An Open Letter To Brian Schatz, Hawaii’s New Senior U.S. Senator

Senator Brian Schatz:

First off, I just wanted to congratulate you on your appointment. Not many 40-year-olds go from being Lieutenant Governor of a small state to United States Senator in 24 hours (or even get to be Lt. Gov., for that matter), and your achievement is a real one.

Governor Neil Abercrombie ventured pretty far out on a political limb to send you to Washington, and the aides of your predecessor, the late Senator Daniel Inouye, the previous Senior Senator from Hawaii, wasted no time in speaking publicly out how “disappointed” they were that Abercrombie hadn’t honored Inouye’s deathbed request to appoint Representative Colleen Hanabusa as his successor.

But I’d like to forget the political machinations that put you in office and concentrate on the unique power and nature of your new job. Just as Abercrombie’s appointment of you proved that he was his own man, politically, you too have a chance to step away from Abercrombie’s shadow and do your own thing.

In a way, the U.S. Senate is the nation’s most elite club, and now you’re a part of it. You have two free years there, free campaign promises and debts (save those you start piling on now for your 2014 run at outright election). You now have the power to introduce legislation that affects the entire nation, receive secrets from our vast national security apparatus, advise and consent on presidential appointments and vote on bills and issues that make headlines every day.

In short, the world’s media will now pay attention to everything you do and say. As the late U.S. Air Force Colonel John Boyd used to say, this power brings with it a stark choice: “you have to make a decision–to be or to do.”

Do you merely want the trappings and pageantry and sense of authority that comes with being a United States Senator? Do you want to spend the next two years as Abercrombie’s messenger in Washington, voting and speaking only on that which will promote yourself in the seat’s 2014 election? Or do you want to break away from Senator Inouye’s legacy as the King of all things Pork Barrel and use your stature to affect real change on issues that I know a solid progressive as yourself truly believes in but may run counter to the more traditional Democratic Party platform?

If it’s the latter, then I submit the following five issues as prime places to start–excellent positions from which you can assert your own authority, while still holding fast to the “mainstream” of America:

1. The Drug War
What we euphemistically call “The Drug War” was probably lost a generation ago (that episode of Diff’rent Strokes where Nancy Reagan came on and told America “Just say no” is as good a place as any to fix the defeat) but the irrational spending of tens of billions of dollars of national treasure and the jailing of hundreds of thousands of drug offenders in a new, vast prison archipelago of our own designs continues without end, even as charts continually come forward tracking absolutely no change in illegal drug use among Americans.

Opposition to the Drug War is actually a rational point of view. A few weeks before the November election, National Public Radio did a story on how economists would design campaign advertisements. Every single economist contacted for the story, the NPR reporter said, advocated an immediate cessation of Drug War hostilities.

And yet, there is a queasy bipartisanship across Washington (perhaps fueled by the Republican-leaning prison construction industry and the Democratic-aligned correctional officers unions) that steadfastly refuses to yield even an inch on the Drug War madness, even as voters in states like Colorado and Washington recently approved ballot measures that legalize cannabis. The nation’s mood is changing, but Washington remains as cold as ever on the issue of drugs.

2. Targeted Drone Killings
In February 2012, before the presidential election really heated up, Glenn Greenwald wrote in Salon of the “repulsive liberal hypocrisy” concerning President Barack Obama’s use of unmanned drones to launch missiles at suspected terrorists in the Middle East. “A core plank in the Democratic critique of the Bush/Cheney civil liberties assault was the notion that the President could do whatever he wants, in secret and with no checks, to anyone he accuses without trial of being a Terrorist–even including eavesdropping on their communications or detaining them without due process,” Greenwald wrote. “But President Obama has not only done the same thing, but has gone much farther than mere eavesdropping or detention: he has asserted the power even to kill citizens without due process.”

Greenwald was right. Had George W. Bush instituted a policy of using drones to kill terrorist suspects abroad–even when said suspects were Americans and had constitutional rights to due process–the left would have howled. But when Obama began relying on the drones to carry out exactly those types of drone missions (which have resulted in the deaths of innocents), few officials in his own party stepped forward to protest.

