After her fourth attempt at winning a congressional election, Democrat Colleen Hanabusa on Wednesday began representing urban Honolulu as a member of the U.S. House.
But Hanabusa faces a daunting task. She is a liberal freshman in an institution that tends to ignore newcomers, and a member of a minority Democratic caucus that will wield little control over the affairs of the Republican-led House.
She’s also entering office during an era in which spending cuts appear to be valued more than high-profile government programs. For example, she probably can’t count on bringing home the bacon in the form of "earmarks" — congressionally directed spending that GOP House leaders have vowed to banish.
Still, Hanabusa said Wednesday she expects there eventually will be more compromises and fewer conflicts than many anticipate.
"What I expect to see is that, as we get down to the wire, that you’re going to see compromises struck just like you did in (December’s) lame-duck session," she said in a telephone interview. "I anticipate that irrespective of how (Republicans) may feel, that in fact the reality will be something else."
Besides, Hanabusa noted, the Democrat-led U.S. Senate and Democratic President Barack Obama can block unwanted proposals passed by the GOP-led House.
The 59-year-old Hanabusa, a former state Senate president, was sworn at the Capitol along with eight other Democratic freshman, 82 new Republican members and scores of returning lawmakers.
Her path to the House has been long and strewn with defeats.
Her first bid was in a 2003 special election for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District. She finished third with 8 percent of the vote.
Three years later, she narrowly lost to Mazie Hirono in the Democratic primary for the same seat, and Hirono went on to win the general election.
Last May, in an essentially three-candidate special election for the 1st Congressional District seat that had been vacated by now-Gov. Neil Abercrombie, Hanabusa finished second behind Republican Charles Djou.
But in November, she defeated Djou by winning 53 percent of the vote to take the seat back.
As such, she became one of only nine new Democrats to win a House seat, among the smallest freshman class either party has ever sent to Capitol Hill.
Some have dubbed them the "Mighty Nine." Hanabusa said the group prefers the moniker "Noble Nine."
"We are a very unique group and a group that reflects really the diversity of that which makes our nation," she added.
University of Hawaii political science professor Neal Milner said being a newbie will make Hanabusa’s Capitol Hill life a bit difficult. But being a liberal in a conservative-controlled House will make it even more so, he said.
Hanabusa "isn’t going to be able to influence it very much — and not because of her own individual skills but because she’s a minority member in a House where the thrust seems to be to move to the right," Milner added.
Nonetheless, Hanabusa said she has already started breaking the ice with GOP members, particularly those who mentioned to her that they were married or vacationed in Hawaii, or served at a Hawaii military facility.
"So I told the ones who served at Schofield (Barracks) that, ‘Hey, when we need help with any kind of military appropriations, I’m coming to see you,’" she said. "No matter what, it’s all going to become a matter of relationships."