The Most Practical Man in Washington
At 43, one of the youngest members of the U.S. Senate, Brian Schatz, pictured in his Honolulu office, talks about adjusting to D.C., his bipartisan efforts and what he sees as the big issues of the new year
“IT’S SCHATZ,” heralded Honolulu Star-Advertiser Aug. 16, 2014. The words blazoned on the front page declared a decisive win for candidate Brian Schatz, Hawaii’s senior U.S. senator.
In the nation’s Capitol, The Washington Post reported his victory with the headline: “Who is Brian Schatz?” The New York Times answered: “a rising political star.”
Voters today still might be wondering about the “kid” who went from community causes to state leadership, then was suddenly ushered to the U.S. Senate, where revered Daniel K. Inouye prevailed for half a century.
Schatz (pronounced “shots”) was 40 years old, plucked from relative obscurity — the lieutenant governor’s office — when he was appointed by former Gov. Neil Abercrombie to succeed Inouye, who died in 2012.
His public service tracks include being lieutenant governor (2010-2012), chairman of Hawaii Democratic Party (2008-2010), CEO of Helping Hands Hawaii (2002-2010) and state House representative (1998-2006).
Schatz is one of the youngest U.S. senators at 43 today, with the average age of his colleagues 61.
As he returned recently for a holiday break, we chatted with the Punahou ’90 grad, who took an ordinary commercial flight home, bypassing a luxe ride on Air Force One with another Punahou alum named Barack Obama.
But evidently Schatz doesn’t need Air Force One to fly high in government. He personifies Hawaii’s new generation of leadership in Washington, D.C.
During freezing winters and the rest of the year, he is part of Team Hawaii, comprised of fellow Democrats U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono and U.S. Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and Mark Takai. All are relatively new faces at the federal level, succeeding experienced veterans such as Inouye, U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka, and former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, whom Schatz defeated in the 2014 Democratic primary.
Within hours of being appointed in 2012, Schatz and his family were in 30-degree Washington, D.C., for what he calls “the fastest two to three hours of our lives.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid welcomed him and introduced Vice President Joe Biden, who administered the oath of office.
Schatz arrived at a time when Congress was in a bitter fight over how to keep the nation from going over a “fiscal cliff” of budget cuts and tax hikes.
“This was day one on the job,” Schatz says, recalling the critical Senate votes needed to pass the American Tax Relief Act of 2012.
Also part of his Hawaii-to-Washington move, Schatz says was a “personal transition,” having never lived on the East Coast.
“I needed to contend with cold weather, get my bearings in Washington, understand where the grocery stores are, how to get my laundry done and the rest of it,” he says.
This fits Schatz’s desire to be a “principled and practical politician.” Can’t get more practical than grocery stores and laundry.
Another adjustment at the time was the Republican takeover of the Senate.
“Coming from (Democrat-dominant) Hawaii, this was unfamiliar territory for us,” Schatz says. “But that went more smoothly than I anticipated.
“The way the Senate is structured, the majority and minority have nearly equal rights. I spent a lot of time in the first few months developing bipartisan relationships, making the point that compromise need not always come from the ideological middle.
“There’s a long history of our country doing the right thing with liberals and conservatives coming together,” he says. “I wanted them to know that I was open for business.”
Compromise is not giving up one’s convictions, he contends.
“My No. 1 responsibility is to deliver for Hawaii,” he asserts. “Federal dollars are key to that, so being on the Appropriations Committee puts me in a position to ensure investments continue to come to Hawaii.
“We have a big and complicated federal budget,” he notes, “and anyone who comes in thinking they understand all of it is either much smarter than me or probably mistaken.”
But there’s no mistake about the latest budget. On Dec. 18, Congress approved a $1.14 trillion package that avoids a government shutdown and funds federal agencies through next fall.
It was a Christmas gift wrapped in bipartisan votes. The House approved the measure in a 316-113 vote. The Senate backed the bill 65-33, sending it to President Obama, who signed it into law before heading to Kailua for beachcombing, golf and shave ice.
Hawaii’s congressional delegation cheers spending increases in nearly all categories for the Aloha State. The deal allocates more than $469 million for military construction and infrastructure projects in the Islands. That’s an increase of more than $200 million from last year, Schatz notes.
“We were able to convey how critical it is to invest in Hawaii, as the Asia-Pacific rebalance becomes a reality,” he says. “Without Hawaii, there’s no viable Asia-Pacific strategy, and some of my colleagues have focused for a long time on Europe and the Middle East. We’re educating them on how important Asia is for our country, and how critical it is that Hawaii gets the federal investment necessary to execute our strategy.”
