

Colleen HanabusaColleen Hanabusa

Age: 63
First elected: 1998
First office: State senator
Current office: U.S. representative (elected 2010)
What voters probably don’t know: The lawyer and former State Senate President enjoys cooking for staff in Washington and is known for her champuru, an Okinawan bittermelon, pork and tofu stir-fry.
 

Colleen Hanabusa made her reputation as a scrappy, independent politician able to build support among both powerful insiders and individual voters.

She’s been a labor lawyer, state Senate president and represented the Waianae Coast before winning a seat in the U.S. House in 2010.

This year, she expects to be outspent by Schatz but she benefits from widespread name recognition. A poll indicated “only 3 percent don’t know who I am, so we’re very lucky,” she says.

Hanabusa also won support from a variety of influential Democrats: retired U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka; Inouye’s widow, Irene Hirano Inouye; as well as many of Inouye’s former staffers and supporters. She also has the backing of former governors George Ariyoshi and Ben Cayetano, who broke with his close friend Abercrombie to support her.

Philosophically, Hanabusa and Schatz are fairly similar, but have different approaches.

“This election is about our record and who people feel can represent them in Washington,” Hanabusa says.

She’s painted as more of a pro-military hawk because of her emphasis on national security. “I really do believe that Hawaii’s future is tied to the pivot to Asia-Pacific,” she says, a view that strengthened after she served on the Armed Services Committee.

Both point to their D.C. experience as showing they can work together in a way that serves Hawaii well. “I know how to act and work in a bipartisan manner,” she says.

And she sees herself as experienced at doing battle successfully in the legislative arena. Hanabusa asks: “Who do you trust to go up there and go toe-to-toe with the best of them?”

She points to years of fighting stereotypes: “You can’t be Senate president. You’re a wahine.”

Former labor leader Art Rutledge told her: “You should go home little girl, go home and take care of your husband and cook him dinner and have babies.”

And she says serving as Senate president placed her under more scrutiny than Schatz faced in the state Legislature or as lieutenant governor. “When you’re in a leadership position like I’ve been in, you’re not able to hide.”

Schatz has criticized a Hanabusa vote as not supportive of Social Security, while she defends that move as supportive of a balanced budget and deficit reduction. “Social Security was never voted on,” she says.

She believes that Hawaii is at an important crossroads and that’s what makes the Senate seat even more important. She emphasizes her local roots, experience as Senate president, support for job creation, seniors, veterans and health care.

Hanabusa says she was disappointed in Abercrombie’s questioning of the validity of Inouye’s letter supporting her and early reluctance to let challenger David Ige speak at the state party convention.

“I’m very concerned about what’s going on with the party. I’m very concerned about statements made by the titular head of the party,” Hanabusa says.

Although Democrats often disagree, she says there’s room for diversity.

“We’re the big tent with all the pup tents inside. The bottom line is we give people choice,” she says. “Our diversity has always defined us.”

She says her campaign is working statewide, especially on the Neighbor Islands, to get out the vote, to improve turnout by giving rides, calling to remind people, did you vote, who’d you vote for?

Hanabusa still bristles at hearing second-hand that Abercrombie considered her too old to appoint. She says he told her that he didn’t want to trigger a special election by taking her from the House to the Senate and “I don’t want to lose your seniority on Armed Services, because you are very effective.”

She says Akaka pointed out he was older than her when he went to the Senate.

“I have no reason to believe that I wouldn’t be able to serve the people of Hawaii for a long time,” she says.

She enjoys time on the campaign trail, talking to people about their concerns.

“The one thing I do also enjoy is sign waving. Because I tell people that sign waving is a great barometer of how people feel, especially women,” she says.

Hanabusa thinks voter turnout could be improved if the list is better scrubbed of voters who died or moved away. And competitive races like this one will draw voters to the polls. “I think this election will bring them out.”

 

Brian Schatz

Age: 41
First elected: 1998
First office: State Representative
Current office: U.S. senator (appointed 2012)
What voters probably don’t know: “If they see someone that looks just exactly like me but his head is shaved, his name is Steve Schatz, and he’s my identical twin brother.”
 

When Brian Schatz was first elected to the Hawaii State House, he was the youngest representative there. When he was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 2012, he was the youngest senator and is now the second-youngest.

In between his time as a freshman lawmaker and becoming the state’s senior senator, Schatz served as Democratic Party chairman, was CEO of Helping Hands Hawaii, (one of Hawaii’s largest nonprofit community social services organizations), got elected lieutenant governor, married architect Linda Kwok Schatz and had two children.

He says those life experiences have shaped him to serve in the U.S. Senate.

“My singular focus is on helping people to enter the middle class and helping those of us who are in the middle class to stay in the middle class or to stay in Hawaii. Hawaii is the best place in the world to live, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that, but it’s very challenging to make it economically.”

Schatz also plans to focus on clean energy, sustaining tourism, transportation infrastructure, and helping families with college financing. He points to his chairmanship on two subcommittees on water and power, tourism competitiveness and innovation as setting him apart from other freshman senators in a meaningful way that helps Hawaii.

