Gov. David Ige earned the respect of his colleagues during his long, successful career in the Hawaii Senate, which an outsider might assume earned him political capital to sway votes.
But that wasn’t the case during Ige’s first major political test as governor, when most of the members of his old political faction in the Senate — the Chess Club — were among the majority of senators who planned to reject his nominee to lead the Department of Land and Natural Resources before a scheduled vote Wednesday on the Senate floor.
The culture that Ige and his allies worked to build in the Senate helped to unravel one of his first major moves as governor.
"Under regular politics you go with your friends. We go beyond that," said Sen. Les Ihara, who was in the Chess Club with Ige for 20 years.
Ige had worked tirelessly to persuade his former colleagues to approve Carleton Ching as DLNR director, setting up meetings and sitting through hours of grueling confirmation hearings to defend Ching.
But the day of the scheduled vote, it became clear to Ige that his nominee didn’t have enough votes to be confirmed. During the floor session, senators stepped out for a recess. Then in a closed-door meeting, Ige, after learning the senators’ intended votes, announced to them that he would withdraw the nominee.
"He was quite hurt and understandably so," Ihara (D, Moiliili-Kaimuki-Palolo) said. "I mean, I would be if I were him. … Those of us who are close to him and voted no really respected him for respecting us, as hard as it was."
Ihara struggled with the decision on how he would vote, caught between the wishes of his respected colleague and crushing opposition from the public. Ihara had said in committee that he would support Ching when the full Senate took a vote, trusting the governor’s judgment.
But the opposition to Ching, a lobbyist for the land development firm Castle & Cooke, was the strongest that Ihara had seen in his two decades in the Senate, he said. So he did what he calls an "integrity check" in the days before the vote and then let the governor know he had a change of heart.
"Chess Club has always been big on integrity," said Sen. Josh Green (D, Naalehu-Kailua-Kona), who has been part of the Senate group for six years. "That always made it more important that I vote my conscience, which has always been what the Chess Club stood for, and voted for what was best for the state."
Green was among the first to state that he would vote no on Ching’s nomination. He received about 500 calls or emails against Ching for every comment he received in support, he said.
"Five hundred in a row? You never let that happen," Green said. "You have to tell your side of the story. And that’s a lesson he (Ige) probably learned."
While Ige loyally stood by his nominee, praising his leadership skills, many feel he didn’t fully explain why he chose a land developer to safeguard the environment. Ige and his chief of staff, Mike McCartney, declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed Thursday.
Ihara surmised that Ige may have seen Ching’s development background as an advantage.
"He (Ching) would know all the moves of the developers, all the strategies," Ihara said. "You have all that intelligence."
Anti-development sentiment is strong among Hawaii voters, who chose Ige over former Gov. Neil Abercrombie in part because of Abercrombie’s ties to developers, said Neal Milner, a political analyst. Ige’s decision to appoint a developer to his Cabinet isn’t enough to make people turn against him, but "it certainly makes people watch with a little more trepidation and a little more skepticism," Milner said.
The experience might also highlight the importance of a governor’s ability to articulate his vision. An engineer by trade, Ige is seen as thoughtful and analytical, but he has admitted that communication is not his strength.
"He should have worked harder to defend that person publicly," Milner said.