- Associated Press - Friday, March 21, 2014

HONOLULU (AP) - U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz says he plans to focus on Social Security, climate change and middle-class issues like college affordability in his work in the Senate and his campaign to hold on to his seat.

In an interview Thursday with the Associated Press, Schatz said he feels positive about the race for the Senate seat once held by the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, and he looks forward to debating his Democratic primary opponent, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.

Both candidates have been in Congress for a few years, so voters will have a unique chance to compare their voting records to see who has been more effective in lawmaking and securing appropriations for Hawaii, he said.

“This doesn’t have to be a theoretical exercise,” Schatz said. “We’re excited for the conversations. I like my opponent, but there are differences between the two of us.”

For example, he has been more aggressive than his opponent on the issue of Social Security, Schatz said. He is committed to raising the level of Social Security benefits by $65 per month, and he was one of the first lawmakers to sign on to legislation to increase benefits. Schatz believes the Social Security fund can be solvent until 2049 if Congress removes the cap on taxable earnings.

He said it’s really important to change the conversation in Washington, where beltway personalities are “fixated on red,” referring to budget deficits.

“A lot of families in Hawaii have three generations under one roof, and mine is no exception,” Schatz said. “The average Social Security benefit in Hawaii is roughly $14,000 a year, and that is not enough to make it in the state of Hawaii.”

Making college more affordable is another priority for Schatz. In particular, he wants to consider defunding some for-profit, online colleges where graduation rates are low as 3 to 5 percent. Instead, those federal dollars could be redirected to schools like the University of Hawaii, he said.

“There are some institutions that are not doing right by their students, and we’re going to try to assist them in improving. But if they’re not able to get on the right track, then they don’t have the right to federal funding,” Schatz said. “They are really saddling these young men and women with enormous debt. Most of them don’t graduate, and we think that’s wrong.”

Schatz also said he’s building a grassroots network of concerned citizens to pressure lawmakers on climate change. His strategy is to build enough citizen-based momentum that both Democratic and Republican candidates have to take climate change seriously.

Then he would to push back on attempts to overturn environmental regulations, and eventually have the opportunity to propose new climate-friendly laws.

“I think we are on climate change where we were on gay rights and immigration several years ago,” Schatz said. “We are on the cusp of a real dramatic shift in public opinion.”