U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa formally announced today that she will challenge U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz in the Democratic primary next year, contending that she has the ability and experience to better serve Hawaii’s interests in Washington, D.C.
“We need someone there who can hit the ground running, who understands the issues, and understands how critical various types of positions are to Hawaii,” Hanabusa said in an interview. “And I believe that when you look at all the necessary skill sets to be effective in Washington, and in a legislative process, that it’s me.”
Hanabusa, 61, and Schatz, 40, are from different generations, but the congresswoman said she and the senator have the same “political age.” Hanabusa was elected to the state Senate in 1998, the same year Schatz was elected to the state House.
But Hanabusa said the difference is that she rose to leadership positions in the state Senate. She said her message to primary voters would be: “look at our experience, look at what we’re able to do, look at what we’re dealing with, look at what’s necessary to be successful in Washington, D.C.
“And the fact that I believe that I have shown that capability and I’ve also shown the ability to be recognized as someone who is potentially a spokesperson for Hawaii, and understands the major issues that we are faced with.”
Schatz was appointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie in December to replace the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, who, just before he died, had urged Abercrombie to choose Hanabusa as his replacement.
The election next year is to fill out the remainder of Inouye’s six-year term, which runs through 2016.
Schatz, because of his youth, has the potential to build seniority over a generation, like Inouye, who served in the Senate for a half century before he died at 88. But Hanabusa said Inouye’s value was not only his length of service, but in his ability, early in his career, to build relationships in Washington that could help Hawaii.
Hanabusa, who will be supported by many of Inouye’s allies, said it would be up to voters to determine how much of a factor Inouye’s legacy will play in the campaign.
“I’m not running for this position simply because that was what he wanted,” Hanabusa said. “That’s not the reason. I’m running because I believe that this is in the best interest of the state of Hawaii, and I can best serve in this capacity, and in this role.
“How each voter perceives it is going to be up to them.”
Hanabusa had considered a primary challenge to Abercrombie, but decided on the Senate because that is where she believes she could best serve the state.
Hanabusa, a labor attorney, was first elected to represent the Leeward Coast in the state Senate in 1998. As a state senator, she helped lead an investigation into the inequalities in special education spending at public schools before serving as the chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and as majority leader. She was the first woman chosen by her colleagues to serve as Senate president.
Hanabusa lost a special election in 2010 to fill out the remaining months of Neil Abercrombie’s term in urban Honolulu’s 1st Congressional District when Abercrombie resigned to run for governor. But Hanabusa defeated then-U.S. Rep. Charles Djou, a Republican who had won the special election, in the November 2010 general election. She defeated Djou in a rematch last November.
Hanabusa serves on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Natural Resources Committee.
The congresswoman is married to John Souza, a businessman and former state sheriff.
Bill Meheula, a spokesman for the Schatz campaign, said Schatz has already forged meaningful relationships during his four months in the Senate.
“As someone who grew up in Hawaii and today is raising his own family here, Senator Schatz is deeply invested in our state’s future,” Meheula said in a statement. “In his first few months in the Senate, he has forged meaningful relationships, leveraged his budding Senate seniority, advanced legislation, and fought for initiatives that will positively impact Hawaii and the people of our state. Throughout the next 16 months, his service as senator and his campaign will be about the kind of future we want for our families, our communities, and the next generation. We look forward to sharing the senator’s work and vision for Hawaii, and we welcome Representative Hanabusa to the race.”