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A prominent labor lawyer, Colleen Hanabusa served in the state senate for a dozen years before winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010. After leaving the House to run unsuccessfully for the Senate, she returned to Congress in a 2016 special election following the death of Hawaii Representative Mark Takai. During her four terms on Capitol Hill, she advocated for her state’s interests at every turn. “I never lose sight of the fact that I represent Hawaii,” she said in 2011. “So my short-term goal is to do whatever I can to ensure that the economic growth in Hawaii continues.”1

Colleen Hanabusa was born on May 4, 1951, in Honolulu, Hawaii, to June and Isao Hanabusa, gas station proprietors in Waianae. Because her parents devoted most of their time to the family business, Hanabusa was raised largely by her maternal grandmother.2 She graduated from Honolulu’s St. Andrew’s Priory School in 1969, and attended the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa where she earned degrees in economics and sociology in 1973, a master’s degree in sociology in 1975, and a law degree in 1977.

Hanabusa spent 20 years as an attorney in private practice, and her career as a labor lawyer led to a successful campaign for the state senate in 1998. During her 12 years in state government, Hanabusa focused on education and health care issues, and pushed for civil service reforms. In 2007 Hanabusa became the first woman to lead either of Hawaii’s legislative chambers when she was elected president of the senate. During her tenure as senate president, which lasted until 2010, she endeavored to rectify budget woes by instituting new taxes. She also used her influence to improve Hawaii’s special-education programs and set up charter schools for children in need.3

During her career in the state legislature, Hanabusa also set her sights on Congress. In 2003 she lost a special election to the U.S. House from a Honolulu district, and in 2006 she failed to capture the Democratic nomination for a House seat representing Hawaii’s outer islands. Four years later, when Representative Neil Abercrombie resigned from the House to serve as governor of Hawaii, Hanabusa lost an open special election conducted without a primary and solely by mail-in ballots. Hanabusa split the Democratic vote with former Representative Ed Case, and because the race lacked a runoff, Republican Honolulu city councilman Charles Djou won with a 39-percent plurality.4

In a rematch only five months later, Hanabusa faced Djou in the 2010 general election for a seat in the 112th Congress (2011–2013). In a difficult election cycle for Democrats across the country, Hanabusa supported the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), citing the provisions in the bill that guaranteed Medicare benefits. And she countered Djou’s attacks on federal spending, praising stimulus money provided for Medicare patients in the state. She also called for the repeal of tax cuts for the wealthy passed during the George W. Bush administration.5 On Election Day, Hanabusa won with 53 percent of the vote.6 House Democrats lost over 60 seats in the midterm election that year, but Hanabusa’s win stood out among the many Republican victories. “The wave was coming, but it stopped short of us,” Hanabusa said, attributing part of her election to Hawaii’s support for its native son President Barack Obama.7

In the House, Hanabusa was assigned to the Armed Services and Natural Resources Committees. Both panels dealt with issues important to her district which included a large military presence and multiple national parks. Operating in the minority party, Hanabusa also focused on labor and infrastructure issues. She worked alongside Senator Daniel Ken Inouye in the 112th Congress to direct grants to Hawaii’s veterans and pursue relief for Filipino veterans of World War II and their families.8 She testified before the Budget Committee in favor of federal funding for the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and for the East-West Center, a diplomatic research think tank established by former Hawaiian Senator Spark Masayuki Matsunaga to inspire peaceful dialogue across the Pacific. And she regularly defended the ACA on the floor.9

Hanabusa also worked alongside Hawaii Senator Daniel Kahikina Akaka advocating for passage of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Reauthorization Act (NAHASDA) of 2014, which provided block grants through a partnership between tribal governments and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.10 Hanabusa’s district included many Native Hawaiians who relied on federal land grants for housing. The housing section of NAHASDA had expired in 2005, and although Native Hawaiians had access to limited grants through the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920, NAHASDA offered broader options for assistance. The bill passed by voice vote in the House, but it did not clear the Senate.11

