President Donald Trump’s controversial tenure has caused a tectonic change in the political landscape, with Democratic voters more energized than at any time in recent memory, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said during a wide-ranging question-and-answer session Wednesday in the Civil Beat newsroom.

Schatz likened resistance to Trump today to the Watergate, Vietnam and civil rights eras of the 1960s and ’70s, other times when grassroots activism left political leaders running to try to catch up.

“It’s absolutely invigorating to see people so engaged,” said Schatz, home in Hawaii during a legislative break in Washington.

Schatz said his constituents are following “every twist and turn” in political developments, peppering his office with questions and calls about issues that would have drawn little or no attention in the past. His town hall meeting in Kaimuki in April, for example, drew more than 400 people.

“All of this is new to all of us,” Schatz said, referring to a talk he had with veteran New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer following the Women’s March on Washington in January, which was attended by more than 150 women from Hawaii. Schumer told him that it was impossible to direct or coordinate this kind of grassroots activism because it has its own momentum.

“We should coordinate where possible, we should listen, we should give information, but we don’t run this thing,” Schatz recalled Schumer telling him. “’We’re the tip of the spear in the legislative context.”

In response to the heightened attention from voters, Schatz has found it necessary to communicate more frequently with them, turning to social media tools like Twitter and Facebook.

“They want to hear from me … they want to know I’m in the fight,” Schatz said. “This is part of the job now.”

He said that Republicans have been unsuccessful so far in attacking federal programs favored by Democrats because they have become politically immobilized while Democrats have been emboldened.

“They don’t even have bills to put on the floor,” he said. “They’re just not legislating.”

He said the inquiry into Russian interference in the presidential election is moving forward, but slowly. He said that he considered the appointment of a special counsel, Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, to be “an encouraging sign,” but that Democrats are not going to push hard to hold the president responsible until they are sure they have enough Republican votes to do it successfully.

“We don’t want to force it, to crystalize it along party lines,” he said.

Schatz discussed a number of issues that have immediate impact on Hawaii, including the federal budget, North Korea, Native Hawaiian affairs and military spending. Schatz serves on the appropriations, banking, commerce and Indian affairs committees.

Senator Brian Schatz at Honolulu Civil Beat wide. 31 may 2017

Schatz meets with reporters and editors at Civil Beat on Wednesday.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Normally a presidential budget proposal is viewed as the starting point for a financial plan to run the federal government, but Trump’s final proposal for fiscal year 2018 has drawn scorn from both Republicans and Democrats.

The administration’s budget proposal was “so draconian that it was clarifying,” Schatz said. “It’s not without worries, but the Trump budget will not be enacted.”

He said that funding for Native Hawaiian housing could be curtailed if the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands doesn’t make better progress using the money it has already been granted.

In the final appropriation for fiscal year 2017, completed in March, he said, “We did surprisingly well,” he said. “I think we’ll do OK again.”

Schatz said he was confident military spending would remain high in Hawaii, noting that Secretary of Defense James Mattis is in Hawaii this week en route to talks with Asian allies. He said that Pentagon officials are aware of Hawaii’s strategic importance to the United States.

Schatz said that while tensions with North Korea are escalating, there is no immediate threat of a missile attack on Hawaii.

He said he was pleased by the successful missile intercept test conducted by the U.S. on Tuesday, which he called a “new kill vehicle.” He said the U.S. needs more radar and more missile interceptors, and that he is in close communication about the evolving situation with Adm. Harry Harris of the Pacific Command, which is based in Honolulu.

“My job is to secure resources,” Schatz said. “They’ll tell us what they need.”

For now, he said, improved diplomatic efforts are needed to reduce the risk of hostilities with North Korea.

Schatz hopes a Democratic Party recovery is in the near future, partially because of the grassroots dynamism he sees. “It’s not out of the question that we could have both chambers (of Congress) by 2020,” he said.

In the short term, however, Democratic prospects are not as bright, Schatz said. He noted that next year 10 Democratic senators are running for re-election in states that Trump won in November, so “it would be a reach” for Democrats to make much progress in the Senate in 2018.

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