Hawai'i's newest U.S. senator, Brian Schatz, visited Maui on Saturday, April 6, to learn more about local agriculture at the recent Maui County Agricultural Festival and talk with constituents about local concerns.
Schatz said that his colleagues in the Senate are particularly interested in knowing more about the various forms of "clean energy" that are being tried on the Valley Isle. The daylong visit on Saturday was part of a more extensive tour of the state with time divided between legislative matters and laying the groundwork for his 2014 bid for re-election.
Schatz has only been in office a little more than 90 days. In late December, he was Hawai'i's lieutenant governor when Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed him to fill the vacancy created by the death of U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye. The move created substantial controversy at the time, as Inouye had sent the governor a deathbed letter urging Abercrombie to select Colleen Hanabusa (now serving in the U.S. House representing O'ahu's 1st Congressional District).
Hawai‘i’s newest U.S. senator, Brian Schatz, talks with Maui Weekly writer Susan Halas during his recent trip to Maui to attend the Maui County Agriculture Festival.
Photo: Helen Nielsen
Disregarding Inouye's request and saying "nothing is preordained," Abercrombie chose Schatz, a former Hawai'i Democratic Party chair and early Obama supporter. At the time, many were surprised; others predicted that when the interim appointment is up in 2014, Schatz might have a hard time holding the seat against other Democratic challengers.
A recent poll conducted by Hanabusa reportedly showed her easily beating either Schatz or Abercrombie, depending on whether she decides to run for senator or governor in the next election.
Yet other political pundits noted that the results of that poll are based on preferences at the time the sample was taken in the spring of 2013. With the election more than 17 months out, "a lot could change."
Schatz met with the Maui Weekly at the office of his field representative, Helen Nielsen, in Wailuku. Commenting on his reaction to his first three months in office, the senator said that he has spent most of his time observing the "crises that the Congress has inflicted on itself," including the debt ceiling, sequestration and the fiscal cliff.
Asked what he thought of recent news that President Barack Obama has put Medicare and Social Security benefits on the table in current federal budget negotiations, he replied he did not support this position, but would make no further comment until he had read the actual language of the specific proposal.
Schatz predicted that the actual funding for "affordable healthcare" would be the next big battle in the ongoing budget war. He observed that a considerable amount of time is spent dealing with Tea Party-affiliated House members, who he said are automatically opposed to anything Obama supports "because it helps them to get re-elected."
As for his own campaign plans, he noted that he thinks Hawai'i voters "will have a choice" in both the primary and general elections in 2014.
With regard to Hanabusa, Schatz commented, "My own preference is that she run for re-election [to the House]."
He had no estimate on what it would cost him to seek the Senate seat, but ventured the number would be "in the millions." Likewise, he said announcements of campaign staff and his own polling efforts would be coming "later."
Schatz earns $174,000 as a U.S. senator, which he said is more than the $105,000 he was paid as Hawai'i's lieutenant governor. His budget to run his Senate office is about $3 million. He employs a staff of 38. Of these, about half are in Washington and half in Hawai'i.
On Maui, his two field representatives are Nielsen and Kari Luna Nunokawa.