09/26/2013 01:25 pm ET Updated Sep 27, 2013

Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz Is Capitalizing On Molasses Spill According To Some


Brian Schatz reacted quickly to news that a molasses spill in Honolulu Harbor was turning into an environmental disaster.

Just four days after the Sept. 8 spill, Schatz's office revealed that he had already been in contact with NOAA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to get briefed on the situation and to ensure that "swift action" was taken.

The very next day, on Sept. 13, Schatz announced that the EPA would be sending two on-scene coordinators to Oahu. Later that same day the senator declared that more federal aid — including money — was on its way.

"Senator Schatz has mobilized the federal response from agencies including NOAA, the EPA, and the United States Coast Guard," trumpeted a press release from his office.

There was more to come: The Coast Guard would send a Pacific Strike Team to assist the state with the spill, said Schatz, who also hosted a constituent call on the federal response and demanded a federal review of the disaster.

The media paid attention. "Schatz" and "molasses" appeared in a flurry of articles, including in The Huffington Post, POLITICO, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, ABC News, Maui Now and many others.

Brian Schatz, Hawaii's Super Senator?

Okay, so maybe I'm going a little overboard.

But some observers of Hawaii's congressional delegation rolled their eyes over what they saw as showboating. The federal government would have responded to the molasses mess whether or not Schatz was involved, wouldn't it?

Andy Winer, Schatz's chief of staff, believes otherwise. He told Civil Beat on Wednesday that "our efforts made sure it happened in a more expedient fashion."

"I don't want to sound overly arrogant, but the federal agencies were telling us that it was quite important that we helped to shine a light on what needed to be done, in terms of a coordinated response between federal agencies and state government."

Winer said two unusual sets of circumstances influenced Schatz's reactivity.

One was that the spill involved molasses and not oil, and so agencies were confronting an unfamiliar type of disaster. The other was that staff in Schatz's office had previously worked with NOAA, the EPA and the Coast Guard — starting with Winer himself, who spent three years at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"We knew who to talk to within agencies," he said. "It was not just a matter of casting about. We knew by name who to talk to. Those direct personal touches helped."

It may have been a terrible couple of weeks for Matson, the state Department of Transportation and a whole lot of dead fish and crabs in Honolulu Harbor, but not for Schatz. He will no doubt be able to say during his re-election campaign that he took decisive action in response to the spill.

PR Machine

Those rooting for U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, Schatz's democratic primary challenger, will likely work hard to undermine that claim. They see the young man who was appointed senator as more spin than substance.

Then again, they may suffer from communications envy — after all, Schatz has been very effective at getting his messages out. That's what successful politicians do.

That said, it is true that the senator's PR machine can spin too much. On Monday, his office announced that Schatz will co-sponsor education bills to "transform Hawaii's schools."

One of the very first bills listed on the press release is Senate Bill 512. Schatz is indeed a co-sponsor of the Providing Resources Early for Kids Act of 2013, but so are 10 other senators, including Chuck Schumer, Patty Murray and Al Franken.

The problem is that the legislation was written by Mazie Hirono, who introduced it in the Senate six months ago. She is not mentioned anywhere in Senator Schatz's press release.

Winer said Schatz's office did not mean to slight Hirono, saying that an earlier press release made clear that Schatz was co-sponsoring Hirono's bill.

"We know that that is Mazie's baby, and everyone knows she has the lead on this," Winer said. He noted that the pre-K bill was included on Schatz's press release "to try and summarize our thinking on education policy."

Still, the omission illustrates a complaint that I hear from D.C., as well as in Hawaii circles, that Schatz sometimes takes credit when he doesn't deserve it.

It is undoubtedly important for Schatz to elevate his public profile because he was appointed to his seat by an unpopular governor, has a relative thin political résumé and he is facing an opponent — Hanabusa — who is not only Dan Inouye's anointed successor, she is also backed by old-guard Democrats like Dan Akaka, Ben Cayetano, George Ariyoshi and Walter Dods.

Schatz, several insiders say, still has low name recognition, especially compared to Hanabusa, and they assert that the veteran challenger has a comfortable lead over the less experienced incumbent. (Civil Beat's own survey of the Schatz-Hanabusa race, conducted in June, said the seat is up for grabs.)

Clay Schroers, Schatz's campaign manager, declined comment.

This much is obvious: Schatz is a quick study and competitive, and he is using the tools of the Information Age to get his message out quickly and relentlessly. Given how few key policy differences have emerged between him and Hanabusa thus far, the political fight has largely been a communications battle.

Most voters don't care about the inside baseball of Hawaii politics; they don't parse press releases and positions like political pundits do. With glowing media attention for Schatz's response to the molasses spill, they just might think that he's doing what's best for Hawaii — whether it is all him or not.



Obama Hawaii Vacation