The civil liberties enshrined in our constitution are going from real, tangible rights to mere words on a piece of paper. This is how dictatorships begin, Mr. Schatz, as I’m sure you understand.

3. Spying on Americans
Apparently, your first vote, taken just hours after being sworn in on Dec. 27, was for the “Leahy Amendment,” named for Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, which would have created a modest reform in the way our federal courts handle our spy services’ warrantless wiretapping of American citizens. It failed, of course (supporting our national security state’s war on civil liberties is very much a bipartisan issue), but your vote is definitely a step in the right direction.

Remember, Wired has spent the better part of the year reporting on how our clandestine National Security Agency has been spying on us Americans. Cell phone calls, emails, the works. And no warrants for any of it. Nor would they tell two U.S. Senators (your new Democratic Party colleagues Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado) the extent of it because–wait for it–doing so would violate our privacy.

Seriously, how long, given such news, can American officials such as yourself go around using the word “free” to describe this nation before the whole world considers it a bitter joke? And how long can we in Hawaii continue to walk a tightrope between our officials’ desire to placate the U.S. military, which has invested considerably in our state, and our citizens’ right to live free of authoritarianism?

4. Climate Change
This one should be easy for you. Last week you called climate change “the most urgent challenge of our generation” and said it was one of your top priorities. Well, you said it, brother: “challenge” is the word. Even the majority of people who accept that industrialization is helping to warm our planet’s climate, which has the potential to cause all sorts of ecological problems (drought, famine, pandemics, extinctions, etc.) probably aren’t ready for the wholesale life changes that dealing effectively with climate change will entail.

Solar and wind farms are great, but how much of the nation’s grid is hooked to those things? What percentage of the population is driving a zero-emission car? And what percentage of those people charge their electric car with power generated in a clean, environmentally responsible manner? And how are we going to provide power to all those computers, television screens, smartphones and tablets the whole world is clamoring for?

“Challenge” is absolutely the right word, Senator. But identifying what needs to be done pales before your challenge: to translate your beliefs in the dangers of climate change into legislative change that will be acceptable to a Washington (and Hawaii) that is absolutely addicted to internal combustion engines.

5. Ocean Pollution
Look, even if our world’s climate wasn’t undergoing massive, dangerous changes, we’d still have do something about the garbage we’re tossing in our oceans. I’m talking runoff from land development, plastic junk (which is leading to catastrophe for the bird and sea life that lives in the delicate Northwest Hawaiian Islands) and the dumping of other various toxins, which over time has included human, industrial and even nuclear sources. Hell, there are chemical munitions dating from World War I that are lying just off the coast of Oahu that may or may not be responsible for a statistical rise in cancer among West Oahu residents.

It’s not a pretty, sexy issue, and it’s fraught with trouble, given that it requires stuff like global treaties (which the Senate must ratify!) and agreements, but it’s vital if we as a race are going to stop causing the extinction of so many species.

6. Poverty
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 15 percent of all Americans (and roughly 20 percent of all American children) live below the poverty line. That means they lack access to goods and services (higher education, health care, Xboxes) that most Americans take for granted. In Hawaii, the Census Bureau says the poverty rate is more like 17 percent.

How can this be? Back in 2000, the poverty rate for the nation was 12 percent. So for the last dozen years, what our leaders often describe as the richest and most powerful nation on Earth has also been getting poorer. That, Mr. Senator, is messed up.

*****

These are just the thoughts of a citizen of Hawaii who did not vote for you (none of us have been given that privilege as of yet) but still relies on you for representation in Washington. And nothing I’ve outlined here lends itself to easy, straightforward solutions.

But what do you have to lose? Even if the 2014 race doesn’t go your way, you can always just return to Hawaii and get yourself appointed or elected to some decent job out here.
For politicians, there are far worse punishments for those whose actions mirror their own consciences than that.

Sincerely, Anthony