Senator Brian Schatz’s least favorite part of his job is the airplanes. That’s to be expected when your office is almost a 5,000-mile commute from home. But the distance from Hawai‘i to Washington, DC isn’t only felt by the Democratic senator from Hawai‘i – it’s a disconnect experienced by many residents on these islands, isolated from the decision-making hub of a massive nation. While technology has enabled an unprecedented level of connectedness, the distance remains vast, especially as Hawaii’s relatively progressive ideals grapple with a president whose shameless grifting, compulsive lying, cruel and racist policies, plundering of natural resources, and cozying to dictators leave a chasm between the nation’s actions and the values we hold dear.
It was important, then, that Sen. Schatz came to Maui for a town hall on July 2 to close the gap between Hawai‘i and DC. Schatz stood for 90 minutes, giving a 20-minute monologue before calling audience members to the floor to ask their questions, which were written on cards and collected beforehand by his staff.
Here are five selected questions and answers from the July 2 town hall with Sen. Schatz. They have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: I get that you’re trying to influence what’s happening at the border with appropriations, but what can we do to stop the concentration camps, outside of procedure?
A: This is something that I struggle with and I’m glad you’re asking the question again, because it’s not just another issue. This is happening right now. It’s happening on all of our watches and I think that if you’re not wondering every day whether you’re doing enough, you probably should. I don’t want to give you a long, wonky answer.
Let me just say it this way: We are working absolutely every angle, governmentally. But if you want to know whether I’m waking up every morning, trying to figure out if there’s something else I could be doing that I’m not doing – yes, I am. If you want to know whether I’m checking with my staff about any new ideas, anything that I can be supportive of – yes, I am. And if anybody’s got an idea about how to fight this, that I haven’t fully explored, I’m more than open.
I’m not trying to pretend that I’m here, triumphant. On this one, we are all failing as a society and I’m doing everything that I think that I can. All I can tell you is that every morning I fight on this one, as though these are my kids.
Raise your voices. I think it’s not a small thing to raise your voices. This issue has to become a moral question for our society and not put into the basket of the immigration battle between Democrats and Republicans. There has to be a space for someone who says, “I think you guys should build that wall, but I’m not for this.” That’s the thing I’m trying to figure out how to accomplish. I don’t know when this became a liberal position to not want children to be mistreated. It’s actually not a liberal position much as I like to claim that liberals have of the lion’s share of wisdom on the political side. I cannot believe conservatives wake up every morning wanting that to happen. I think Steve Miller does. There are people in the Trump Administration for whom the cruelty is the point. But I do think on certain issues – and kids in cages has to be one of them – there has to be a bipartisan outcry. And frankly, they haven’t accomplished that yet. And I’m trying like hell.
Raise your voices. I think it’s not a small thing to raise your voices.
-Sen. Brian Schatz, July 2
Q: What can we do about a lack of affordable housing?
A: There is not one particular thing that will solve the affordable housing problem. But I think if we do 15 or 20 things, they will collectively make a difference. I think we have to get comfortable with density. I think there’s a way to make our peace with the local environmental movement and to come to an overall understanding of where we’re going to build and where we’re not going to build.
300 units or 700 units stacked, or directly adjacent, has a lower environmental impact, it’s better for climate, it’s safer for the elderly. It’s slightly cheaper to build. You get better social equity. You’re building communities. There needs to be further appropriations from the government, but I’m a little worried about just piling money into the various housing funds. That actually is not going to get us there. First of all, because if you wanted to build these units ourselves, in terms of taxpayers taking on the burden, it will be $35 to $40 billion. It’s really hard to imagine that our tax base would manage $30 to $40 billion, not to mention probably one and a half billion dollars a year just to maintain the stock.
I don’t presume to have the solution set but I can think of a dozen things that have been demonstrated to make a difference and there are a bunch of states and counties that have done things. Whether someone wants to do an accessory dwelling unit thing, or transit oriented development, or density, or more money into the rental housing revolving fund – we should do all those things. We should not fight amongst ourselves over what’s the best model.
Q: How do we work together to get climate legislation passed?
