U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz has been in office for more than a year, but he still gets awestruck being in the nation’s Capitol.

He talks about walking to the Senate floor for what he thinks will be a perfunctory vote, and seeing Vice President Joe Biden presiding. That’s when it hits him.

“If you walk by that Capitol dome and don’t get goosebumps,” Schatz said, “you’re in the wrong job.”

Schatz visited Civil Beat on Tuesday for a wide-ranging discussion on everything from climate change and college affordability to local values and his race against U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who is challenging him in the Aug. 9 Democratic primary.

Schatz was appointed to his position in December 2012 by Gov. Neil Abercrombie after the death of U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, who preferred that Hanabusa succeed him. Schatz was Hawaii’s lieutenant governor, and had a main focus on the state’s clean energy policy.

But as a U.S. senator, who faces a stiff primary challenge, his focal point has become the middle class, so much so that he now says he goes to bed and wakes up thinking about how to keep it from disappearing.

“We see what’s happening with the middle class nationally, but it’s exceptionally severe in the state of Hawaii,” Schatz said. “This is, in my view, the best place in the world to live, but it’s not very easy to make it.”

Hawaii is one of the most expensive places in the country, whether you’re filling up the gas tank or trying to buy milk. The median price of a home is $679,000.

As a freshman senator in a hyper-partisan Congress, Schatz faces steep challenges when trying to convince his colleagues to make life more livable in paradise. Not only is Hawaii far detached from the rest of the country, but it’s also one of the least populous states.

But Schatz sees various leverage points where he can exert influence, not the least of which are tourism and the military. He chairs the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Tourism, Competitiveness and Innovation, and despite proposed cuts to the defense budget, Hawaii still plays an integral role in the U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific region.

“We are the most isolated populated place on the planet and we have depended for a very, very long time on continued federal investment,” Schatz said. “We did really well in the last appropriations process. There were a number of initiatives that are important to Hawaii that President Obama and his administration were strongly supportive of. And while they couldn’t be as supportive as we had hoped, we were able to plus up the number.”

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz
PF Bentley/Honolulu Civil Beat

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz faces a challenge from U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.

More Money, Less Cost

Unlike Inouye, who worked in an era of earmarks and had control over the federal purse strings as the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Schatz will have to be more creative in how he works to boost Hawaii’s economy as well as its middle class.

Specifically, Schatz said he will take aim at making college more affordable. One way to do that, he says, is by reducing federal subsidies for online colleges that have low graduation rates. He would direct those federal dollars to other institutions that “are providing real value.”

He’s already joined his colleagues in the push to expand Social Security and to extend federal unemployment insurance to those who have lost their jobs. Affordable housing and providing more low-income tax credits are other areas he thinks he can have some influence.

Schatz also underscored the need to make the U.S. and Hawaii less dependent on non-renewable fuel sources. For Hawaii, this is all the more important because the state is the most dependent in the nation on oil.

“The cost of energy in the state of Hawaii is a killer,” Schatz said. “It’s a killer for individuals, but it’s also a killer for institutions and businesses and hotels.”

Schatz also took the opportunity Tuesday to highlight his co-sponsorship of the Restore Honor to Service Members Act, which would provide recognition and benefits in particular to gay and lesbian veterans who were dishonorably discharged or otherwise let go under the former “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy.

Schatz signed on to the bill with fellow Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. A version of the bill was first introduced in the House by Reps. Mark Pocan, of Wisconsin, and Charlie Rangel, of New York, both of whom are Democrats.

“Since we have moved on from this dark period as a matter of public policy,” Schatz said, “the final act in terms of making it right is making sure that these people that did serve honorably are given their full veteran benefits.”

He estimates that there could be as many as 100,000 service men and women nationwide who could benefit from passage of the law.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz
PF Bentley/Honolulu Civil Beat

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz says he wants to focus his efforts to help the middle-class.

A Formidable Challenger

Schatz, of course, needs to stay in office if he wants to see any of his many goals come to fruition.

Hanabusa is a formidable candidate, not only because she’s a sitting congresswoman, but also because she has more name recognition than Schatz despite the fact the two were both first elected to public office in 1998.

Although Schatz is the incumbent senator, Hanabusa was a long-time labor attorney before heading to the Hawaii Legislature where she eventually became Senate president.

Schatz, on the other hand, had a lower profile in the Hawaii House, and aside from a stint as the chair of the Democratic Party of Hawaii held the unglamorous position of lieutenant governor.

Civil Beat’s polls have shown that likely Democratic Primary voters are more familiar with Hanabusa than they are Schatz. Still, the two are essentially neck and neck at this point in the campaign.

While Hanabusa has argued that she is the more experienced legislator — she first went to Congress in 2010 — Schatz is firing back, saying he now has a record that voters can judge for themselves.

“There are real differences between the two of us,” Schatz said. “This no longer has to be a theoretical exercise about how we might serve within the walls the Congress. I now have a record. She has a record.”

Schatz pointed to Hanabusa’s vote to extend the controversial Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which gives government broad powers related to intelligence gathering. He voted against the measure.

The senator also noted Hanabusa’s vote against a two-year federal budget agreement that the rest of Hawaii’s delegation, including Sen. Mazie Hirono and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, favored.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz
PF Bentley/Honolulu Civil Beat

‘There are real differences between us,’ U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz says about his opponent U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.

Schatz Won’t Be ‘Caricature’

Although it’s still five months to the primary, Schatz addressed some of the criticisms the Hanabusa campaign has lodged against him, particularly those alleging he’s beholden to mainland interests.

He brought up his recent endorsement from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which lauded the senator for his stance on expanding Social Security benefits.

The PCCC, which has raised more than $2 million in the current election cycle to support progressive candidates throughout the country, also approves of Schatz’s position on climate change.

Hanabusa’s campaign, however, went “ballistic” over the endorsement, as local blogger and Civil Beat columnist Ian Lind reported.

After the endorsement was announced, Hanabusa’s campaign press secretary, Peter Boylan, sent out a call for donations, saying the campaign needed help to “fight back against Mainland special interests trying to appoint our leaders and change our Hawaii.”

Boylan was referring specifically to the PCCC and the fact that the organization was in Hawaii to hold training sessions for its progressive membership.

Schatz, who has lived in Hawaii since he was 2 years old and graduated from Punahou, reacted strongly to that insinuation.

“Voters in Hawaii are beyond all that,” he said. “We won’t allow them to turn me into a caricature.”

Contact Nick Grube via email at nick@civilbeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @NickGrube.

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