Civil Beat sat down with both the Republican and Democratic lieutenant governor candidates to capture their perspective on a range of issues and influences. Both interviews lasted about 25 minutes.
Democrat Brian Schatz spoke at Neil Abercrombie‘s campaign headquarters at Ward Warehouse about what inspired him to get involved in politics, what lessons he has learned and how an Abercrombie-Schatz administration would operate.
Chad Blair: Do you recall when you first knew you first knew that you wanted to be in politics? Maybe a specific incident or a political figure or a speech? I know your father was an inspiration but I wonder if there was a(snaping of fingers) — whoa! Light bulb went off. I’d like to be in politics!
Brian Schatz: Well, I was running a not-for-profit environmental organization and we didn’t do much in politics. But some of the work brought us to the Legislature and I went to testify at a committee hearing and actually there were a number of legislators who were not particularly receptive to what we had to say. Members of the public. And one particular legislator fell asleep during the hearing. And I remember expressing my frustration, actually to my father. And he said “Well, why don’t you run for office?” And I said, “Well, I’m too young.” At the time I was 25 years old. And we talked about Marilyn Bornhorst and Gary Gill and a number of others who…and later I found out actually Senator Inouye and Patsy Mink and others who entered politics at a relatively young age.
I was not a joiner. I wasn’t a student government-type person. I didn’t major in political science or intern in Washington. So, it wasn’t my plan. But I did see it as a natural extension of my desire to make our communities better. I thought I was going to do it in the not-for-profit sector exclusively but my decision to try to make institutional change came really at that moment.
Very interesting. You mentioned your youth. There has been some mention in the media about the relative youth of you and Lynn Finnegan as well. You’re both in your late 30’s. What have you learned in your short time on this planet that can help you help Hawaii in the LG position?
Well I think through running Helping Hands Hawaii I learned a couple of things that are important for this position. The first is I now have the administrative skills necessary for leading organizations successfully. And I’ve proven that I know how to take organizations that are in trouble and make them better. So that’s in terms of the skills and on that side.
But the other side of that is that while I was in politics for the last 12 years I also…every day at Helping Hands saw what people were going through. So that when we got briefed by the Council on Revenues or the Economic Research Organization at the University of Hawaii in terms of gross state product and building permits. I saw the human side of a strong economy and I also saw the human side of a social safety (net) that has been shredded. And what happens when there isn’t the kind of economic opportunity that we need. So, I think it’s a combination of things, but it’s really having the skills to lead but also staying grounded in what people are actually going through.
Hmm, very interesting. You and the congressman, two haole, are running against two people of color, if you will. In a state as ethnically and racially diverse as Hawaii and its colonial and plantation past; is this an issue at all in this election?
No. I think Tom Gill and John Burns represented the diversity of Hawaii very well. And I just…I think we are actually, finally, beyond all that.
The LG’s office as you know is universally described as powerless. Mr. Abercrombie has now said he’s going to give you some duties specifically working on getting federal dollars, private dollars. Can the LG’s office evolve similar to like the U.S. vice presidency under Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden into something meaningful?
Well, I think that’s exactly what Neil and I were talking about as we rolled out our Hawaii Fair Share Initiative. The lieutenant governor’s office has 12 staff and a pretty significant budget. And it’s not good enough to have the lieutenant governor’s office simply be the governor-in-waiting, available to cut ribbons when the governor can’t attend an event. That’s just a waste of resources.
The ceremonial aspect?
The ceremonial aspect is an underutilization of the office and it has been for years now. So, I think for Hawaii’s sake we’ve got to redefine that office and make sure that anybody with any talent or drive or expertise who wants to try to make Hawaii a better place and make government more accountable ought to be put to work. It makes no sense to leave anybody on the sidelines especially the lieutenant governor’s office.
Do you expect to be in those cabinet meetings? In those policy-making meetings?
Oh sure. You know, I think you’ve observed it. Neil and I have a very strong rapport that we…we’re getting along very well. I think we have a lot of confidence in each other. He’s certainly shown a lot of confidence in me, and we’ll be making a lot of decisions jointly. Now, it’s a big government and there are lots of problems, so there will be times when are deployed in different directions, but always working for a common purpose.
