Former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa gave up her seat and then lost a tight race to replace a beloved Hawaii senator who wanted her as his successor
HONOLULU — U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa didn't want to leave Washington when she gave up her House seat to run for the Senate two years ago.
But she hoped to fulfill the dying wish of U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, a beloved Hawaii Democrat who spent five decades in office and wanted her to take his place.
The governor, who had the power to appoint a successor after Inouye's death in 2012, picked his second-in-command, Brian Schatz, instead of Hanabusa. With the iconic senator's support propelling her, she challenged Schatz in the Democratic primary in 2014 but lost by less than a percentage point.
Now, with the death of the congressman who took her seat in the House, Hanabusa has a bittersweet opportunity to return to Washington and fulfill Inouye's wish — even if it's in a different congressional chamber.
"It wasn't meant to be, even if it was a very odd election," Hanabusa told The Associated Press recently about her failed Senate bid. "If I am to seriously consider how to best serve the people of Hawaii, it is probably using my skill sets in the House of Representatives."
She is largely seen as a shoo-in for the congressional seat, with her Democratic primary challengers and Republican opponent in the general election relatively unknown.
Hanabusa said she decided to run after U.S. Rep. Mark Takai called her in May to say he would not seek re-election. His pancreatic cancer had spread and he wanted her to try to win back her old seat, she said. Takai, 49, died in July.
"I really thought long and hard about it, because you make all these plans based on the fact that you're not in politics," she said.
Hanabusa, who served one term from 2011 to 2015, has spent the last year digging into local politics. She was an attorney for the Hawaii State Teachers Association and was recently named board chairman for Oahu's troubled rail project — a public works debacle many hoped she'd turn around, given more time.
In August's Democratic primary, Hanabusa is facing a much easier race than in 2014, when she was up against incumbent Schatz, who had held the seat for more than a year. She's also expected to glide through the November general election in a state where Republicans were outvoted 3-to-1 in the last presidential election.
"There is no question that she is going to be elected," said John Radcliffe, retired co-founder of lobbyist firm Capitol Consultants of Hawaii. "She's very competent, well-liked, and I think people in Hawaii know her to be one of our top public thinkers."
Radcliffe was a political consultant to then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie when Inouye died, encouraging him to appoint Schatz instead of Hanabusa. The longtime Democratic operative, who led unions and lobbying efforts in Hawaii for decades, said both were strong candidates, but he wanted the seat to go to someone younger than Hanabusa, who's now 65.
"I've always been a big supporter of Senator Inouye, in fact, revere him, and I know that he wanted her for that position, but ... you really need a delegation which is going to have significant longevity and look after Hawaii's interest on the basis of that kind of seniority," Radcliffe said.
Some voters still feel the sting of Abercrombie's decision to shirk the wishes of a beloved senator.
"I would have wanted her to go, since it was Inouye, because he's a respected person," said Laela Guerrero, a 45-year-old medical coder from Honolulu. "He actually stood by Hawaii, and everyone somehow trusted him."
But others were never swayed by Inouye's dying wish.
"It's supposed to be the voter's opinion who is in that seat," said Dave Kaai, 34, a Native Hawaiian college student and farmer.
Lei Ahu Isa, a Native Hawaiian and former state legislator, is more well-known than the other Democrats challenging Hanabusa, but she's not spending money to campaign.
"A lot of my friends are saying, 'Oh, my gosh, I didn't know you're running,'" Ahu Isa said.
If elected, Hanabusa wants to find ways to steer federal dollars to Hawaii, including funding to build two nuclear submarines a year and financing renewable energy projects in the military.
She plans to push legislation asking the federal government to reimburse Hawaii and other states for providing health care to citizens from Micronesia who live and work in the U.S. in exchange for military control in their region.
Hanabusa hopes return to her passion as a lawmaker, fulfilling what she believes was Inouye's wish for her to succeed.
"That's something that I will always have in my heart, and no one can take that away," she said.
She said she has put the unsuccessful Senate race behind her, but "you can never say never" about a future bid.