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Hanabusa increases Big Island presence

January 20, 2014 - 11:00am

With the announcement Saturday of former state Sen. Russell Kokubun as Big Island campaign chairman, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa increased her Hawaii Island presence in a Democratic battle for U.S. Senate that has captured national attention.

Hanabusa, after meeting with supporters at the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in Hilo, focused on her accomplishments and future role in Washington during an hourlong interview with West Hawaii Today.

She noted that she and her primary Democratic opponent, Brian Schatz, both started in the state Legislature in 1998, but said her accomplishments were numerous, ending as president of the Senate. She listed major victories in helping craft the Felix Consent Decree that required the state to provide services to special needs students, taking the first official legislative hearings to neighbor islands on a Hawaiian homestead issue and a comprehensive crystal meth prevention program in middle schools.

Schatz was appointed to the U.S. Senate seat by Gov. Neil Abercrombie late last year after the death of Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye. Hanabusa, still bristling at published comments attributed to Abercrombie that, at age 62, she’s too old to start a career in the Senate, said she’s taken the time to earn her legislative chops. Schatz is 41.

“When you look at the record and you look at what I’ve done … We’re not going to wait 40 years to get things done,” Hanabusa said. “We need someone who can get things done.”

Schatz has a 2-1 fundraising advantage over Hanabusa, while Hanabusa has better statewide name recognition because of her tenure as state Senate president and a deathbed endorsement from the greatly respected Inouye. She’s served three years in Congress representing Hawaii’s urban Oahu 1st District.

The only other time Hanabusa and Schatz shared a Big Island ballot was the Democratic primary congressional 2nd District race in 2006. At that time, Hanabusa came in second behind now U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono; Schatz came in sixth among Big Island voters in a crowded field of 10.

Schatz, despite his appointed position, has the power of the incumbency helping his name recognition and major donations. A Schatz campaign spokesman declined to comment Saturday.

Politico, one of the nation’s top political magazines, has dubbed the race one to watch, even though the intraparty battle won’t affect the balance of power in the Senate. A Washington Post story earlier this month brought up the twin specters of race and age as dividing the state over its Senate pick.

The winner of this battle will be picked in the Aug. 9 primary in this deep-blue state that, so far, hasn’t shown a strong Republican contender.

It’s difficult to gauge success in Congress by specific bills passed, Hanabusa said of her three years in the U.S. House. But she said she’s already a ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, where she’s worked to ensure Hawaii’s role in a proposed “Pivot to Asia-Pacific” rebalancing of military priorities.

Kokubun, at his mother’s funeral on Oahu Saturday, could not be reached for comment. He had served 10 years in the state Senate, ending as vice president under Hanabusa, then two years as chairman of the state Department of Agriculture before retiring in December. That led to speculation among the Honolulu media that he was leaving to set up a Big Island campaign headquarters for her.

But Kokubun said at the time that his primary reason for retiring was to get back to his farm, after many years of political life.

“I am supportive. She is a very good friend of me and my family,” Kokubun said then. “I’ve always supported my friends.”

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