The omnibus bill combines 12 smaller measures into one.
“Some programs will see significant increases, but more than that, we have the stability of a two-year budgeting cycle with steady, predictable increases,” Hawaii’s senior senator points out. “This puts Hawaii on a positive trajectory for a couple of good years.
“We succeeded in terms of critical needs for Hawaii’s defense, transportation, health and educational needs, including full funding for the Native Hawaiian health program and the East-West Center,” he says.
From economic to environmental issues, there are many opportunities for citizens to engage in civic affairs and discussions. Yet most don’t.
Volunteering and voting are two of the most familiar forms of civic engagement. We know Hawaii’s dismal performance in both. Busy lives, struggling two-income families and just plain apathy keep many out of the civic arena.
“There’s a tendency to focus on the mechanics,” observes Schatz. “How do we make it easier to vote, testify and participate in the decision-making process?
“But at its core is the people’s distrust of institutions. Trust is at an all-time low for companies, government and business institutions. This is deeply harmful to the populace,” he asserts.
“I believe we can’t feed into the cynicism that nothing can work, and the-fix-is-in mentality that doesn’t solve problems.
“I want to be an example that it is possible to be principled and practical. We can’t change the American electorate overnight, but those who want to change the world, especially young constituents, can be shown the path to do so, bit by bit,” he suggests.
“In Judaism, there’s the principle of tikkun olam (perfecting the world),” says the Jewish-American legislator. “Every day you wake up to do your little bit to perfect the world. If all of us do that, then society works.”
The Japanese equivalent is the practice of kaizen, continuous improvement.
And improve we must, Schatz urges.
“The Congressional approval rating being at an all-time low is pretty well earned,” he says candidly. “The inability of Congress to perform its basic function is inexcusable. If we were an ‘F’ grade last year, I would give this session a low passing grade.
“At the minimum, we didn’t destroy the American economy,” he says.
“Cool head main t’ing,” da local boy suggests to extremists and obstructionists.
That certainly could apply to presidential candidates as well. The jousting and theatrics at the recent GOP debates confuse and frustrate voters, he contends.
Does it set the stage for a Democratic victory next November?
Schatz hopes so, predicting the first woman president in the Oval Office.
“I’m for Hillary (Clinton),” he declares. “It’s a dangerous and complicated world. We need the most qualified person to serve. No one doubts her toughness, and she articulates American values that make us proud on the world stage. She’s charting a progressive course to give people confidence that this country can be governed effectively again.
“We can’t be governed by fear — fear of terrorists, fear of other countries, even fear of the other party,” he states. “We must govern the United States by hope.”
As the new generation of leadership replaces the old guard, it must fly on the wings of hope, as Schatz has done. That can be both strategic and magical, as principled and practical politicians are out to prove.
Better get to know them. They are the new faces and voices of Hawaii by whom vital policies and funding for our Islands are determined.
And as for the “kid” who lives in Pauoa with wife Linda, son Tyler, 11, daughter Mia, 8, and dog Jupiter, grew up in Hawaii with parents Dr. Irwin and Barbara Schatz, and has three brothers Jake, Ed and twin Steve, that’s easy.
AMERICA AGENDA 2016
HERE ARE THE TOP ISSUES OF THE NEW YEAR, ACCORDING TO U.S. SEN. BRIAN SCHATZ:
1) Security. We’re adjusting to a new reality that terrorism is not isolated to a specific geographic location or tactic. We must determine a path to oversee a war of ideas that takes time, attention and financial resources.
2) Tolerance. What’s going to drive presidential election dialogue is whether we are a tolerant society. We have defined American leadership over the past 10 years as firepower. The false choice presented to us is being responsible for every military conflict in every corner of the world. America’s leadership is a global catalyst, so we must act responsibly and respectfully.
3) Homelessness. If we’re going to solve this problem, it’s probably a 10-year strategy because we are woefully short in the number of housing units. It will take public and private enterprise for a collective and sustained effort.
4) Energy. One of the greatest challenges of this generation is no longer about the fervent pleas of environmentalists and conservationists. Government must lead in energy-efficiency standards and tax incentives for improvements. Hawaii has shown its leadership in clean energy and is a model for the nation.
5) Economy. We must work to build an economy where everyone has a fair shot at making it, if they work hard and play by the rules. We must invest in the industries of the future and update workplace policies to account for the realities of the 21st century economy. Hardworking families shouldn’t be left behind by an outdated system.