He notes similar philosophies with his opponent on many issues but points to another vote on which he and Hanabusa split.  He voted against an Obama-supported five-year extension of a foreign-intelligence surveillance program that he said tread too heavily on privacy.

“I couldn’t see fit to re-authorize this domestic surveillance program, and I’m calling it a domestic surveillance program because that is what it morphed into.”

Another vote split: Hanabusa voted for a bill that she characterized as budget-balancing while Schatz opposed it on the grounds that it would hurt Social Security. “My view on Social Security is that it is an efficient and effective anti-poverty program. It’s the most effective anti-poverty program in American history.”

He points to his Congressional time as showing he can work with others, something he learned from being both in and out of power in local politics:  “I think those were some of the more humbling experiences that prepared me to collaborate with my colleagues.”

He’s learned to build relationships with Republicans and others who differ on some issues to get things done.

“Anything you want to do in the United States Senate requires that you have a dance partner on the other side of the aisle. You can’t get a bill through without a bipartisan co-sponsor.”

He believes the Hawaii Democratic Party will come together even after disagreements and heated rhetoric. “It’s a tough choice for a lot of people.”

Like his opponent, he thinks competition will draw more voters to turn out. “Generally speaking the Democratic Party benefits from competition and democratic voters benefit from having good and strong choices.”

He’s troubled that voter turnout plummeted in recent years in Hawaii.

“I think it’s sometimes fashionable to be cynical about politics. For some people there’s a sense that to be not interested in politics is to be above politics,” Schatz says.

But he also says that participation in the process makes the system better. “My philosophy is that democracy is not what we have, it’s what we do,” he says.

When Brian Schatz was first elected to the Hawaii State House, he was the youngest representative there. When he was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 2012, he was the youngest senator and is now the second-youngest.

In between his time as a freshman lawmaker and becoming the state’s senior senator, Schatz served as Democratic Party chairman, was CEO of Helping Hands Hawaii, (one of Hawaii’s largest nonprofit community social services organizations), got elected lieutenant governor, married architect Linda Kwok Schatz and had
two children.

He says those life experiences have shaped him to serve in the U.S. Senate.

“My singular focus is on helping people to enter the middle class and helping those of us who are in the middle class to stay in the middle class or to stay in Hawaii. Hawaii is the best place in the world to live, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that, but it’s very challenging to make it economically.”

Schatz also plans to focus on clean energy, sustaining tourism, transportation infrastructure, and helping families with college financing. He points to his chairmanship on two subcommittees on water and power, tourism competitiveness and innovation as setting him apart from other freshman senators in a meaningful way that helps Hawaii.

He notes similar philosophies with his opponent on many issues but points to another vote on which he and Hanabusa split.  He voted against an Obama-supported five-year extension of a foreign-intelligence surveillance program that he said tread too heavily on privacy.

“I couldn’t see fit to re-authorize this domestic surveillance program, and I’m calling it a domestic surveillance program because that is what it morphed into.”

Another vote split: Hanabusa voted for a bill that she characterized as budget-balancing while Schatz opposed it on the grounds that it would hurt Social Security. “My view on Social Security is that it is an efficient and effective anti-poverty program. It’s the most effective anti-poverty program in American history.”

He points to his Congressional time as showing he can work with others, something he learned from being both in and out of power in local politics:  “I think those were some of the more humbling experiences that prepared me to collaborate with my colleagues.”

He’s learned to build relationships with Republicans and others who differ on some issues to get things done.

“Anything you want to do in the United States Senate requires that you have a dance partner on the other side of the aisle. You can’t get a bill through without a bipartisan co-sponsor.”

He believes the Hawaii Democratic Party will come together even after disagreements and heated rhetoric. “It’s a tough choice for a lot of people.”

Like his opponent, he thinks competition will draw more voters to turn out. “Generally speaking the Democratic Party benefits from competition and democratic voters benefit from having good and strong choices.”

He’s troubled that voter turnout plummeted in recent years in Hawaii.

“I think it’s sometimes fashionable to be cynical about politics. For some people there’s a sense that to be not interested in politics is to be above politics,” Schatz says.

But he also says that participation in the process makes the system better. “My philosophy is that democracy is not what we have, it’s what we do,” he says.

And that means it’s not a spectator sport. “If they’re happy with their leaders, that’s a good reason to engage, if they’re unhappy with their leaders, that’s an even better reason to engage,” Schatz says.

Like his opponent, his campaign is working to get more people to vote. He’s using some of the higher-tech data tools that helped the Obama campaign get out their message to vote.

“It’s really the old-school tried-and-true techniques but with a modern data operation on the back end,” Schatz explains.

When we talked,  nearly 70 days from the election, he felt good about where the campaign was heading: “We like our plan. We feel strongly about our message. We’ve got a great group of volunteers across the state. My job is to be vigilant and disciplined and hard-working all the way through.”

He says he enjoys the chance to talk to people throughout the state: “There’s no other profession where you can meet so many people from so many different backgrounds and understand where they’re coming from.”

 

Read More Stories by Robbie Dingeman

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