WASHINGTON — Brian Schatz is serving in the U.S. Senate, but as a politician working for a small state like Hawaii he also considers himself the “mayor of everywhere.”

Consider the Honoapiilani Highway in West Maui, which is threatened by sea level rise.

Climate change is Schatz’s top priority in Washington, but large-scale meaningful action can be hard to come by in a deeply divided Congress.

That’s why it’s important, he said, to also work locally to find solutions.

Senator Brian Schatz listens during a field hearing held at the East West Center Auditorium.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz is all but certain to win another six-year term. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Schatz, 49, is the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing where he has direct control over how federal dollars are allocated. Last year, he helped secure a $23 million earmark that will be used to help realign the highway before it falls into the ocean.

“We’re going to have to deal with climate change and it’s not just about dealing with the root cause,” Schatz said. “This was the first big project that wasn’t just a pie in the sky sort of academic exercise, but our first real climate adaptation. And it looks like it’s going to be a real winner.”

Schatz, a Democrat, is seeking another six-year term in the Senate and is all but assured an easy path to reelection in this year’s election, which begins with the Aug. 13 primary. But he’s not taking victory for granted.

He recently bought a series of full page advertisements in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that detailed a long list of legislative accomplishments and billions of dollars he says he secured for Hawaii, including tens of millions of dollars for Native Hawaiian health care and education.

Over the past six years, Schatz worked to increase the smoking age to 21, give federal workers 12 weeks of paid family leave and expand telehealth services during the coronavirus pandemic.

Where he’s excelled, however, was in securing federal money for the Aloha State.

“We like to think of ourselves as the mayor of everywhere,” he said. “We just try to figure out what needs to get fixed and help provide the resources to fix it.”

He says he was instrumental in sending more than $16 billion in federal funds to the islands, which includes more than $240 million in earmarks he set aside for various nonprofits and government agencies to address everything from military construction to preventing invasive deer from eating Maui County’s croplands.

“I’ve been successful in delivering and meeting the needs of the people and communities across the state,” Schatz said. “We’re 5,000 miles away. I view my job as relatively straightforward, which is to represent Hawaii’s values and to understand Hawaii’s needs and find the resources to meet them.”

In addition to Appropriations, Schatz is the chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, where he has worked to bring Native Hawaiian issues to the fore in Washington.

He used that position, he said, to funnel billions of dollars to Indigenous communities, from the mainland to Alaska and Hawaii.

Such investments, he said, are essential to “reverse generations of injustice.”

Building A Legacy

In many regards, Schatz is following in the footsteps of a man who never would have picked him for the job — the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye.

When Inouye died in 2012, his deathbed wish was to have then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie name U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa as his replacement. Abercrombie instead tapped Schatz, his lieutenant governor, to fill the seat, sparking a yearslong feud with Inouye’s inner circle that eventually led to a 2014 showdown between Schatz and Hanabusa in a special election to finish out the final two years of Inouye’s term.

Schatz won narrowly and has all but cemented his place in Hawaii’s federal delegation by securing a seat on key committees while keeping his ambitions in check.

For instance, in 2018 when it seemed like nearly every Democrat in Washington was considering a run for president, Schatz was unequivocal about his desire to stay put and do the work of a legislator.

HART Board nominee Colleen Hanabusa.
Former Hawaii congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa was Inouye’s first choice to replace him in the Senate, but she says she thinks Schatz has done a good job. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“He’s one of the few senators who has made it pretty clear that he does not want to be president and when you do that in the Senate you can amass a lot of power,” said John Hart, a professor of communication at Hawaii Pacific University. “Although he wasn’t Inouye’s choice he is a very worthy successor.”

So long as Schatz stays out of trouble and continues on the same path, Hart expects him to continue rising through the ranks in the Senate, which only bodes well for Hawaii.

“It’s his job for life,” Hart said. “He could be in that seat as long as Inouye was.”

Abercrombie said he considers his decision to pick Schatz over Hanabusa as one of his top two or three accomplishments in a political career that spans nearly four decades. He stands by that assessment even though he believes crossing Inouye cost him the 2014 governor’s election that he lost to Gov. David Ige.

“Brian has delivered for Hawaii in spectacular fashion,” Abercrombie said. “From my point of view, I couldn’t be happier with my decision-making.”

Hanabusa took a more measured tone, although equally as positive.

She said it can be easy for politicians in Washington to get distracted by the “flavor of the day,” which she described as the hot button issues that dominate the daily press cycle. But in order to be successful, she said, you need to remember the people who elected you in the first place.

“I think he’s done a good job and he’s made it very clear as to what his priorities are,” Hanabusa said. “I never feel that he’s forgotten the people of Hawaii.”

A Clear Path To Victory?

Schatz doesn’t have a lot of competition in his bid for reelection.

His opponent in the Democratic primary is Steve Tataii, a 72-year-old conflict resolution consultant who hasn’t raised any money and doesn’t even have a campaign website. In 2016, Tataii ran for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District but only garnered 797 votes, which was less than 1% of all ballots cast in the race.

The Republican side of the ticket is more competitive, but unlikely to change the end result given Hawaii’s long history of electing Democrats.

Rep Bob McDermott reacts during floor session on the last day of session.
State Rep. Bob McDermott is running a single issue campaign against U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

Hawaii state Rep. Bob McDermott, who represents Ewa Beach, is the best-known candidate in the GOP field, but like Tataii McDermott hasn’t reported raising or spending any money in the race.

McDermott said the reason for running is to make sure the Navy shuts down its bulk fuel storage facility at Red Hill that last November sprung a leak that contaminated the water source for some 93,000 people near Pearl Harbor.

He criticized Schatz for moving too slowly to respond to the disaster and for not being more proactive to address the dangers posed by the World War II-era facility, which has a long history of leaks, including one in 2014 that spilled 27,000 gallons of jet fuel.

“Red Hill is a major issue and this is to keep the pressure on,” McDermott said. “We got caught with our pants down and we weren’t prepared.”

McDermott has no illusions that he can beat Schatz in the Nov. 8 general election, noting that Schatz has a nearly $4 million war chest while McDermott’s campaign fund sits at $0.

“I know it looks like a suicide mission, I’m not crazy,” McDermott said. “If I succeed at nothing else I hope that Red Hill continues to be an issue moving forward because my kids and grandkids drink this water too.”

For his part, Schatz says he used “every ounce of political capital I had” to persuade Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to defuel the tanks at Red Hill and to secure hundreds of millions of dollars to do so.

He also said he was duped by Navy officials into believing the tanks were stable.

“There was not full transparency,” Schatz said. “I think the public, to include me, was misled.”

‘The Fight Of My Professional Life’

Climate change and an ever increasing cost of living are two of the greatest challenges facing Hawaii both now and in the future, Schatz said.

He intends to shovel money at both, whether it’s more funding for more local climate adaptation projects or pushing dollars toward infill development that reduces sprawl and gets people out of their vehicles.

“Hawaii has some intense challenges,” Schatz said. “Economically, people are increasingly getting squeezed because of the cost of housing, because of the cost of electricity and gas and because of the cost of health care.”

There’s not much he can do as a single U.S. senator to combat inflation, which is a complex global problem, he said.

What he can do, he said, is support legislation that puts more money in people’s pockets.

As for the climate, Schatz understands time is running out for Democrats to act on an ambitious agenda that aims to invest in clean energy and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin continues to stall legislation despite months of negotiations with those within his own party. Schatz said conversations with Manchin are ongoing, but he wouldn’t disclose the details of those talks.

Despite recent disappointments, he said he’s not one to give up, especially on something so important.

“This is the fight of my professional life,” he said.

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