Talk Story: Sen. Brian Schatz

LIHUE — It wasn’t until recently that Sen. Brian Schatz had time to look back on what was a crazy election.

The first-term Democrat said he hasn’t had much time to wax nostalgic on what was, by most accounts, a wild political time.

“I didn’t allow myself to do any reflecting because there was no time and there was no head space for it until this year,” Schatz said last week. “I didn’t even do any of the touristy things in Washington, D.C.”

In December 2012, Gov. Neil Abercrombie named Schatz to fill long-time Sen. Daniel Inouye’s post, who died while in office. The 2014 primary election that determined who would serve the remainder of Inouye’s term was delayed by damage caused by Tropical Storm Iselle.

But things are settling down, and Schatz has grown used to working with colleagues he used to see on television, catching on occasional ride on Air Force One, visiting with President Barack Obama (both are Punahou School alums in Honolulu), talking story with vice president Joe Biden and, naturally, legislating in the U.S. Senate.

“Every day I wake up happy about going to work,” he said. “Even if I have to get on a plane two or times a month.”

Schatz sits on the appropriations, commerce and transportation committees, so he has a close eye on project spending, business and traffic and roadways. Earlier this year, he proposed legislation that would encourage financing for developing pedestrian friendly communities.

“Whether it’s in a big city or small town, nobody likes to get stuck in traffic,” he said.

Last week, The Garden Island caught up with Schatz to talk about his first years in Washington, what the president is like, what’s the next big story in the nation’s capital and how he’s had to cut back on shortboard surfing since taking his new job.

The Garden Island: You introduced the Transit-Oriented Development Infrastructure Financing Act to help spur pedestrian-friendly development. Will this help Kauai?

Brian Schatz: I think it’s just as important, and in some cases more urgent, that we invest in small rural towns for two reasons. First, folks are experiencing incredible, painful traffic in really small places. Especially on Kauai, you have one way in and one way out, it doesn’t take a lot in the way of volume to snarl traffic for hours. So that’s one aspect. The other aspect is one relatively small aspect can improve the quality of life and the economic opportunities in some of these small towns — Lihue, Kapaa, other areas. Kauai ought to be eligible for the EPA’s smart growth funding, for the complete streets money that comes in through the Department of Transportation.

We also want to recognize that people get around however they want to get around. Some are in an automobile, some of them may be taking public transportation, some may be on foot … when people think of federal transportation funding, they generally think of highways but it’s important to remember people get around in different ways and those options ought to be funded.

TGI: So is it key to develop highways, pedestrian friendly routes, or both?

BS: It’s both. It’s not either/or … The first thing we need to do is get a transportation reauthorization bill so the federal highway fund doesn’t go dry. If we don’t get a highway bill done this year, all highway funds across the country are going to end up without the resources to fund state and county highways. … But as we do that, I want to make sure counties have the flexibility they need not just to improve the highway infrastructure, but improve the transportation infrastructure overall.

TGI: But how unique is Hawaii? Don’t we eventually run out of space here?

BS: Yes, we do. But transportation issues cut across regions and they cut across party boundaries. This is why I’m hopeful that we’re going to have a federal highway bill because as difficult as it is to get some kind of bipartisan compromise on big legislation, this is one area where most the rational people in the Congress recognize we can’t fail.

TGI: A lot of people here say developers should have to pay for their own traffic solution.

BS: I think the logic is fine, there is always impact fees assessed whenever a development project gets proposed and gets approved. The challenge has always been to make sure the funding actually keeps pace and the infrastructure keeps pace with the development. That’s been a challenge for the state of Hawaii for 40 or more years.

On Kauai, the county budget has been hamstrung to a degree by collective bargaining deals. Are you a fan of collective bargaining?

BS: I am. I believe strongly in collective bargaining. I think one of the reasons that Hawaii’s economy has been resilient and one of the reasons why — even though it’s a challenge to stay in the middle class — that we’ve been successful in retaining a strong middle class is because of a high percentage of unionization. As we see the gap between rich and poor expanding nationwide and in Hawaii, we have to realize that tracks exactly with the decreasing percentage of private sector unionization.

TGI: Who’s responsible if one side gets in over their head?

BS: The government is responsible to make good on whatever agreement has been made. But they’re responsible to make an agreement that is fiscally feasible. That is the way the process goes.

TGI: You were upfront on the NFL’s domestic violence and safety issue and wrote a letter to NFL commissioner Rodger Goodell. Why?

