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Key union supports Schatz, while Hanabusa has Inouye

Honolulu Star-Advertiser article on June 18, 2013

Key union supports Schatz, while Hanabusa has Inouye

By Richard Borreca

The U.S. Senate campaign between Democrats U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz is picking up with the weekend announcement that Hawaii's biggest union, the Hawaii Government Employees Association, backed Schatz.

While no candidate has ever won with only labor support, winning the endorsement of a big labor union in the nation's most unionized state is a good thing.

For Schatz, the endorsement boosts his campaign in several ways.

First, it raises his political standing. Being the incumbent U.S. senator of course helps, but Schatz is mostly an unknown commodity and getting linked to big labor will bring strong new associations.

Second, the HGEA can be a financially generous donor to its friends. Since 2010, the HGEA has given Schatz $7,500 for his state campaign for lieutenant governor. In comparison, the union gave Hanabusa only $500 in her last state Senate campaign.

Without much discussion, Schatz has built up a base of unions willing to support him, and the issue of being a pro-labor politician is not going to get you black marks in Hawaii.

For Hanabusa, the campaign is at something of a crossroads. For it to go forward, she will have to do more to start a discussion about why she wants the Senate seat.

While Hanabusa is just as ambitious as Schatz, she has yet to flesh out a reason for the promotion from the House to the Senate.

Hawaii's political food chain balances two spots at its top: governor and U.S. senator. Reaching one of those tiers is what it is all about.

The routes taken by Hanabusa and Schatz could not have been more different, although they both were first elected in 1998.

Schatz progressed with little controversy and never held a major leadership position in the Legislature. Hanabusa, in contrast, made an impact from her first year when she organized the votes to reject Margery Bronster's second term as attorney general. Hanabusa went on to champion a series of public worker reforms also supported by former Gov. Ben Cayetano. The public unions responded by helping defeat a number of members of Hanabusa's coalition.

Then, as Senate president, she was instrumental in the attempts to rescue the Hawaii Superferry and worked on some of the first civil union legislation.

Today, her strongest political asset will be her close relationship with the late U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye and the political support she is likely to inherit from that.

Running a statewide campaign is always difficult because you have to set up separate campaign networks on all the islands. Hawaii island actually requires two networks: one for Hilo and another for Kona.

Schatz's statewide Democratic primary win for lieutenant governor in 2010 was partially because of his organizational ability and partially because he was running in a crowded field with several other well-known politicians and came out on top with 35 percent, just 83,000 votes.

The HGEA can give Schatz a lot of support in organizing campaign field offices across the state.

In contrast, Hanabusa will have a ready-made network of Inouye supporters, but it will be her job to both motivate them and convince them to turn out.

Finally, the open question before Schatz and Hanabusa is the decidedly different composition of Democratic primary voters. It is a political active subset of Hawaii's voter base with many vocal and strident groups.

How the pair reflects the concerns of those groups will be both the biggest challenge and the most reliable way of winning in 2014.

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