Monday, May 17, 1999

Fresh attitude

By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin
Freshman senators, clockwise from left, Jonathan Chun,
Bob Nakata, Jan Buen, Colleen Hanabusa and David
Matsuura gather once a week at Cafe Laniakea.

Five first-term state senators
take different paths to office
then unite to overcome
political adversity

By Craig Gima


One is the daughter of a former labor leader, another the son of a former state senator. There's a labor attorney involved in politics behind the scenes and a former county government attorney who got involved in politics after lobbying the Legislature last year for privatization.

The fifth -- the only one who has held elected office before -- is a minister and an environmental and social activist.

They are, respectively, Sens. Jan Buen (D, Waihee), David Matsuura (D, Hilo), Colleen Hanabusa (D, Waianae), Jonathan Chun (D, Lihue) and Bob Nakata (D, Kaneohe).

Together, they are known in the state Senate as the "five freshmen," and despite their diverse backgrounds and sometimes opposing views on issues, they have bonded into a social and political clique.

"The veterans cannot believe we're all together," said Buen. "They shake their heads. They're puzzled with us."

"People will have a difficult time figuring us out because they don't understand how we can be so different yet have a common bond of some sort, and they've expected us to fall apart by now," Hanabusa said.

Despite their freshman status, the five senators made their mark on the 1999 Legislature with two actions -- an attempted coup against leaders in the Senate and the vote against the confirmation of Attorney General Margery Bronster.

"Had the group not voted in opposition to Bronster for each of our respective reasons, they (the public) may have viewed us as maybe the group that represents change and the future, but because we didn't vote for Bronster, there is a public sentiment out there writing us off as no better than anyone else," Hanabusa said. "But we've got three more years."

There were six new faces in the Senate this year, and to get there, five of them defeated incumbent senators. All felt they were elected with a mandate for change.

"When I first started, I wanted to come here and deliver for the people," Buen said. "I saw families going through foreclosure. They were suffering."

"I was hopeful that the Senate would do good things, especially with the unanimity around doing something about the economy, but that very quickly turned to apprehension when we did not unify around a solid set of bills," Nakata said.

No respect

Nakata, Hanabusa and Chun were given leadership positions in the Senate, but said other veteran senators did not respect their ideas.

"It's a fraternity," Hanabusa said. "They want to treat you like freshmen, and they want to make you feel like you have to pay your dues before you can be on any kind of equal footing, before anyone has to take anything that you say seriously."

She said one senator came into her office and told her that she was the kind of freshman that "under normal circumstances they would have taken great pleasure in smashing down."

Outcasts retaliate

Those attempts to put the five freshmen in their place were part of the reason they tried to reorganize the Senate in the middle of the session, but the effort did not start out as a coup attempt.

"There were a lot of rumblings going on," Matsuura said, and at one point, Chun was accused by others in the leadership of trying to unseat them.

"It was like an attack on one of our own," Matsuura said. "If they are going to push, if someone pushes you, you gotta fight back."

Rather than back down -- and in frustration with key Senate leaders -- Matsuura said the freshmen began their first attempt to reorganize the Senate.

The failed coup brought the five freshmen closer, but it also helped push the sixth, Lorraine Inouye (D, Hamakua), away from the group.

"I've always believed in teamwork, being a consensus builder," Inouye said. She said the five freshmen have become more of a political faction than part of the overall Senate team.

"I think they have a long way to go yet with this process," she said.

But Sen. Sam Slom (R, Hawaii Kai) praised the group's independence.

"I think that they've indicated that they are not going to accept business as usual in the Senate and the Democratic hierarchy and that they are willing to not only discuss the issues, but make their own coalitions," Slom said.

Even Slom agreed that the freshmen have to learn to get along with the more senior senators.

"They have power and they have some clout, but not all by themselves," he said.

Inouye said she is still struggling with the decision of the five freshmen to vote against confirming Bronster and why four of the five voted against the confirmation of Budget Director Earl Anzai. Inouye voted yes for both.

Resentment remains

Deep feelings and divisions still linger in the Senate over the Bronster vote. Critics of the freshmen say their push for change has disrupted the institution.

"They came in with this swagger," one senator said. "They swaggered themselves into the Bronster mess."

The five freshmen had different reasons for voting against Bronster. Hanabusa was an early opponent because of the way the attorney general's office handled the challenge to the general election and what she saw as inaction and a lack of information on the ceded lands settlement with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

Nakata also was leaning "no" early over Bronster's firing of water commission attorney William Tam. The other three cited what they saw as a lack of support for teachers involved in the Felix consent decree and a lack of support for departments by the attorney general's office.

The five colleagues meet once a week for breakfast at Cafe Laniakea in the YWCA across the street from Iolani Palace. That's where they discuss issues and see if there is something all of them can support.

"I think that if you can get the five of us to agree on something and move it forward, it should be palatable to the rest of the Senate given our diverse background," Hanabusa said.

Nakata, Labor Committee chairman, will be a key player in what is likely to be the most important issue in next year's Legislature -- civil service reform.

Morning brainstorming

Those breakfast meetings, Hanabusa said, will give Nakata a chance to hear two sides of the issue -- her perspective as a labor lawyer and Chun's perspective as a former attorney for government.

Other issues that the freshmen senators want to tackle in their sophomore year include problems with the state Health Fund, a ceded lands settlement and increasing the availability of venture capital in Hawaii, Hanabusa said.

To get things done, Chun said the freshmen know they will have to improve their ties with other senators.

"Now that the freshmen know how to work together within our own group, we need to know how to expand that and work with other people," he said.


The 'Freshmen Five'


Sen. David Matsuura

District 2 (South Hilo, Puna)
Bullet Position: Vice chairman, Government Operations and Housing
Bullet Age: 36
Bullet Occupation: Flower grower, manager Umikoa Ranch


Sen. Jan Buen

District 4 (North/West Maui, Molokai, Lanai)
Bullet Position: Vice chairwoman, Economic Development
Bullet Age: 56
Bullet Occupation: Employee relations, Maui Electric Co.


Sen. Jonathan Chun

District 7 (South Kauai, Niihau)
Bullet Position: Majority floor leader
Bullet Age: 42
Bullet Occupation: Attorney


Sen. Colleen Hanabusa

District 21 (Waianae, Maili, Makaha)
Bullet Position: Chairwoman, Water Land and Hawaiian Affairs
Bullet Age: 48
Bullet Occupation: Attorney


Sen. Bob Nakata

District 23 (Kaneohe, Kahuku, Heeia)
Bullet Position: Chairman, Labor Committee
Bullet Age: 57
Bullet Occupation: Minister

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