Brian Schatz

Q and A with Brian Schatz

Brian Schatz / Before political season really heats up, we’re shining a light on the oft-ignored race for lieutenant governor. We begin with Brian Schatz, the former state legislator, congressional candidate and Democratic party chairman. Schatz is also a former columnist for the Weekly, but not to worry: We’ll be talking to other candidates in the coming weeks.

This race gets less attention than just about any other. It’s often seen as the local version of the vice presidency. Is that accurate?

Well, it’s actually not a bad comparison. The position can be tremendously useful and influential, or not. Hawaii has a mixed history with respect to lieutenant governors being productive. [Lt.Gov]. George Ariyoshi was essentially the chief operating officer for the state government for more than a full term (under Gov. John A. Burns). Then, when United was about to go on strike, Gov. Ariyoshi deployed his own lieutenant governor, John Waihee, to avert the strike. What you want is someone who can be a problem-solver in that position.

How do you know whether you and the gubernatorial nominee would make a good team when we don’t know who that person will be?

I think that’s part of the test, is a candidate’s ability to navigate those political relationships. You have to demonstrate that you’d be a compatible and useful member of any team, who can fix things a and work with whatever or whomever is the nominee.

You have a record as an agent of change. Does your candidacy for lieutenant governor reflect a different stage in your political career, or is there more capacity to effect change in that role than I am giving it credit for?

I have a record of having led organizations successfully, from Helping Hands Hawaii, [which Schatz recently left as CEO to devote himself to campaigning full-time], to the local Obama for President organization to the Democratic Party.

And I think that’s what the state government needs–someone with a record of having actually fixed things, and having led organizations to a better place. Our challenges are too great to settle for someone who can accurately describe them.

The LG ought to focus on making government efficient and accountable and really treating taxpayers like good customers. They have legitimate expectations that money is accounted for, that schools are open, that services are delivered and well. The lieutenant governor can work the details, and make sure that government is holding up its end of the bargain.

What are the primary challenges facing Hawaii, in your view?

I have a keen interest in delivering clean energy jobs, that’s one of the most exciting growth areas for our economy. I have experience in grant-writing and bringing in federal funds that I think are very useful in terms of building economic opportunity.

We need all hands on deck when it comes to public education. What we don’t need is another political force in public education. We need people who can identify what’s working, and do more of it, and can really focus on fixing those problems that are solvable. And doing more of what’s worked in other places. I’m a detail-oriented person, I like operations, and I like leadership, and so the executive branch is the place where I can be the most useful.

Do we need fundamental civil service reform in Hawaii? That seems like part of treating taxpayers like customers.

I suppose it depends what you mean by civil service reform. If you mean another broadside against the unions, I don’t think that’s useful track to move down. If you mean to reorganize government so that we have systems designed for 2010 rather than 1960, then yes. The framing of the question has become a little too simple, because it’s become about an ideological political battle. The problem is that many of our systems are 40 and 50 years old. Our technology is old, and our systems are designed to deliver services that in some cases are no longer needed. And what we want is a team of people who are forward-looking enough to be able to reorder our priorities and do better. This is not some sort of anti-government ideology, it’s acknowledging that times have changed.

How are you a different leader for having served as party chair?

Being party chair is a great experience in terms of understanding how diverse and how broad our political and government system is. To be able to work with everyone, left right and center, and to successfully navigate both our internal processes and an election, I think prepares me well for this job.

It seemed to me that that job pulled you further to the center that you had previously been, and that you were not out there cracking the whip on HB444 as many of us expected.

There are two ways to answer that. The Democratic Party set legislative priorities, and HB444 was one of the top three. The party is for civil rights, and so am I personally. We pushed for it, I personally testified on the matter and made it a priority.

But the idea that the party, which is a private organization, can control the actions of legislators is maybe where the misconception comes along. The party doesn’t get to call people into a room and tell them what to do.

This is not the Politburo. These are individual legislators accountable to the people in their districts. We can have influence and we certainly attempted to. But the idea that we could wave a wand and get the Legislature to do the right thing isn’t based in fact.

It is weird that we don’t just do this the same way it is done for the vice presidency, where the nominee picks her or his running mate? How is it an advantage to do it this way?

This way, you have separate constituencies that are represented in the governor’s office. If the LG were selected by the nominee, then you’d have have team work, but you’d probably have something more akin to obedience than teamwork. Somewhere between acrimony and obedience is where you want to hit, and the word there is teamwork.