When Senator Akaka announced his retirement, Hanabusa briefly considered running for his seat in the 2012 primary against her House colleague Mazie Hirono. Ultimately, however, Hanabusa surmised that their candidacies would split the Democratic vote in a repeat of what had happened in her 2010 special election and she decided not to seek the nomination. Running instead for re-election to her House seat, Hanabusa again bested Djou that November, winning 54 percent of the vote.12 A month later, in December 2012, Senator Inouye died from respiratory complications. Inouye’s staff insisted that he had handpicked Hanabusa to be his successor, sending a letter to Governor Abercrombie making his wish known. Abercrombie, however, appointed Hawaii’s Lieutenant Governor, Brian Emanuel Schatz, to fill Inouye’s unexpired term. Hanabusa stated that she respected “the process and the governor’s right to appoint a successor” but hinted she would run against Schatz in the next election.13

Without Inouye or Akaka in the Senate, Hanabusa took the lead on their shared legislative agenda. In the 113th Congress (2013–2015), for instance, she re-introduced Akaka’s bill for Native Hawaiian self-government, a right negotiated by many mainland tribes but long denied to Native Hawaiians. After Inouye’s death and Akaka’s retirement, Hawaii saw a steep drop in influence on the Hill, leading to canceled projects and a decline in funding, including $46 million for a new military runway at Kona International Airport and $7.5 million set aside for a new government bio-lab. Hanabusa worked to draw attention to Hawaii’s importance to America’s security and international relations. “We are in the beginning stages of America’s increased focus on Asia and the Pacific,” she said. “Hawaii can benefit from the opportunity to stand as America’s most forward state in the region.”14

In 2014 Hanabusa challenged Schatz in the Democratic primary for a seat in the Senate rather than run for re-election to the House.15 During the campaign, her critics tried to argue that at age 62, she should make way for a younger candidate who might enjoy a long run of service much like Inouye. “It’s almost like saying that somebody would be anointed for 40 years,” she declared. In the August primary, Hanabusa lost to Schatz, who had picked up several prominent endorsements, by only 1,769 votes.16 A dangerous tropical storm had delayed the vote in two precincts and led to a protracted count process. Although Hanabusa originally requested a further delay so the effected communities could recover from the storm, she decided not to challenge the final vote a week later.17

After the election, Hanabusa focused on passing NAHASDA. She defended the bill as one of her last acts in Congress, echoing Akaka, “[I]t is how we define and how we treat our native people that makes us a better Nation and a great Nation.”18 Although the bill passed by voice vote in the House, it never made it out of committee in the Senate. At the end of her term, Hanabusa returned to Honolulu and resumed practicing law.19

In 2016, before losing his battle with cancer, Representative Mark Takai announced he would not seek re-election to the House. After Takai’s death, Hanabusa announced her candidacy for the open seat in the remainder of the 114th Congress (2015–2017) and for the full term to the 115th Congress (2017–2019).20 The state of Hawaii held both elections on the same day: Hanabusa won the special election with 61 percent of the vote, and the general election to the 115th Congress with 68 percent of the vote.21 Hanabusa took her seat on November 14, 2016.22 She returned to the Armed Services and Natural Resources Committees, and joined the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology as well. Although Democrats remained in the minority, Hanabusa did have a notable legislative success: her bill to provide for a new display to honor Pacific Theater veterans at the Pearl Harbor monument in Honolulu became law in May 2018.23

In early September 2017, Hanabusa announced her intention to challenge incumbent Hawaii Governor David Ige in the Democratic primary. On January 13, 2018, a false ballistic missile alert terrified the state and Hanabusa’s campaign criticized the governor for what she called “a void in terms of leadership.” Using her seat in Congress, she also introduced a bill to review and revise Hawaii’s alert system under federal guidance to prevent future false alarms.24 But Ige’s response to two natural disasters that spring—the eruption of volcano Kilauea and flooding on the island of Kauai—seemed enough to satisfy voters during the August primary. Hanabusa secured 43.4 percent of the vote to Ige’s 50.2 percent. She conceded on August 11, 2018, and finished out her term in the House.25


1Derrick DePledge, “Hanabusa Takes Seat on Capitol Hill,” 6 January 2011, Honolulu Star-Advertiser: n.p.

2“Biographies—Colleen Hanabusa,” 15 January 2011, National Journal: 18–19.

3“Hawaii’s Race for Congress,” 16 April 2010, Honolulu Advertiser: A20; “Biographies—Colleen Hanabusa.”

