U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz has an eye on what he can accomplish in 2017.
While he’s up for re-election this year, there’s no significant challenger on the horizon. He also has $3 million in the bank, should a legitimate challenger come forth to run against him.
But Schatz — who was appointed to his position in December 2012 after the death of U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye — told the Civil Beat Editorial Board Thursday that he still wants voters to judge him on his effectiveness in office.
He pointed to his ascension to the Senate Appropriations Committee, which has enormous control over the purse strings of the federal government, as a sign that he has what it takes to navigate an increasingly fractious environment on Capitol Hill.
Schatz also touted his ability to work with Republicans, who currently control the majority in the House and Senate, and who are increasingly necessary to get anything accomplished.
He’s particularly proud of a piece of legislation introduced with a bipartisan group of senators, including Republicans Thad Cochran, of Mississippi, and John Thune, of South Dakota, that would expand tele-health services under Medicare to cut costs for patients and providers.
“My pitch is very simple,” Schatz said. “I’ve shown an ability to move legislation; I’ve shown an ability to get federal funds; and I’m doing a good job in the Senate working with both sides of the aisle.”
Schatz says that if he’s re-elected, his two biggest priorities will be clean energy and addressing homelessness. More specifically, he says he wants to work with federal, state and local officials to enable more affordable housing and reduce costs for the people who live here.
Homelessness in Hawaii has reached a crisis, Schatz said. The state has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the country, yet officials here have struggled to get a handle on the problem in large part because there’s not enough housing.
Schatz said it’s important to continue to bring more money into the state, such as through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to help alleviate the shortage. But he also says Hawaii faces unique challenges due in large part to the high cost of living here.
Construction costs on Oahu are some of the highest in the country, and ongoing development in Kakaako and the city’s $6.6 billion rail project are only driving prices higher as work and materials become more scarce.
This can make it difficult for developers seeking to add to the housing inventory, Schatz said. So, too, can long waits at county and state permitting centers.
The senator also worries about losing housing to vacation rentals, and in particular, those that might be operating illegally. While it would be great to add another 1,500 units to the housing stock, Schatz said companies such as Airbnb or VRBO provide an incentive for individuals to rent their extra bedrooms and apartments for more money to tourists, taking them off the market for those who live here.
“We simply need to build more housing, but we just haven’t done it,” Schatz said. “We also have the worst possible combination when it comes to housing, which is we have Manhattan prices but not Manhattan salaries.”
He said he’s always looking for opportunities to reduce costs for the people who live here. The senator pointed specifically to proposal from the Federal Communications Commission that would allow people to buy their cable box rather than rent it.
By getting rid of that rental fee, he said, consumers across the nation could save $17 billion a year.
The senator also took the opportunity Thursday to discuss the presidential election. Schatz has a sobering opinion of billionaire businessman Donald Trump, who this week became the last Republican standing in the 2016 race for the White House.
In fact, Schatz said that citizens should look at this as one of the most consequential presidential elections in a generation.
The senator called Trump “a real danger to the country,” and added that he should not be underestimated, even though he’s a decisive underdog against presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, whom Schatz already has endorsed.
“I think he’s be dangerous for the world. I think he’ll divide our country,” — Sen. Brian Schatz
“It’s really important for people of all political persuasions to understand that he’s a threat in a different way,” Schatz said. “This is not an ideological critique of candidate Trump. He brings out the worst in people. I think he has close to zero foreign policy experience. I think he’ll be dangerous for the world. I think he’ll divide our country.”
But Schatz also sees a glimmer of hope in the potential political darkness. Trump is such a divisive figure among Republicans, that his candidacy could give Senate Democrats a chance to retake the chamber. Democrats would need a gain of five seats to do so; they are defending 10 Senate seats this fall, while Republicans must defend 24.
Should control of the Senate switch, Schatz, who’s only been in office for three years, would shoot up the seniority ladder, which would likely result in better committee assignments that could benefit Hawaii.
“There were a few seats that we were already favored to win, but the map just expanded massively,” Schatz said.
“It’s clear the Democrats will be united. But perhaps the part that remains underestimated is the extent to which true conservatives are not going to come around to Donald Trump. They find him offensive. I’m not sure they will vote for the Democrat. But a lot of them may stay home.”