A: We need to continue to do the movement building around the rationale for climate action, and not haggle with each other as though we’re in conference committee. Sometimes progressives get hung up on details, and not hung up enough on winning the hearts and minds of people across the country so that they understand when their state floods, or when their state experiences wildfires, or farmland becomes much less productive, or the Maine lobster move north, or whatever it may be – that people understand: That’s climate. I am focused on ambition and scale, and a sense of urgency. My own personal view, however, is a carbon fee is the quickest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It’s also the most market-friendly, so you don’t have to pick solar versus wind. There’s just a price for emitting greenhouse gases, and there’s an opportunity for not.
Climate cannot be the province of people who care about birds and butterflies only. It has to be a mainstream issue. The wisdom behind the Green New Deal was the sense that everybody has to rise. A good friend of mine always says, “Paint a picture and paint me in it.” We’ve got to go to the American people and paint a picture with them in it, which means we don’t vanquish people in the middle of the country to do climate action; we bring them along, we provide them opportunities to make their farms more profitable. We provide them opportunities to do climate mitigation, because they’re worried about floods and wildfires. And we work with organized labor to tell them that there will be more jobs and better jobs in clean energy than there are in fossil energy.
Q: What can be done about student loan debt?
A: Two parts of this problem are the student loan debt that already exists, and the cost of college and what we’re going to do going forward. I very much like Elizabeth Warren’s
plan to wipe off $50,000 in student loan debt from each individual who still has it. But there are a couple of other things that we can do that are enormously important, but might sound a little more incremental. Student loan debt is the only kind of debt that’s not dischargeable in bankruptcy. And that was purely a giveaway to the lenders and that just needs to change.
Secondly, I’ve actually worked really hard on a bill to drive down the net cost of college.
The problem with increasing the Pell Grant amount and not putting any downward pressure on the price at the institutional level is that we literally increased the program by 500 bucks and then retail cost of almost every college and university went up by $500.
The other problem is that colleges had no incentive to let these kids finish – if they were full time students – in four years, because they could report high enrollment. If someone takes seven years, it’s more revenue. One of the things that we’re trying to do is align K through 12 with the undergraduate education, so by the time these kids graduate and they go to UH, they’re ready and don’t need remedial work… finish on time, that’s the best way to save money.
The other part of the problem is that when the recession came, states disinvested in higher education and we have found that the best way to provide an incentive to a state to reinvest in higher education is to provide a one-to-one match from the federal government. My program is very simple. It is a one-to-one match for states that make a commitment to reduce the net cost of college. Not to just invest generically universities, but actually reduce the retail price of college for individuals. We think it’s scalable. One of the reasons I like this, is that if we’re not able to accomplish all of it, we can accomplish some of it for the most needy among students, and we’ll have partnerships with states and universities that could actually work.
This is a multi-faceted approach. And the reason I’m giving you a long answer is this is similar the climate question, in that I don’t want it to turn into a sort of talking point that is devoid of meaning… I don’t want to run around for the next 20 or 30 years ranting about making college more affordable while college becomes less and less and less affordable. I want to have a solution that works even if it was hard to distill the bumper sticker, and I think I’ve got that.
Democracy is not what we have, it’s what we do.
-Sen. Brian Schatz, July 2
Q: Some of us think democracy is under threat. What is our path to saving democracy?
A: I don’t have sage advice except to say that one of the most inspirational aspects of the last couple of years has been the extent to which people really are engaging in unprecedented ways in their democracy. I can stand here and talk about the Census and the Constitution, or I can refer to the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, and I’m looking out there at lots of people nodding their head, because they very much care what is happening to this country. The solution to democracy fraying is more participation in democracy. Democracy is not what we have, it’s what we do.
I see no extra clever answer to your question other than we engage, we fight. We are respectful, but we are relentless. I wouldn’t be in this fight if I didn’t think it was winnable. And we won a few. Now, we’ve lost more over the last two years that we won, but we have won. That’s, I think, all we can do. By the end of this process, in November of next year, everybody has to be personally satisfied that they did everything they could.
It’s sort of like some of these pro athletes. It doesn’t matter gender, it doesn’t matter sport – most have the same philosophy, which is to trust the process. That’s not to just trust the process to others, but to trust that if you do everything the way we’re supposed to do it, then it works out more often than it doesn’t.
We have to take control of our democracy. That means, for a lot of us, to do everything we can in the local level, but also we got friends on the mainland, so we got to continue to engage.
Image 1 courtesy Wikimedia commons
Image 2 by MauiTime