KAILUA-KONA — Colleen Hanabusa was born and raised on Oahu. She represented constituents from that island during her 12 years as a state senator and for another five years in the U.S. House of Representatives for Hawaii’s 1st District.
Yet the 66-year old career labor attorney and politician said Wednesday she has a unique ability to empathize with Hawaii Islanders, and all those citizens from outer islands, when it comes to feeling like an outsider looking in on what many perceive as Oahu-centric state politics.
A consistent Oahu-first focus is something Hanabusa said won’t continue if she becomes Hawaii’s governor, having officially announced her candidacy for the office this week before making a visit to Hawaii Island.
“Remember where I grew up. I’m fourth generation Waianae Coast, so when I ran, I always felt (government) was Honolulu-centric,” Hanabusa said.
“That’s one of the things that has always bothered me about the way we look at the state,” she continued. “I think the state is so unique and so wonderful, but it’s only limited by the fact that we are not recognizing the uniqueness of each of the islands. … (Hawaii) Island, to me in particular, holds the future of the state.”
Hanabusa’s vision for that future includes more development of education and industry on Hawaii Island given the opportunities afforded by its unique environmental characteristics.
She said the University of Hawaii system needs to maximize the potential of outer islands, adding the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources should be relocated to the Big Island.
The congresswoman also envisions Hawaii Island taking an even more advanced leadership role in space exploration and research in years to come, although she did not elaborate with specifics.
“Those are the kinds of things, industries we have to think about and develop,” she said. “Once we start to have that mentality, then I think the other islands will not feel like we feel on the Waianae Coast.”
The Thirty Meter Telescope project, a controversial question mark as it’s moved through the courts over the last several months, is central to any discussion on space exploration, research and industry.
Hanabusa has been a supporter of TMT since her time in the state Legislature but said there is one caveat.
“TMT is something I support,” she said. “However, I do not support the way (UH) has executed it and their failure to do what they should have done along the way. … I do not believe UH did a good job in terms of being a steward.”
She said the issue is something she expects to take up if she defeats incumbent Gov. David Ige in the primary Aug. 11 and goes on to claim the governorship. The congresswoman said she doesn’t believe TMT will walk in April, as the organization has threatened to do absent resolution, nor does she believe the matter will be closed by year’s end.
Hanabusa noted two other priorities for Hawaii Island Wednesday — homelessness, which she said is also a top issue across state, and airport infrastructure.
She has yet to visit Mayor Harry Kim’s Camp Kikaha, but Hanabusa reiterated her support of so-called “safe zones” with an emphasis on rounding those sites out with services so as to utilize them as transitional pieces into long-term housing.
The congresswoman rejected a contention of the Ige administration that the safe zone concept is too expensive, adding the need for affordable renting and housing will be central to her governorship, assuming she’s elected.
Hanabusa explained that airport infrastructure updates initially implemented by the state legislature during her time there stalled years ago because of changes to the executive branch.
With Hawaii Island’s tourism numbers growing annually and upgrades now underway at the Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport, the congresswoman said it’s more important now than ever to recognize good ideas regardless of their source and push investment in the tourism industry — Hawaii’s major economic base.
“I think too much of government today is ‘If we didn’t think about it, it can’t be good,’” she said. “And that’s just not the way we should exist.”
Hanabusa’s detractors have criticized her as an opportunist, running for a U.S. Senate seat against Sen. Brian Schatz in 2014 and now looking to jump from the U.S. House of Representatives for a second time to run for governor.
She countered by saying she believes Hawaii is at a crossroads and that Ige isn’t fit to lead the state down the appropriate path.
“We seem to be drifting and we seem to be rudderless and I believe it’s a sign of a lack of leadership,” she said.
Since word of Hanabusa’s intention to run broke last fall, Ige has repeatedly stated he believes his track record of accomplishments speak more loudly than the congresswoman’s criticisms.
Hanabusa noted her time chairing the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation as an example of her superior qualifications, saying she made HART more transparent than it’s ever been and citing her inclination to ask the hard questions.
“The critical difference between (myself and Ige) is exactly that,” Hanabusa said. “In the time that I’ve served in the Legislature, the one thing I’ve never done is shy away from major challenges as well as addressing the problems … and making the hard decisions.”
“You may not agree with the decisions I make,” she added, “but you will always understand why.”