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When a senator is just ‘a normal person having a normal reaction to a crazy world’

Brian Schatz embraces the small things

For Sen. Brian Schatz, seen here in 2019, the medium is not the message.
For Sen. Brian Schatz, seen here in 2019, the medium is not the message. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

There are a few tweets that Sen. Brian Schatz wishes he could take back, but that’s the way it goes on social media.

As one of the Senate’s more active Twitter users, the Hawaii Democrat says he uses the app to track breaking news, but also because “my communications director can’t tell me not to say things.”

“Sorry Mike!” he once tweeted at spokesman Mike Inacay, feeding the joke that he gives his staff heartburn when he uses his personal account to tease fellow lawmakers or hold impromptu Q&A sessions while stuck on long flights to and from Washington.

But for Schatz, the medium is not the message. He talked with CQ Roll Call this summer about authenticity, pay for Hill staffers and why “even the small things are big.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: You’re a voracious Twitter user, I think it’s fair to say. What keeps you coming back to the platform?

A: I use it to gather information as news is published. And I like it because my communications director can’t tell me not to say things.

I don’t overestimate the impact of Twitter. It’s just another channel for communication. I think what people like about my Twitter feed is that it sounds like a normal person having a normal reaction to a crazy world.

Q: Is there anything you would change about the way Twitter works? 

A: No, I don’t have opinions about how platforms ought to operate. That’s not to say it’s perfect, but it’s not my side of the shop. There are lots of tweets I wish I didn’t send, but that’s a different question.

Q: You’ve pushed for better pay for Senate staffers and interns. Why does that matter to you personally?

A: The Senate for too long has underpaid its workers, and that’s not just unfair to the workers — it also impacts the product. 

The people who worked on paid family leave in the federal government were young mothers. The people who work on LGBTQ issues have often experienced those issues personally. The people who work on veterans’ issues are oftentimes veterans. So we want to make sure that everyone can afford to be in public service. 

This is not a place to get wealthy, but you shouldn’t already have to be wealthy in order to serve here.

On the Indian Affairs Committee, we made sure that our staff director and all the senior staffers got paid the same as senior staffers on Judiciary or Appropriations or Armed Services for the first time. Now we’re at parity as [we work] on behalf of Native people. 

The one thing I love about this job is that even the small things are big. My work on intern pay, my work on telehealth and my work to raise the tobacco age to 21 never made it on “Meet the Press.” But those are some of the more significant accomplishments of my office.

Q: You chaired the special climate crisis panel that Senate Democrats set up in 2019. Where is the action now? How doomed is the planet without a climate bill? 

A: I don’t look at it like that. The tendency in Washington is just to think about issues in binary terms, but climate is the challenge of our generation, which means we’re going to have to be working on it for decades and decades and decades. 

If we pass an ideal climate bill tomorrow morning, we would still need to keep going. And if we failed to pass a bill this year, we still need to keep going. This is a planetary emergency, and both the magnitude of the challenge and the magnitude of the opportunity require that we don’t allow ourselves to fall into despondency. But we also shouldn’t engage in magical thinking, in which we believe that if we simply pass one piece of legislation, then the planet is saved. That’s not how this works.

The Special Committee on the Climate Crisis was a way to elevate the issue of climate when Democrats were not in charge. Now that we’re in charge, the jurisdiction of the Finance Committee, the Environment and Public Works Committee and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee is where climate action will be taken.

Q: Some politicians still deny a problem exists. Has that changed at all since you got into politics? Do you see fewer climate change deniers?

A: In the state of Hawaii, the Republicans are not terrible on climate. The original Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative was led by a Republican governor. 

But ever since Citizens United, the Republicans just crawled under a rock because they’re afraid of fossil fuel super PACs causing them to lose their primaries. So there are a bunch of Republicans who quietly want to take climate action, but they believe, probably correctly, that they’ll lose their primaries if they show any courage.

Quick hits

Last book you read? I am just finishing up “Bourbon Empire,” about the origins of bourbon and how it interacts with American history.

In politics, can the ends justify the means? Sure. 

Your least popular opinion? Democrats are mostly terrible about allowing housing in urban communities.

If you could do anything else for a job, what would it be? I’d be a professional surfer. I do not have the talent for that, but it seems fun.

Closest friend across the aisle? Lisa Murkowski. ​Lisa and I have a bond. We’re both personal friends, but also politically aligned, because every state thinks they’re different — but that’s really only true in Hawaii and Alaska. 

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