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Introducing Brian Schatz, Hawaii’s New Senior Senator

Hawaii Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz was appointed to the Senate seat left vacant after the death of Sen. Daniel Inouye. (Photo courtesy of Office of Gov. Neil Abercrombie Flickr)

It’s been a busy week for Brian Schatz. After being appointed on Dec. 26 by Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie to fill the Senate seat of the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, he traveled from Hawaii to Washington on Air Force One with President Obama, started assembling a staff for his Senate office and recorded 20 votes on the Senate floor, including a “yes” vote on the “fiscal cliff” legislation.

And when Hawaii’s other senator, Daniel Akaka, retires from Congress on Thursday, Schatz will become the state’s senior senator.

Inouye and Akaka had become two of the Senate’s more influential members, with 72 years of service in the upper chamber between them. Their replacements — Schatz and the incoming Mazie Hirono — will have to quell concerns that they might not be as adept at steering federal funds to Hawaii.

During a Dec. 26 press conference, Abercrombie suggested that congressional seniority was a major factor in his decision to appoint Schatz to Inouye’s seat.

“I asked how best could we ensure that Hawaii remains strong in the long run, rebuilding the seniority of our congressional delegation in Washington,” Abercrombie told reporters.

In selecting Schatz, Abercrombie turned down Inouye’s wish that Colleen Hanabusa, the 61-year-old congresswoman for Hawaii’s 1st district, be named his successor.

“Of course Sen. Inouye’s views and his wishes were taken into account fully,” Abercrombie said of his decision to not appoint Hanabusa. “But the charge of the central committee, and by extension, then, myself as governor, was to act in the overall best interests of the party … the state and the nation.”

Abercrombie also suggested that he opted to have Hanabusa, who will begin her second House term this Thursday, build seniority in the lower chamber.

“There’s also the point, now that Sen. Akaka has retired and Sen. Inouye’s passed away, that Rep. Hanabusa occupies a key position on the Armed Services Committee in the House of Representatives,” he said.

The focus on congressional seniority during the Senate appointment process underscored Hawaii’s reliance on federal funding. At the press conference, Schatz said he will continue Inouye’s work on securing federal funds for the state.

“Over the next year,” Schatz said, “one of Hawaii’s critical priorities is to identify the various federal funding streams that have been coming to Hawaii and stabilize them to the extent possible.”

As lieutenant governor, Schatz ran the Fair Share Initiative, a program to coordinate the state government’s various efforts to maximize the amount of funds it receives from Washington.

Schatz also said he would make energy and environmental issues a priority during his time in the Senate, calling climate change “the most urgent challenge of our generation.” He has previously expressed support for large projects to encourage the use of renewable energy, and he led state efforts to expand infrastructure for the handling of liquid natural gas.

Chuck Freedman, a long-time Democratic Party activist in Hawaii and chair for Schatz’s 2010 campaign for lieutenant governor, characterized Schatz as a driven and ambitious politician who sought to make the most of his time as the state’s number two executive.

“He has a quiet belief that wherever he goes, he can make good things happen,” Freedman said. “Brian felt that he could turn that position into a lot more than it had been before and go way beyond the job description.”

But while there seems to be little doubt about Schatz’s drive, David Chang, chairman of the Hawaii Republican Party, expressed concern that the freshman senator may not be a good fit for a Senate that is deeply divided on many critical issues.

“He had a reputation for being quite partisan while serving in the House, and even as lieutenant governor,” Chang said. “And in Hawaii, it’s very easy to only work with Democrats and not have to do anything with Republicans since we are the minority party.”

Freedman, however, was more optimistic about Schatz’s role in the Senate.

“He’s not going to buck the tide,” Freedman said. “He’s going to make sure the country’s moving in the right direction and the president gets the needed level of support from the Senate … He’s a young man with a reasonably idealistic view of how things should be.”

A few hours before he was sworn in on Dec. 27, Schatz told reporters traveling on Air Force One he was “anxious to get to work” in support of President Obama’s agenda.

“I’ve been a supporter of his from the very beginning,” said Schatz, who started a “Draft Obama” campaign in his state in 2006 and was the state chair for Mr. Obama’s first presidential campaign. “For Hawaii, it’s not just a matter of him being from Hawaii, but we feel that he represents our values on the national stage. That’s what I’m looking forward to supporting.”

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