BS: I was in the Senate Commerce Committee … The challenge is that the teams themselves, the franchises, are actually bigger by revenue and in terms of clout that the league so the power relationship (isn’t balanced) … So I asked, how in the world would you push back against a team that doesn’t do the right thing when it comes to sexual assault and domestic violence? (NFL exec) Troy Vincent said they’d be willing to put draft picks on the table and I was impressed so I followed up with a letter, so we’ll see where they land on this. But I think they’re clearly motivated to fix this problem.

The commerce committee has jurisdiction over professional sports and, although I don’t want to spend all my time doing oversight over professional sports, I thought this had a public dimension that went beyond just being a fan. This has to do with families and communities and that’s why I got involved.

TGI: When you travel island to island to hear about project priorities, are most the issues the same, or do they vary?

BS: The big picture stuff is the same. it’s affordable housing, it’s transportation, it’s UH, it’s energy, it’s defense, it’s natural resources But every island has it’s particular priorities. PMRF, in the president’s fiscal 2016 proposal, needs $30 million in smart grid infrastructure, grid stability, money that will help KIUC better integrate renewal energy into the grid, but it will also help PMRF be more solid on its feet in the standpoint of being able to conduct its mission. So that’s priority. And certainly there are transportation priorities on the dollar side and then on the policy side … Kapaa, in particular I think it’s fair to say, is really experiencing unbearable traffic at certain times of the day and we want to try and do everything we can to alleviate it. You can’t wave a wand and stop it, but we want to make sure people have opportunity to move around.

TGI: What’s the presidential talk in Washington?

BS: Ted Cruz has announced but basically presidential fever hadn’t quite kicked in before this Easer break. So we’re going to return and there will be four at least, anyway, a bunch of announced candidates and at least three of whom are members of the U.S. Senate. I’ve never been in the Senate in a presidential year but what I’m told is that it doesn’t help in terms of us being able to focus on the work. That’s why I think we ought to focus on the basics (in the meantime).

TGI: What was your election like, looking back now?

BS: It was exciting (laughing).

TGI: Did you realize what you were going through at the time or do you have to kind of look back and think, wow?

BS: I didn’t allow myself to do any reflecting because there was no time and there was no head space for it until this a year. I didn’t even do any of the touristy things in Washington, D.C., or hardly any of them until this year. I just felt like it was ‘bachi’ (bad luck) for me to be running around D.C. doing fun things.

So this spring break, my kids came up and we had a lot of fun enjoying Washington for a week, so I finally had some time to reflect on the election and the last two years and I’m certainly honored and I just love the job. I love serving Hawaii.

TGI: Are the political camps in Washington as severe as they seem?

BS: It’s probably slightly less than maybe people think. There really are people with good will on both sides of the aisle. I’m always surprised by the amount of people who come to Washington and are shocked that there are partisan fights going on. Because all you have to do is watch television and read the newspaper and see there are some pretty serious battles so none of that came as a surprise to me. What came as I surprise to me is how much I enjoy my colleagues personally.

TGI: What do you think of the deal with Iran?

BS: Well, I’ve always been for a diplomatic solution if it’s possible. (Schatz hadn’t been brief on the deal so couldn’t comment specifically.)

I can tell you generally, I’m supportive of diplomacy and I think we ought to try and seize the opportunity for diplomacy and this looks to be shaping up to be a once-in-a-generation opportunity. But without knowing the details and without the plan actually being fully formed and it just being a framework, I want to reserve judgment to a certain extent but I can tell you my lean is that I think we have an opportunity that we would be remiss if we didn’t aggressively explore it.

TGI: How do you unwind to get away from politics?

BS: I body surf. I have two kids. I have an 11-year-old and a 7-year-old and they both play tennis and so I go to one or the other’s tennis. I go hiking with the kids, just a regular family person on the weekend.

TGI: You surf?

BS: Not as well since I got in the Senate. I got rid of all my shorter boards since I got to the Senate. You can’t not surf for two months, so now I have my 9-0 and that’s what I ride.

TGI: What’s the next big thing in Washington?

BS: Iran. I think the next big thing is Iran.

TGI: You’ve met the president. How is he?

BS: Nice guy. He is what he seems like he is. He is a calm, kind, serious, intelligent person. There are some people for whom the persona and the actual person don’t match, he’s just what he seems to be.

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