Al Gore might have brought 9,000 people to their feet Tuesday night, but it’s U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz who took center stage during this week’s sustainability conference at the University of Hawaii.

Schatz’s office worked closely with the university’s Sea Grant program to organize the events, which culminated Wednesday with a field hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Power, which he chairs.

And while the main focus was climate change, another message came across loud and clear.

“I’m Brian Schatz and I approved this conference.”

Schatz is locked in a tight primary race with U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, which makes it hard to leave election politics out of any decision he makes even if it is, as he says, for the betterment of Hawaii.

Still, the two days of highly publicized meetings and speeches certainly felt like campaign events.

The former vice president didn’t help with the perception when his lecture at the Stan Sheriff Center sometimes crossed over into a stump speech for the sitting senator and the man who appointed him, Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

Schatz, of course, downplayed any inkling that this week’s sustainability summit was tied to his bid to stay in office, and said he was simply doing his job.

“It wasn’t a campaign event,” Schatz told Civil Beat after his field hearing Wednesday. “I suppose to the extent that voters analyze this in the context of an election — which is a fair enough thing to do — that people will see that I have the capability to do my job well to help showcase what Hawaii is all about and to bring national resources to Hawaii to make sure that we’re in the national conversation.”

No other members of the delegation took part in the events, although Hanabusa’s office said that she was invited.

The congresswoman’s spokesman, Richard Rapoza, said the conference didn’t “fit into her schedule,” but added that as a former Hawaii Senate president “her commitment to developing a more sustainable Hawaii is a matter of record.”

Brian Schatz field hearing

PF Bently/Honolulu Civil Beat

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz talks to a panel of experts during a field hearing for the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Power at the East-West Center.

Schatz can boast of his accomplishments as they relate to the summit. Not only was he able to lure Gore to Honolulu without his typical $100,000 price tag, but the conference also included a cameo from U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, of California.

Many other heavy hitters in the state’s politics, sustainability and energy sectors also took part, including Public Utilities Commission Chairwoman Mina Morita, Hawaiian Electric Co. CEO Richard Rosenblum and Ralph Cavanagh, of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Schatz said bringing these people together is a key way to improve collaboration and look for ways to combat environmental hazards, like rising sea levels, drought and pollution.

“The challenge now is to move it from conversation to changes in policy,” Schatz said.

The senator also held a field hearing at the East-West Center on Wednesday for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee he chairs and invited a number of special guests to come testify about challenges Hawaii and other Pacific islands might face in the coming years as a result of climate change.

But it was a strange event if only because it involved Schatz sitting at a table alone on a raised platform asking questions of local experts. Again, Schatz was the center of attention. None of Schatz’s other Water and Power subcommittee colleagues made the trip.

Abercrombie, who serves on President Barack Obama’s Preparedness and Resilience Task Force, testified at the hearing, lending his own political weight to the event while at the same time taking advantage of the forum to tout his commitment to climate change and to making Hawaii more self-sufficient.

During his remarks, which were made directly to Schatz, his former lieutenant governor, the governor described Hawaii as a “test bed for innovation” and boasted that the state is ahead of schedule in the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative to increase its use of renewables by 2030.

But the governor also touted Hawaii’s role as a leader in taking on climate change and becoming more self-sufficient, submitting eight pages of written testimony that, among other things, outlined state initiatives to manage natural resources, create green jobs and combat invasive species.

“Islands are a window to the future,” Abercrombie said. “We do believe that Hawaii is a microcosm for global sustainability changes and solutions.”

Gov. Neil Abercrombie

PF Bently/Honolulu Civil Beat

Gov. Neil Abercrombie testifies before U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz at the East-West Center.

If there were ever a topic residing in Schatz’s wheelhouse, climate change and environmental sustainability is it.

Schatz has a growing history as a champion of green causes, particularly those related to global warming. As lieutenant governor he focused on clean energy and sustainability. He has transferred this passion to Washington, D.C., where he held an all-nighter with other Senate Democrats to shine a light on issues related to climate change.

In fact, Boxer even presented Schatz with a “Climate Hero Award” this week for holding that event and “waking up the U.S. Congress to the devastating impact of climate change.”

Schatz’s starring role at the summit will bolster his stature on the issue even more in the run-up to the Aug. 9 Democratic primary, especially among voters who align themselves with environmental causes.

His involvement will also go a long way in boosting his name recognition among likely primary voters, which has been a weak point for the senator. The latest Civil Beat poll showed that he still isn’t as recognizable as Hanabusa.

And this isn’t the last time Schatz intends to bring his D.C. duties back to Hawaii. He said he’s hoping to hold another field hearing this summer, this time related to tourism.

He was recently named chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Tourism, Competitiveness and Innovation.

That means it will be the taxpayers footing the bill, not the Schatz Senate campaign.

Civil Beat asked UH Sea Grant officials how much this week’s events cost but UH officials downplayed their expenses, saying staff contributed “in-kind support through staff efforts to organize and conduct the events.” They also noted that several private companies helped pay for them.

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


The Cut: Green Daze

Check out Civil Beat photographer PF Bentley’s video take on the Schatz-Gore events.


The Cut – Green Daze from Civil Beat on Vimeo.

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