In a taut and punchy performance, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa sought on Monday night to depict U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz as unprepared for the legislative rigor of the Senate.
Hanabusa, who has argued that she is the more experienced legislator, used a Democratic primary debate to suggest that Schatz does not fully comprehend the policy differences he has cited as contrasts between them during the campaign.
While Schatz held his ground on the substance of the issues and did not get drawn in to a fight, Hanabusa took every opportunity to poke at the senator.
Schatz asked Hanabusa whether she regretted her vote last year for an unsuccessful amendment that would have directed President Barack Obama to use the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan as a model. The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare had urged lawmakers to reject the amendment, contending that Simpson-Bowles was weighted too heavily toward entitlement reform.
Rather than defend her vote, Hanabusa went after Schatz.
"At least, Brian, understand what the bills are and look at them carefully before you make these kinds of accusations," the congresswoman said. "That is not what that vote was about."
Schatz said he "can’t wait for the fact-checkers to get after this one," citing the opposition to the amendment from advocates for seniors. "Colleen, you didn’t answer the question because you took a bad vote," he said.
Hanabusa also claimed that Schatz did not understand the ramifications of his 2012 vote against a five-year extension of the federal government’s expanded power to conduct electronic surveillance against terrorist targets outside the United States. While Schatz was concerned about the privacy of Americans caught up in the surveillance, Hanabusa voted for the extension, arguing that without the law, there would potentially be no restrictions on surveillance.
"Brian, you have to start to read the bills to really understand what you’re talking about," Hanabusa said. "You didn’t vote to end FISA, what you voted for was to give the president unbridled authority just like [former President] George Bush and [former Vice President Dick] Cheney."
Hanabusa also aggressively challenged Schatz about the role that Andy Winer, his chief of staff, played as a consultant to the Pacific Resource Partnership during the group’s negative attacks on former Gov. Ben Cayetano in the mayor’s race in 2012.
"So, Brian, what did you know of Andy’s involvement in the deplorable smear, as you call it, and when did you know it?," she prodded.
Schatz said he hired Winer because he is a capable chief of staff who has worked for many Hawaii Democrats. But in referring to PRP, the senator said he "will not allow those kinds of tactics to occur under my watch. I am a happy warrior. I’m running a positive campaign. And you know it."
Unsatisfied, Hanabusa said Schatz did not answer the question about what he knew of Winer’s involvement with PRP.
The one hour debate, moderated by KITV’s Paula Akana and sponsored by KITV and Civil Beat, the news website, was the third of five debates between the candidates before the August primary, but the first to air on statewide television.
The forum produced a few new policy wrinkles.
Hanabusa said she does not believe genetically modified foods are unhealthy and said she stands with farmers and scientists on the issue. In a widening policy split, she said Schatz’s support for state and county home rule on GMO regulation would not work.
"You cannot have potentially four different sets of legislation or statutes to govern what can be grown by our farmers," she said. "That would, in and of itself, I believe, kill agriculture, because how can they survive if they have one set of rules in one area, and another …
"And as someone who wants to be the United States senator, or is the United States senator, look at it in terms of the United States Constitution — supremacy clause and commerce clause."
Hanabusa, however, said the states, and not the federal government, should determine whether marijuana should be legalized.
Schatz said he does not think Hawaii is ready to legalize marijuana, but does believe there needs to be a national conversation on drug laws that are "incarcerating young men and women and ruining their lives."
Hanabusa said Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor in Hawaii who publicly released documents on government surveillance, should return to the United States and stand trial. "Yes, we learned a lot through what he did," she said. "But was he truly a whistleblower? Those are decisions that the court system has to determine."
Schatz said, "I don’t think he’s a hero. But I think the main issue here is not so much what we think of Edward Snowden, but how we need to reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to protect our Fourth Amendment rights under the Constitution."
Asked to define Obama’s presidency, given a recent poll that rated Obama as the worst president since World War II, Schatz said Obama has been a strong president who has unfortunately faced "unprecedented obstruction" from Tea Party Republicans.
"I think it’s really important to understand how dedicated they have been to undermining every bit of his legislative legacy, and still he has been able to keep many of his promises," said Schatz, who helped lead Obama’s campaign in Hawaii in 2008 and who has been endorsed by the president. "He’s been able to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was able to pass the Affordable Care Act. He’s taking action on climate. He’s been a leader in civil rights, in gay rights, in women’s rights. He’s pushing for immigration reform.
"And so, I think, facing unprecedented obstruction, President Obama has been an effective president."
Hanabusa described Obama as "one of us," who has the warmth and affection of the people of Hawaii. But she said she has disagreed with the president on military policy in Iraq and Syria.
Asked about former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s potential presidential campaign in 2016, Hanabusa, who endorsed Clinton over Obama in 2008, said Clinton "has paid her dues, like no one else.
"And, as a woman, I have to tell you, I look upon Hillary Clinton as probably our best chance — as a woman — to have a president of the United States."
Schatz said he admires Clinton and hopes she runs, mentioning his son’s comment that he thought it was time the nation had a woman president, but the senator would not commit to endorsing her campaign.
Even when the two Democrats were invited to say something positive about each other, Hanabusa found a way to dig at Schatz.
Schatz praised Hanabusa for not taking the primary personally and for her work in the state Senate on oversight of public school compliance with special education standards.
Hanabusa described Schatz as a political survivor. She said Schatz "convinced Neil Abercrombie that he should be appointed to the United States Senate. That’s an amazing feat: one vote created somebody as the United States senator for the state of Hawaii. That’s something you got to admire."
The congresswoman celebrated her reputation as a policy wonk. "I love being a legislator," she said. "And that is why I have the reputation of reading bills and drilling down in details. And that is why some call me wonky."