Q&A: Sen. Brian Schatz

Honolulu talks with Sen. Brian Schatz about his new job, how the Senate really operates and what his plans are for the Islands.
Vice President Joe Biden swears in Sen. Schatz in the Senate chamber, as Schatz's wife, Linda Kwok Schatz looks on.

Photo Courtesy: the office of Senator Brian Schatz

HONOLULU Magazine: What are your top priorities as Hawaii’s new senator?

Brian Schatz: We need to ensure that the federal government continues to invest in the state of Hawaii in defense, in energy and in higher education and research. We’ve got some real assets that we’ve built over the past several decades and we’re going to continue to make the case in both the Congress and to the Obama administration that those investments ought to continue.

HM: Did you have any marching orders from Gov. Neil Abercrombie or the local Democratic Party when you were appointed?

BS: I wouldn’t use the words “marching orders,” but certainly I understand that the people of the state of Hawaii expect that we’ll work as a unified congressional delegation—that’s been one of the hallmarks of the delegation from Hawaii—and Hawaii, where appropriate, can lead the United States in terms of public policy. We’ve had some real success over the last couple of years in terms of increasing our clean energy generation. I’ve already spoken with my colleagues in the Senate about using Hawaii as a model for the rest of the United States in terms of moving away from our dependence on foreign oil.

HM: What is your working relationship with Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa?

BS: It’s very solid. We were colleagues in the state House and she was in the state Senate and we worked together through several campaign cycles. I have no doubt about our ability to work well together as a delegation.

HM: How much collaboration takes place between this new delegation of Hawaii legislators?

BS: We’re a unit, plain and simple. We understand the example that was set from delegations before us, especially because we’re so small and so far away, we just can’t afford to be divided. We’re already working together on issues related to defense, energy, Native Hawaiian rights and all other matters that are critical for Hawaii residents. There’s almost daily staff-to-staff contact and collaborating on what kinds of pieces of legislation to introduce together and how to coordinate our efforts.

HM: What’s surprised you so far about the realities of Congress?

BS: Despite the apparent acrimony, people are very kind to each other. I’ve been able to strike up some good relationships among Republican colleagues and have productive discussions. I think, at least on the Senate side, there is a sense of common purpose and we’re certainly hopeful that we’ll be able to find common ground. The House remains much more partisan, but, on the other hand, the Senate is notorious for moving at a glacial pace.

HM: What do you see having in common with Sen. Inouye, and what are your biggest differences?

BS: Oh, I won’t get into comparisons of that nature. My job is to work as hard as I can, and be an honest and competent representative of Hawaii’s interests.

HM: Is there anyone you’ve reached out to for advice or looked to for mentorship?

BS: Chuck Schumer from New York has been very kind to me and then, on the Republican side, I’ve had good conversations with Marco Rubio [from Florida] and Orrin Hatch [from Utah].

HM: How do you gauge your chances for reelection in 2014?

BS: I’ll be running for reelection, and we’re confident, but not over confident.

HM: What unfinished business or projects did you leave behind when you departed as lieutenant governor?

BS: I was working very hard on the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, a project that I will continue to be engaged in, but there’s certainly going to be a requirement for continued state leadership on moving Hawaii away from fossil energy.

HM: What piece of advice would you give Lt. Gov. Tsutsui, who has taken over your position?

BS: [Chuckles.] I think Lt. Gov. Tsutsui is going to do a great job and I think he’s got the right idea in terms of carving out some specific areas of jurisdiction where he can serve. He’s already got a strong relationship with the governor and also with members of the Legislature. My advice is to be himself and work hard and he’ll do just fine.

HM: You flew to D.C. on Air Force 1. What did you and President Obama talk about?

BS: We had two conversations but they were not in-depth policy discussions. He was being a good host and we had two informal chats, but not covering any weighty matters.

Did you know? Sen. Schatz sits on three Senate committees: Commerce, Energy and Natural Resources and Indian Affairs, the last one of which the late Sen. Daniel Inouye was also a member.