Similar to Biden, Gore and Cheney did. The president would give them tasks and so forth. Thinking back in your career, probably the Legislature is what we’re looking at here…in the House. What was the most difficult political issue you had to work on and how did you tackle it?
(Long pause.) I think the choices that I made with respect to who would lead the House were the most challenging. Because, as they say in Hawaii, everything in Hawaii is political except in politics which is personal. And this…
This is when you were in the leadership?
It was both…it was actually every two years, because in the beginning we were part of a group that helped to support and install Calvin Say and at a later date I decided that it was important for me personally to go another direction. And so those are wrenching decisions. Even though you try to do what’s right, you find yourself on the opposite side of your personal friends and people for whom you have a lot of admiration. And so those were tough choices because it involved people with whom you’ve shared a bond and worked with and respected. I mean Ezra Kanoho is one of my favorite people that I’ve ever served with in the Legislature and he and I were on opposite sides of the organizational battle.
One of the great things about no longer being in the Legislature is to not feel that I’m a member of any particular faction anymore…to be sort of relieved of that. Another good example is…you know, Tommy Waters and I, who are good personal friends now, ended up on the opposite side of a leadership challenge, and that was just tough personally.
Was this about the judiciary?
Yeah. The judiciary and you know…and so those are tough parts of politics especially on the legislative side.
But you spoke your mind. You fought for what you wanted and you decided…as you said you broke in a sense, didn’t you, with the leadership? You were with it and then you broke with it.
That’s right. And I’ve been a member of the leadership and I’ve also been what they call a dissident. And I think it’s good for political leaders to have a little bit of experience as…in both contexts.
It’s usually one or the other, isn’t it?
That’s right. Yeah, but you know I don’t think it makes that much sense to remain on the dissenting side for the entire…for your entire career. Nor does it make sense to always be in the middle of the leadership team. It depends on the circumstances. It depends on the decisions being made and it depends on the people.
Now we’re just about halfway through. You and your wife, parents of two young children…
How has becoming a father changed your view of politics and the role of government?
You know, it does extend your time horizon.
In terms of policy-making. So, I remember thinking about rail. And suddenly that question became personal, because as I was thinking through what kinds of opportunities would be available for my children when they graduated from college. Part of the question became affordable housing. Where are they going to live? How close is that going to be to me? And I was thinking about them getting right out of college and I was thinking, you know, if rail is built then it’s likely that there would be affordable, attractive places to live in the urban core. And if not they might be a lot farther from me and I might end up moving out near them. And so…
Where are you, in … ?
We’re in Makiki.
And that’s just an example. But you know in terms of education, in terms of creating economic opportunity, in terms of health care…you can’t help but think about how it intersects with your personal life and therefore how other parents and other families have to wrestle with these issues.
Neil Abercrombie says the election is about not accepting the status quo. You’re a former party chair, a leader as you indicated in the state House…and point man for the Obama campaign in ’08. Doesn’t that make you part of the status-quo?
Well, what we’re looking for is a change in the way this administration has handled Hawaii’s toughest challenges. You know, with respect to the budget it’s been adversarial to a fault. I think, you know, there’s always going to be a little tug-and-pull between branches of government but this just went over the top and got toxic.
You’re talking about the dysfunctional relationship between the Lingle administration and the state House?
Yes. That’s part of it. I also think the dysfunctional relationship between the government and its labor unions. You can’t run a government while trashing the people who work for it. That just doesn’t work well. Now, are there changes that may have to be made? Of course. But a lot of this comes down to leadership and understanding that we’re all in this together. And I think importantly the way the government itself has been run…setting aside collective bargaining and setting aside the questions of interactions with the Legislature, I don’t think they have been monitoring the store. I think…
The Lingle administration.
The Lingle administration hasn’t managed their finances properly. I mean you had a 40 something…$43 million accounting error within the tax department. And nobody even got, as far as we can tell, publicly disciplined or removed. A $43 million error is significant, but it doesn’t seem that there was the kind of detail to attention that one would expect when you’re a steward of the taxpayer dollars.