4Derrick DePledge, “Hawaii May Hold a Special Congressional Election in May,” 5 January 2010, Honolulu Star-Advertiser: n.p.; Stu Woo, “U.S. News: Republican Wins Hawaii Seat,” 24 May 2010, Wall Street Journal: n.p.

5B. J. Reyes, “Djou and Hanabusa Show Different Views on Medicare and Social Security,” 22 October 2010, Honolulu Star-Advertiser: n.p.

6Jim Dooley, “Exclusive Report: Close Ties Between Congressional Candidate Colleen Hanabusa and Ko Olina Developer Rake in Funds,” 28 October 2010, Hawaii Reporter: n.p.; B. J. Reyes, “GOP Ad Attacks Hanabusa’s Husband,” 26 October 2010, Honolulu Star-Advertiser: n.p.

7B. J. Reyes, “Hanabusa Sweeps Districts,” 4 November 2010, Honolulu Star-Advertiser: n.p.; Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,”; Mark Niesse, “Democrat Colleen Hanabusa Wins Hawaii Race for Congress,” 15 November 2010, Asian Reporter: n.p.

8Filipino Veterans Family Reunification Act, H.R. 966, 113th Cong. (2013); H.R. 1855, 113th Cong. (2013).

9Hearing before the House Committee on the Budget, Member’s Day, 112th Cong., 1st sess. (30 March 2011): 75–79.

10Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Reauthorization Act (NAHASDA) of 2014, H.R. 4277, 113th Cong. (2014).

11Congressional Record, House, 113th Cong., 2d sess. (2 December 2014): 8252–8253.

12“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present”; Derrick DePledge, “Hanabusa Weighs U.S. Senate Run; Rents Apartment in District,” 10 June 2011, Honolulu Star-Advertiser: n.p.; Sean Sullivan, “The Case for Colleen Hanabusa,” 18 December 2012, Washington Post: n.p.

13Kyle Trygstad, “Hawaii: Abercrombie Appoints Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz to Senate,” 26 December 2012, Roll Call: n.p.

14Colleen Hanabusa, “Hanabusa to Work on Armed Services, Positioning for Asia-Pacific Pivot,” 6 January 2013, Honolulu Star-Advertiser: n.p.; Richard Borreca, “In Inouye’s Absence, State Loses Big Federal Projects,” 7 April 2013, Honolulu Star-Advertiser: n.p.

15Richard Borreca, “For Hanabusa, Last Days with Inouye Instructive,” 20 April 2014, Honolulu Star-Advertiser: n.p.

16Sean Sullivan, “Schatz: Hanabusa’s Age Should Not be an Issue in Hawaii Senate Race,” 1 April 2014, Washington Post: n.p.

17Maya Rhodan, “Hawaii Democratic Senate Primary Finally Ends As Rep. Colleen Hanabusa Concedes,” 20 August 2014, Time,

18Congressional Record, House, 113th Cong., 2nd sess. (2 December 2014): 8253.

19Duane Shimogawa, “Former Hawaii Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa Forms New Law Company,” 26 May 2015, Pacific Business News,

20Cathy Bussewitz, “Former US Rep. Colleen Hanabusa Announces Congressional Run,” 2 June 2016, Washington Times,

21“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

22Congressional Record, House, 114th Cong., 2nd sess. (14 November 2016): H6134.

23Admiral Lloyd R. “Joe” Vasey Pacific War Commemorative Display Establishment Act of 2018, PL 115-170, 132 Stat. 1286.

24Ian Lovett, “Hawaii’s Fake Missile Creates Real Political Fallout in Governor’s Race,” 23 January 2018, Wall Street Journal,; Authenticating Local Emergencies and Real Threats Act of 2018, H.R. 4965, 115th Cong. (2018).

25“Primary Election 2018—State of Hawaii—Statewide,” state of Hawaii office of elections, accessed 27 June 2019,; “Ige Wins Hawaii Democratic Governor Primary,” 12 August 2019, Associated Press.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Colleen Hanabusa" in Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Congress, 1900-2017. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of the Historian and the Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Publishing Office, 2018.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Armed Services
  • House Committee - Natural Resources
  • House Committee - Science, Space, and Technology
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