Gov. Neil Abercrombie yesterday appointed Marc Alexander, the former vicar general of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Honolulu, as his homeless coordinator, a sign the governor will reach out to the faith-based community as partners.
Abercrombie called homelessness a "civic sin" and said Alexander would work with state and federal agencies and community and business groups on potential solutions.
"I think everyone knows that homelessness is a sin — a civic sin — that we have to come to grips with," the governor said at a news conference at the state Capitol.
Alexander, 52, was second-in-command to Bishop Larry Silva at the diocese and often spoke for the church in public-policy debates. He described his decision to leave the priesthood after 25 years for a secular post as a "time to answer a call in a different direction."
Religion was an issue in the governor’s campaign after the state Republican chairman and others in the evangelical community questioned whether Abercrombie was a "righteous" candidate.
Abercrombie has said he is a confirmed Episcopalian but has downplayed organized religion as an influence, preferring daily meditations on the works of theologians and philosophers. The governor acknowledged that he and Alexander are at odds on some policy issues, but called their differences "immaterial" to their shared belief that there is an ethical responsibility to help the homeless.
Alexander was one of the leading opponents of same-sex marriage in the 1990s and often represented the church in the fight against civil unions over the past two years at the state Legislature. Abercrombie has said he would sign a civil-unions bill into law.
Alexander said he was "impressed and inspired" after listening to Abercrombie at a pastors’ discussion during the governor’s campaign and discovered after reading Abercrombie’s "A New Day in Hawaii" plan that he agreed with the Democrat about 90 percent of the time on policy.
"If someone had told me several months ago that this day, this event would be happening, I would have said that they had a very overly active imagination," said Alexander .
Bishop Silva said he was grateful for Alexander’s service to the diocese but stunned by his decision to leave.
"I was shocked and extremely disappointed by his recent decision to withdraw from priestly ministry, and I am sure that many will be as shocked and surprised as I was," he said.
Others in the faith-based community praised the appointment.
"Although housing and homelessness are not going to be solved overnight, I feel like this is a very important step towards solving it through the faith-based community," said the Rev. Bob Nakata, former president of the advocacy group Faith Action for Community Equity.
"To me, it’s a very positive development."
Abercrombie recalled arriving at his transition office at the State Office Tower after the election and finding a homeless man sleeping in the doorway. When he was leaving, he said, he saw another homeless man across the street sleeping on a bench near St. Andrew’s Cathedral.
The rise in homelessness during the state’s economic downturn has caused division between the state and Honolulu over responsibility, because the state provides many housing, social service and mental health programs, while the city has the law enforcement task of removing the homeless from parks and sidewalks.
"I thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to be governor and be worthy of the trust and faith that has been placed in me as a result of that vote if I don’t deal directly with that, and immediately with that, and see to it that I justify my existence with this role and this institutional position that I occupy,’" Abercrombie said.
Abercrombie, who received enthusiastic support from the gay community during his campaign, said he does not believe the appointment would alienate those who view Alexander as one of the voices against equal rights.
"No. The short answer is no. I do not expect that," the governor said. "I presume that the question, or the idea that there would be criticism, comes because of positions that Marc Alexander has that are different from mine. That’s immaterial, in my judgment."
Abercrombie said he believes the focus should be on their common ground.
"If the motivation happens to be, in Marc’s case, his deep and profound faith, his Christian faith, his Catholic faith — his Roman Catholic faith — then that brings us to this issue," he said.
"If my reasons are different from that, if they happen to have evolved out of a different background, what that means — in Hawaii — is that our diversity defines us rather than divides us."
Some of Abercrombie’s supporters, though, questioned the appointment.
"One has to question whether he will be effective in counseling runaway gay youth," said Jo-Ann Adams, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender caucus. "Many of the (homeless) people here are thrown out of their homes when their parents find out that they are gay."
"He told us earlier in the week that we would be surprised about his appointment, but I think ‘shocked’ is a better word," Adams said.