One follow up question to that. Both you and Neil…excuse me, you have the HGEA endorsement. He did not. Mr. Hannemann did. That may change come…for the general election. Strong labor support for both you and for Mr. Abercrombie. That of course is one of the things Linda Lingle fought quite a lot…over the collective bargaining…about whether we can afford salaries. There is a perception by some that the Democratic ticket is too much in the pocket of the HGEA and other public sector unions.
Well, let me give you a great example of how things could have been better but they went terribly wrong. When the Lingle administration and HGEA started their collective bargaining negotiations two or so years ago…
This is for the 2010 contracts?
Yes. So, they delayed and delayed and delayed. And every day that they delayed was savings that could have been incurring but didn’t. And so every day that went on the…in order to make the numbers work they had to dig in and make a steeper and steeper cut. If you have the kind of leader like Neil Abercrombie who has good relationships with labor unions, you can actually work these things out in advance and be realistic about….look, everybody knew that there was going to be some sacrifices, some mutual sacrifices. But it’s very difficult to sit down in a collective bargaining situation and get a resolution to it if you are calling people names on the way in.
That’s not to say that there are no changes necessary in government or the way it operates. I think Randy Perreira knows very well that we’ve got to move into the 21st century in terms of the way that we use technology, in terms of the way that services are delivered. The question is, do we do this in partnership with the people who work for the government or do we try to bludgeon them into it. And I think what we’ve learned over the past eight years is that the toxic atmosphere just doesn’t get results. And so, we’ve got to do all of this in partnership.
Mark Warner, governor of Virginia, and other progressive governors across the nation have been able to partner with their government employees to make sure that government is more efficient and more effective. But to do so in a partnership mentality as opposed to assuming that anyone who works for the government is the enemy of the management.
You lost to Mazie Hirono in a crowded field in the ’06 race for the House in the 2nd congressional district. What did you learn from that loss? Maybe about yourself…maybe about the state of Hawaii…and the campaigning?
Well, I think people weren’t ready for me. And the reason for that is…the truth is they didn’t see me as ready for the job. And part of that was a function of life experience, the way I carried myself, and then there were sort of practical political elements that figured into it including name recognition, dollars raised and all the rest of it. But at the end of the day when you’re not successful in a race it’s an opportunity for some self-reflection. And I think people weren’t ready for me for some political reasons but also for some legitimate reasons. And I think a loss is not a bad thing for a political leader because it does give you an opportunity to think through whether you’re doing all the right thing and…and to stay humble.
Was there…well, that’s something to take away. To stay humble. And as you said, you felt the state wasn’t ready for you and so forth. Is there another lesson…”Oh, I should have done that or this worked better this time running for LG in a similarly crowded field four years later.”
Sure, there were tactical sort of lessons. You know…including things that had to do with timing, when you sort of present yourself to voters. I mean, one thing I learned is you cannot put yourself in front of a voter or you can’t…or you can but it won’t work…put yourself in front of a voter if they haven’t…who hasn’t yet started to think about your election. As much as you may want to get them to think about your race, if it doesn’t matter to them yet then you’re wasting your energy. And you may waste your one opportunity to make your pitch. And so…some…as a friend of mine from the mainland says, “You don’t start advertising for snow tires until November.”
And so I think I learned some things about proper timing of an election and all of that. But the bigger lessons were personal. And making sure that I was the leader that I needed to be. And I felt…and Linda and I…my wife and I, we talked about this. And she said, “Just be who you need to be and the politics will come around to that.”
Don’t try to be someone else?
Yeah. Well, it’s not even about that. It was just about…just live your life and raise your kids and keep doing your job and the politics will take care of itself. And I think…you know, she’s a wise lady.
Ha-ha. Raising two young kids! I just have a couple more questions. I’m just…correct me for your bio. You spent some time in Kenya.
Tell me a little about what that was like. I assume you found the birth certificate — I’m speaking of President Obama, of course.
Ha-ha! It was my semester abroad. And I did something called the School for International Training and I think I was 19 years old.
This was through UH?
No, through Pomona College.
Pomona College, the one in California.
And it was an extraordinary experience. I became conversant in Swahili. I spent a lot of time studying there actually in waste-management processes and I got malaria.
Got an infected toe that didn’t get fixed for four months.
