KAKA‘AKO – Mazie Hirono paid a visit to the Independent’s studio recently, where she talked foreign policy, gun control, and filibuster. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Independent: Do you think that the democratic process in the Senate would be strengthened by an end to the Unanimous Consent Calendar and the Threat to Filibuster Rule?
Mazie Hirono: I think that we have, definitely, a conversation about putting some parameters around the use of the filibuster and requirement for sixty votes before anything can come to the floor of the Senate. So, yes; I don’t know that we’d totally get rid of it, but definitely more and more people are saying that’s something that ought to be looked at.
The Independent: What are your three legislative goals for this term?
Mazie Hirono: You mean, should I get elected?
Independent: Should you get elected, yes. Six years, one term.
Mazie Hirono: I’ve been very much focused on the need to create jobs because we’re still in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. As I talk with people all across the State, clearly their main concern, really, is jobs and getting our economy going. Then, going forward, of course we need to have a strong education system so that our kids can succeed in school and in life. Also, over the long term, we need to become both energy and food self-sufficient in the State because we are the most dependent on imports for both our energy and food. So there I have a path to sustainability that focuses on how I think that we should move on both energy and food self-sufficiency. And this came about as a result of talking with a lot of advocates in terms of both energy self-sufficiency and food, so I talked to a lot of farmers, with energy advocates and we came up with what I think is a way forward. But at the same time, this is not a plan that is in concrete where all kinds of new ideas that come up.
Let me just give you an example of what I mean by energy self-sufficiency: I think it’s really important to get rid of the four billion dollars that we taxpayers give to big oil every single year, they certainly do not need it. I also think that we ought to help our people transition from the fossil fuel based economy, especially with regards for transportation, into something that is more dependent on alternative and renewable, so biofuels and these are all areas that we should go into. And we need to train a workforce that is prepared for the jobs in what I envision to be in a clean energy environment. We also should enable people to become much more energy self-sufficient; efficient I should say, so that means continue to have incentives to help people put photovoltaic cells on their homes and in their business. So these are all ways for us to move towards energy self-sufficiency in Hawaii.
The Independent: By incentives, you are referring to continued tax breaks for energy?
Mazie Hirono: I think that’s still really critical. Because we give big oil four billion by statute, whereas the tax breaks that we give for solar and other alternative uses, those have to be renewed every so many years. So it’s really hard for the alternative energy side to move in the way that we need to. And this is why I’ve called for national renewable energy and efficiency standards. By having national standards, I think that it really focuses us on how important energy security is for our country. I think it will really incentivize the private sector to put in some money to move us in the direction we need to go.
The Independent: Given the recent string of high-profile shootings, will you push for more gun control?
Mazie Hirono: I think we need to have a national conversation about the need for gun control. For example, I think that Hawaii has struck more of a balance between the rights of an individual to own guns and the safety of the community. So if you look at Hawaii’s laws, I think that that’s probably a pretty good balance and that’s not the case in every state.
The Independent: Are you proposing that the Hawaii model could be something that other states should copy?
Mazie Hirono: I think some states have done a better job, in my view, of balancing the right of gun owners and the safety of the public. For example, we don’t allow people to take guns into church. We require people to get training in the use of guns, not every state requires that. I think we should have a national conversation because we have too many mass-killings using guns, in my opinion.
The Independent: China is experiencing an economic slowdown. Does this make you feel that we may be too economically dependent on them?
Mazie Hirono: Considering we owe a lot of money to China, I think one of the ways that we can equal the balance of trade a little more is to really foster more Chinese that travel to our country, because tourism is an export industry. And tourism does help to balance our trade deficit with many countries. So I do have a bill called the Visit USA bill which is a bi-partisan bill that would enable a lot more Chinese visitors to come to our country and Hawaii would a prime beneficiary of these kind of changes to our Visa application requirements.
The Independent: But in terms of the entire United States, is the US itself too depend on this expectation that China will continue to grow at an infinite?
Mazie Hirono: I wouldn’t be able to answer that question right now because I think that what you want is to have much more of a better balance between what our country is exporting and what we’re importing so that’s a large part of what we’re talking about. I think this is why something as practical as having more Chinese visitors come to our country clearly will help the balance of trade and make us less dependent on whatever’s happening with the Chinese economy and I don’t know if the Chinese economy slow down is going to be that precipitous, either.
The Independent: I’ve been following stories in the [Wall Street] Journal and folks are very concerned about it.
Mazie Hirono: No, it’s kind of hard to keep up with an eight percent or whatever growth that they have been having year after year after year.
The Independent: I think it’s down to 7.6.
Mazie Hirono: That’s still quite a lot when you think of an economy as big as China.
The Independent: What is your response to people in Guam, Okinawa, and here in Hawaii who oppose the militarization of their lands as part of the Pacific Pivot?
