This Fiery Japanese-American Aims to Lead Hawaii

This Fiery Japanese-American Aims to Lead Hawaii

Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, poses during her mock swearing-in ceremony with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., in the U.S. Capitol on Monday, Nov. 14, 2016.

SourceBill Clark/Getty

Why you should care

Because she could be leading the Aloha State into a more progressive future.

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The wokest auntie in Hawaii politics sports a short bob, wispy bangs and a sweater with avant-garde black-and-turquoise slashes on it as she paces the hallways beneath Capitol Hill. She picks the lint off her chief of staff’s suit as she walks, and thrusts her phone over to show him a photo from the Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally in Honolulu. “It’s the first time I had a millennial say, ‘I want to wear what you’re wearing,’” Colleen Hanabusa brags.

It’s all family for the lawmaker from the land of Ohana, even if she and her husband have no kids of their own. She regularly cooks homemade meals for her staff — she makes poke bowls and a mean meat jun — and is known to go on crafty “binges,” which led to her crocheting five pink hats for the women’s march and folding a thousand red origami cranes (with help from her office) to remember the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram.

However, if you put her constituents at risk, as Hawaii did when its emergency alert system accidentally went off in January, making residents believe a missile attack was imminent — then you can expect some of that Hawaiian huhū. Think Vesuvius-level anger.

You know what my problem is? I’m not warm and fuzzy.

Colleen Hanabusa

That’s why Hanabusa, 66, doesn’t mince words when she gets to her destination, a livestream interview with the millennial-focused news site Cheddar. “People are upset. Very upset,” she says, before recounting how her husband was caught on the highways as drivers sped by frantically at 100 mph. “Everyone assumed it was from North Korea … what I’m hearing more and more about is, Were we really prepared?”

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Rep.-elect Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, talks with the media outside the Capitol Hill Hotel on the day freshman members checked in for orientation, Nov. 14, 2016.

Source Tom Williams/Getty

Her indignation seems genuine enough — but the incident is a Mauna Loa–size political opportunity. Hanabusa is challenging incumbent first-term Gov. David Ige, the face of the missile mishap, in a Democratic primary. Joining a building Year of the Woman wave, she’s seeking a rare feat, because a sitting governor has lost a primary less than a handful of times in the past two decades. But Hanabusa does have local precedent on her side: Ige won himself by upending Democrat Neil Abercrombie in a 2014 primary.

Even before the fiasco, Hanabusa had criticized Ige on how to achieve the legislature’s ambitious “100 percent alternative energy” goal by 2045, or what to do with the state’s proposed Thirty Meter Telescope, which has drawn criticism for being built on land sacred to natives. Ige signed the environmental bill when he first took office in 2015, and has delayed the telescope at times. Hanabusa strikes a populist nerve hammering away at Ige’s perceived indecisiveness. Ige campaign spokeswoman Glenna Wong fires back that “Colleen Hanabusa is an ambitious career politician with a history of issuing self-serving statements, without offering solutions.”

Former Hawaii Supreme Court justice Ronald T.Y. Moon, for one, thinks Hanabusa has a shot. “She has a reputation of being all-inclusive, and has the name recognition that I think will surely help her against an incumbent,” he says. And she’s got admiration from many younger progressives, who respect her rise to become the first Asian-American woman to preside over a state legislative chamber, leading the Hawaii Senate. “The way she told her story really moved me,” says Kaniela Ing, a 28-year-old state representative. “She has a knack for connecting with people like that.”

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Rep. Colleen Hanabusa participates in the House Democratic women news conference to mark “Equal Pay Day” on April 8, 2014.

Source Bill Clark/Getty

She’s part of a fourth-generation Japanese-American family from poor Wai’anae on the southwestern coast of Oahu. Her grandfather, Shigeo Muroda, was sent to a detention camp after Pearl Harbor, and yet remained uncommonly kind to his guards. “Honestly, I don’t know if I come from the same stuff. I’m a lawyer … I’d sue,” Hanabusa says with a glint in her eye.

It’s a toughness that has served the labor lawyer well over the years. “For a woman to be successful, it’s a very thin line that we walk,” Hanabusa says. “You know what my problem is? I’m not warm and fuzzy.” She’s also accused of itchy-footed ambition: She left her congressional seat for a failed run at the U.S. Senate in 2014, won the seat back in 2016, and now is moving on again to challenge the governor. “It’s sort of a backhanded compliment. It’s usually, ‘You’re doing a good job in Congress, so you should stay there,’” she says. “I think it shouldn’t be so much about ambition, but about what is in the best interest of the state.”

Back in Wai’anae, where the beat-up sign from her father’s former gas station still bears the title “Hanabusa’s,” there’s little doubt about her ability to lead the state — especially as a champion in the fight against homelessness and for affordable housing. Or as Patrick Aweahu, a 56-year-old iron worker from nearby Nanakuli, puts it, “That’s her main goal: Everybody gets a fair shake.”

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