And so while it was extraordinary and a lot of fun, it was actually tough. And I think that was really good for me, to come from such a beautiful place as Hawaii and to, you know, spend a month in a village with no running water. And at that age that was a real eye-opener. And it helped me to understand how committed I was to public service.
Very interesting. Three more questions for you. Was there an issue you pushed or a vote you took, where today you look about and say, “Wish I’d done things differently?”
(Long pause.) I…when we passed the legislation to authorize privatization I was asked…
Explain a little bit. Authorized privatization of…
Well, the privatization of state services. This was something that Ben Cayetano had pushed over the objections of the unions.
This is back when it was a tough economy, too.
Yeah. And it was a big battle. It was a response to a court case and…so I got asked to speak on behalf of the House on a very early morning show…5:15 a.m.. And I wasn’t properly briefed about all the details of it and I was 27 years old. And I was tired and the interviewer asked me…you know, a pretty reasonable question, which is “What might be privatized?” And I off…literally off the top of my head named a division within a department and I won’t even name it again because it caused such an uproar. And the lesson was that if you’re going to hold the public trust in office words matter. And what I did, in all seriousness, was send a shockwave through 95 people’s lives that morning. And they thought their jobs were on the chopping block.
The truth was they were a great division doing good work and they were just not an appropriate candidate for privatization of state services. But the real lesson was to understand the obligation you have as a leader to choose your words carefully and to understand the impact that what you do and what you say on…not just politically but in terms of people’s lives and livelihoods.
You get a couple of phone calls after that?
Oh, I got a few visits.
Two more. What’s something voters don’t know about you? A talent, an experience perhaps that tells us a little more about who you are.
I don’t know…this certainly isn’t a talent. But I do, especially since our headquarters is in Ward Warehouse, I do try to get in the water at Point Panic twice a week.
Well, actually I surf but I…since the campaign started, because it’s easier, I bodysurf. And it’s just my way to clear my head.
It’s very convenient. It’s very quick. And that’s something I really enjoy.
The president bodysurfs.
The president bodysurfs too and he’s not bad.
My last question for you. And then anything you want to add; a final point. In your years in the Legislature can you name a couple of ideas, even one or two, proposed by the Republicans that you liked and why?
Well, I generally like the Republican advocacy for charter school and that’s something I know my competitor on the Republican side has talked about and I think she makes a good point in saying that…look, charter schools 15 years ago…people didn’t know what to make of them. They didn’t know if they were sort of a Trojan horse for privatization of the public school system, vouchers and everything else. But as they’ve developed it’s clear that they’re public schools. They’re publicly funded and they accept everyone. And that’s the definition of a public school. And from an academic standpoint they’ve excelled in certain areas and in other others the academic results are more mixed.
But I think one of the things that I do find compelling about the public charter school system is somehow in the midst of all these budget cuts, 16 I think out of 31 public charter schools managed to sustain those cuts within the context of collective bargaining…within the context of a state budget shortfall…and not do Furlough Fridays. And so they must be doing something right to again adhere to collective bargaining and sustain the same level percentage wise in cuts and stay open on Fridays. So, that’s one area where I have some agreement with them.
Any final comment that you want to add? Not just a resuscitation of platform and so forth but another point that you want to make, then we’ll be pau.
Well, I think…the final point that I’ll make is…I think people have a choice. And the basic choice is this. Did you like the last eight years? If you didn’t, then you ought to vote for Abercrombie and Schatz. And I think what I have not yet heard from Duke Aiona is how in any really significant way his leadership in style or substance would be different than Linda Lingle’s. They spend a lot of time defending the actions of the Lingle administration, which is an understandable thing to do. Because of course, Lieutenant Governor Aiona is part of that administration.
But I think it is on them to describe how things would be different, especially given that a lot of the people behind Mr. Aiona are the same people behind Linda Lingle. And that’s fine. It works great if people are happy with the job you’ve done but they’re not. And so I think Duke Aiona has to do a better job of explaining how his leadership would differ either in substance or in style.
Sounds a little bit like the old Reagan argument. Are you better off?
Four years ago.
Or the Newt Gingrich argument. “Had enough?”
Ha-ha. Brian, thank you very much.
Thank you, Chad.