U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz nimbly fielded questions on a range of weighty policy issues ranging from internet privacy, health care, North Korea’s nuclear threat and the situation in Syria during a mid-day town hall meeting at Chaminade University’s Richard Mamiya Theatre in Kaimuki Monday.
The Democratic senator blasted President Donald Trump’s proposed policies, ethical conflicts and picks to lead departments such as the Department of Education and Environmental Protection Agency. At the same time, he struck a cautiously optimistic note when it comes to how little Trump and the Republicans have been able to accomplish so far.
“There is incredible damage being done to the republic as we speak, that is all true,” said Schatz. “But also, if you told me that we would still have (the Affordable Care Act) on the books, that (Democrats) would be competing in Georgia, Kansas and Montana; that we would have three times the amount of citizen engagement that we have ever had before, and if you told me that most of Trump’s legislative agenda was dead or dying on the vine, I would say, I’ll take it.”
“We’ve got some incredible challenges in front of us … so I don’t want to strike too much of a hopeful note, frankly,” he continued. “We’ve got lots of work to do, but I think it’s not trivial what we’ve already accomplished together.”
Prior to opening the town hall meeting to questions, Schatz reminded the audience that this was Hawaii where diverse views are given due respect.
“So if there are Trump supporters, if there are moderates, if there are Republicans, if there are Green Party supporters, if there are people who think I’m great, if there are people that think I stink, everybody gets to say their piece,” said Schatz.
But Schatz was warmly received by an audience that appeared to largely share his political views. The noon event was heavily attended by students and faculty who filled the 500-seat auditorium and clapped often, groaned at Trump’s policies and laughed at Schatz’s jokes.
The town hall is one of two that Schatz has scheduled for this week during the congressional recess. He also has a town hall meeting planned for Tuesday at the University of Hawaii at Hilo at 1 p.m.
The timing of the meetings, during the middle of a workday, is unusual for town-hall events. Michael Inacay, a spokesman for Schatz, didn’t respond to questions about why the senator had scheduled the events at a time that makes it difficult for many people to attend.
The largely academic tone of Schatz’s town hall was a marked contrast to the more raucous reception that U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard received at a town hall meeting she held in Kailua on Saturday night. The congresswoman fielded some tough questions about her political positions, particularly on Syria.
U.S. Sen Mazie Hirono also plans to hold town hall meetings on Oahu and Kauai on May 6.
Town hall meetings throughout the country have received heightened media attention since Trump’s election, which has spurred a wave of political engagement and activism, and created some uncomfortable confrontations for Republicans, in particular, as they return home from Washington to talk with constituents.
Monday, Schatz encouraged the political activism and “resisting the Trump agenda,” a theme that played well with members of the Windward Resisters, a group of residents who have organized against the president’s policies and showed up in pink hats to Schatz’s town hall.
In addition to briefing attendees on the current state of politics in Washington, Schatz spoke about specific legislation he is pushing in regard to health care and education, as well as his outlook for Hawaii’s share of federal funds as budget negotiations get underway.
Schatz, who is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said that the failure of so-called Trumpcare bodes well for the budget, saying that the Republicans are more likely to take a bipartisan approach to funding needs.
“The collapse of Trumpcare has caused the Republicans to recalibrate their appetite for risk because basically they just made a mess of themselves,” he said.
Schatz said that Republicans are now looking at doing regular appropriation bills on a bipartisan basis, rather than holding the budget hostage to get funding for controversial issues such as Trump’s proposed wall along the southern border.
Schatz said that it was important, regardless of today’s contentious politics, to say focused on obtaining federal funding for Hawaii.
“We are 5,000 miles away from Washington and we need a congressional delegation to have that focus no matter what else is happening,” he said.
Schatz also discussed a bipartisan bill he has been working on that aims to drive down the cost of higher education and legislation that would make telehealth services reimbursable under Medicare.
Schatz said that he knows issues like that can be wonky, but that they’re important.
“I just want you to know that as we talk about these bigger issues — Syria and Russia and ACA — that underneath your senator has to do a job and some of that is not about the stuff that is going to make my Facebook page pop.”