State Senate, 21st District
In the late 1950s, young Colleen Hanabusa would strap on metal skates and roll around her cousin’s house in Kaimuki. Roller skating on that side of the island was a treat, because the sidewalk-less, raised-asphalt streets of Waianae, Hanabusa’s lower-income neighborhood, often bloodied her own knees and elbows. She was just 7 but already sensed unfair differences between the two communities.
Today, Hanabusa is a state senator for the 21st District, representing the Waianae coast. A private attorney for more than 20 years, she first ran for public office in 1998 and won. That victory mirrored the time when Hanabusa, age 16, nabbed second place in a Junior Miss contest. While her coiffed, teenage competitors twirled pirouettes for the talent portion, Hanabusa, the girl from Waianae, donned an altered red dress and twirled Maori poi balls. Already back then, she was different.
“She’s a powerhouse,” says Jeff Stone, a developer who worked with Hanabusa to pass the Ko Olina tax credit bill, which gives tax breaks to developers of Ko Olina, a luxury residential and resort community in east Oahu. “Politicians want to fire these giant shotgun blasts, and things go all over the place. She’s the one that fires that bullet right at the problem.” When the City and County of Honolulu last year proposed to expand the already-full Waimanalo Gulch Landfill by another 15 acres, Hanabusa helped to file a lawsuit against the city in Circuit Court to stop the expansion until public hearings took place.
“She’s got a voracious appetite for those who are unfortunate and need help,” Stone says. “She really wants to find ways to fix the community as fast as possible.”
Case in point: For years, Maili Elementary teachers were forced to shut their doors during school hours to keep out the stench and bugs brought on by neighboring farms. Hanabusa, who could not bear to see the students work in lousy conditions, brought the issue to lawmakers in 2000. “It was my bill that got it going,” Hanabusa says, adding that parents, government officials and the business community banded together to push the bill. Last year, the government allocated $3 million to install a campus-wide air-conditioning system in the school.
Hanabusa dares to identify public citizens who behave badly. Two years ago, she co-chaired the first-ever, bipartisan, joint House-Senate committee to investigate millions of dollars in funding for the Department of Education’s special-education program. The committee found millions of dollars in fraudulent charges and eventually indicted the responsible parties. In another move two years ago, Hanabusa lobbied for a bill that would save millions of government dollars by putting all public workers under the same health care plan. Bill 1044 passed in the Senate in 2001, despite opposition from union workers. Hanabusa says former Gov. Ben Cayetano credits her for the bill, which the Hawaii State Teachers Association also dubbed, the “Hanabusa-Saiki-Cayetano” bill. Even Republican Sen. Sam Slom sings her praises: “That takes a lot of guts – you get peer pressure from your party and from the unions,” he says. Slom appears with Hanabusa on Rick Hamada’s radio show on KHVH on Thursday mornings.
Says Slom, “We can have major disagreements on philosophy, but she has always told the truth. When she takes a position, she doesn’t do well with threats or possible extortion.”
-Cathy S. Cruz