Mazie Hirono: That’s one of the reasons that we’re moving our Marines out of Okinawa. Certainly Guam can’t take all of them and that’s why there is a discussion going on right now about where these troops are going to go. Some of them are going to come to Hawaii, some of them may rotate through Australia, it is still a matter of discussion. I think we want to have a balance, but at the same time the military is very much a part of our community and they are a huge part of our economy, military and tourism. And that says to me that, one, we need to be good neighbors with our military and the conversations need to occur as to how we can accommodate the transition of whatever these troop movements might be but at the same time it just points out how we need to diversify Hawaii’s economy. And I think one of the ways we diversify the economy is to move towards clean energy and an energy self-sufficient economy.
The Independent: In Kaneohe there’s a lot of residents who are getting upset about the sound of military planes flying above, they’re worried about increased noise levels because of the Ospreys. What would you say to them?
Mazie Hirono: I think this is why we need to continue the conversation and the dialogue because the military is a very important part of our economy and we need to be talking with them. I think that a large part of any communities concern about military activity in the state is they may not have the information; they may not have been invited to sit at the table to have their concerns being addressed and heard. So, there are communities where there are ongoing conversations with the military about their activities. I think that’s really important.
The Independent: I’ve got one more before our last question. You spoke about continuing the clean energy initiative and really about the consumer side of it, but what about the business side of it? How do you plan to make renewable energy a more key industry in Hawaii?
Mazie Hirono: One of the ways is that we should be putting a lot more resources into the research and development of renewables. So, for example, on the floor of the House there was a bill that was going to put even more money into fossil fuel research. That’s basically oil. I put in an amendment that said we should take some of this money and use it for research and development of alternative and renewables. That’s one of the ways. Then, if you have a national standard for renewable energy and energy efficiency, it incentivizes the private sector to put some money into those kinds of research and development. In addition, when we talk about clean energy initiative; the clean energy initiative got a huge, huge boost with over one hundred million dollars in federal money that came just for energy projects in Hawaii from the Federal Government thanks to the Recovery Act, which not one single Republican in the House voted for. That bill sent $1.4 billion to the State of Hawaii and $100 million of that, at least, was for energy projects in Hawaii. Hawaii has high standards, but those standards need money, need resources behind it, pretty much the Federal Government can put more into those projects in the State of Hawaii.
The Independent: Just a quick clarification, was part of that money for the undersea cable?
Mazie Hirono: No, there is no money for the undersea cable, it’s just an authorization that allows it.
The Independent: Does it [the undersea cable] make sense?
Mazie Hirono: It’s an authorization, we have a long way to go before it becomes real. There has to be all kinds of environmental impact statements and other kinds of federal and state laws that would need to be addressed before we move on. So this is, basically, here’s another option for us to consider. It’s just the case that when I talk with neighbor islanders people, they want to become energy self-sufficient on their own island before they start talking about energy being sent by cable to Oahu.
The Independent: For instance, on Lanai, there’s a possibility that Lanai could help to fund our energy needs on Oahu, but Lanai itself has a lot of basic infrastructure problems.
Mazie Hirono: And that’s why the community has got to be at the table, and their concerns need to be listened to and heard. I envision a lot of that going on before cable becomes a reality.
The Independent: Do you see yourself as being the heir to Senator Inouye’s legacy?
Mazie Hirono: (Laughs) If by that you mean that I share the values of Senator Inouye, Senator Akaka, taking care of our kupuna, taking care of our keiki, enabling people to support themselves, and getting our economy going, creating jobs, then I think that I very much am on the same page with them as well as people like Patsy Mink, Spark Matsunaga, who came before us. This election, it’s a very clear choice, in terms of which direction our country is going to go. Our next Senator should share our values, just as are articulated: let’s take care of our kupuna, that’s why I’m such a strong voice and advocate for keeping social security and Medicare strong. And why I care so much about our keiki and let’s make sure that our education system enables them to succeed in school and life and let’s create jobs so our people can take care of themselves and their families. Our next Senator should have those values and share those values. Now on the Republican side, it’s clear where their values are going. Their priorities are repeal Obamacare, where literally hundreds of thousands of seniors in Hawaii are already benefiting.
The Independent: You mean the Affordable Care Act?
We all refer to it as Obamacare, in fact, President Obama refers to it as Obamacare. The way I look at it is, I say, “Oh you mean Obama CARES?” That’s right.
Their priority is let’s repeal Obamacare, let’s repeal Wall Street reform so that the very people who got us into this economic crisis to a huge extent can just go on their merry way. Let’s continue the attacks on women; on their healthcare and choice. Let’s just balance the budget on the backs of middle-class people and extend the tax-breaks for the richest two percent. It’s very clear those are their priorities, in addition to “Drill, baby, drill.” That’s not the direction I want our country to go.
Correction: In the original interview, the Independent said that economic growth in China has slowed to 6.5%. The correct figure is 7.6%. The text has been updated with the correct statistic.