FIRST OF TWO PARTS
David Ige won his upset victory in 2014 to become governor largely because he was not Neil Abercrombie, the incumbent governor who had enraged much of the Hawaii Democratic Party.
Ige was the quiet guy who rolled the political dice in a long-shot run against a fellow Democrat. He was largely unknown when he won, but has had almost two years as governor to introduce himself to the public.
Judging from the griping in Hawaii’s political circles, that introduction hasn’t gone all that well.
Observers agree Ige has done nothing to arouse the kind of public furor that helped eject Abercrombie from office. Ige is likable, and the voting public seems unconcerned with any shortcomings he might have as Hawaii’s chief executive.
Still, disappointed political insiders fault Ige for remaining low-key and low-profile in a job many believe requires strong, outspoken leadership. And some Democrats are aggressively casting about for a well-known candidate who is willing to challenge Ige in 2018.
That is a curious predicament for an intelligent and generally inoffensive governor in a state that rarely rejects incumbents. But Ige’s political critics contend he failed to lead the state on some pivotal issues, and grumble that they can’t get firm decisions, commitments or straight answers from his administration.
Most Democrats are reluctant to publicly criticize Ige because of his influence over state money and policy, but Republicans tend to be more blunt. State Rep. Bob McDermott (R, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point) recently vented frustration with Ige for failing to move quickly to address severe overcrowding at Campbell High School, where two of McDermott’s children are students.
“David’s not a leader. He’s a very nice guy, I’m friendly with him, but he couldn’t lead his way out of a paper bag,” McDermott said. McDermott complains that Ige wrongly deferred to state lawmakers on which school construction projects should move forward first, and West Oahu students lost out as a result.
“David’s not leading. He knows in his heart these things should be done,” said McDermott, who is suing the administration to demand faster action on a new classroom building for Campbell, and more money to cool Campbell’s overheated classrooms. “He has to do them. So, when are you going to do them?”
Ige’s supporters say the governor has perhaps been too modest and quiet about his accomplishments in his first two years, and claim the people who are out searching for a candidate to run against Ige in 2018 are mostly sour because they have lost influence.
According to the Ige camp, many or most of the malcontents are lobbyists who enjoyed political clout during the Abercrombie years, and were dismayed to discover they cannot influence Ige.
Another piece of Ige’s political problem may be that he is an engineer by training, and an unrepentant technocrat.
His administration is investing in complicated initiatives such as upgrading the state’s information technology and payroll systems, and setting aside money to begin paying down the state’s multibillion-dollar unfunded public pension and health care liabilities.
No one criticizes those efforts, which are necessary and probably overdue, but they are not the sort of projects that cause voters to gasp with delight. To some, they are boring.
‘Lack of leadership’
In areas that have been the focus of more public and media attention, Ige has been criticized for his approach. This is particularly true of the 2015 standoff with protesters opposed to the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea on Hawaii island.
When protesters blocked the mountain road leading to the telescope construction site, people perceived Ige’s response “as kind of a lack of leadership,” said Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Ige announced a pause in construction activities, but also said publicly that he supports the TMT project. His handling of the conflict frustrated both supporters of TMT who want the project to move forward, and opponents of the telescope who want it stopped.
Kealoha Pisciotta, a cultural practitioner on Mauna Kea and an opponent of the TMT, said she accompanied Ige to the mountain to pray, and met with him in his office to discuss the issue. But she wasn’t satisfied with his response to the protests, either.
“He said publicly that he was willing to bring out the National Guard, which provoked a sense of fear and outrage from my side … because he’s calling them out when in fact they don’t have a right to move forward (with the project),” she said.
Blake Oshiro, a former state lawmaker who served as deputy chief of staff under Abercrombie and now works as a lobbyist, said Ige has been considerably more decisive in his first two years on a handful of issues that are important to voters. Those include committing $100 million to cool Hawaii’s sweltering public school classrooms, and Ige’s outspoken opposition to a $4.3 billion bid by Florida-based NextEra Energy Inc. to buy Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc., the state’s largest utility. The NextEra purchase failed when the Public Utilities Commission rejected it, a clear victory for Ige.
However, Ige himself describes his “Cool the Schools” initiative as “my biggest frustration.” Ige promised last January to cool 1,000 classrooms by the end of 2016, and convinced lawmakers to appropriate $100 million to install air conditioners and other equipment to lower the temperatures in state classrooms.
Unexpectedly costly bids by contractors contributed to delays, and Ige said in an interview that so far work has been completed in only 164 classrooms. Bids have been awarded for another 207, he said.
“I wish we were further along,” Ige said. “It does take a while in state government to process things, but I know that we’ll get there. We are making progress.”
Search for alternative
Ige points to education reform as another one of his administration’s key accomplishments, but his new “blueprint” for the public school system also needs more time before the public sees any dramatic results.
The blueprint has not yet been made public, and Ige jokes that it “is in draft 50 or so right now.” The administration hosted a summit and a series of public meetings to invite the public to describe what direction public schools should take in the 21st century, and that process attracted more than 3,000 participants, Ige said.
“It really is about encouraging innovation, initiative, problem solving — things that are not so easily discernible in standardized tests,” he said. Ige plans to present lawmakers with a package of education reform bills in 2017.
There have been many education reform efforts in the past — Ige said as a lawmaker he personally dealt with education reform for 30 years — but “the difference is we have a governor that believes in what needs to happen, and understands the different players,” he said.
In the near term, overhauling public education has been messy. For example, even some of Ige’s supporters agree he was clumsy in his handling of the decision to replace state Superintendent of Schools Kathryn Matayoshi.
Ige denies he had any role in the decision by the state Board of Education to allow Matayoshi’s contract to expire next year, but Matayoshi says Ige told her he wanted new leadership. Ige appointed eight of the nine members on the board, and many people believe the governor was involved.
“Things like that are just accumulating, and while I don’t think that this governor is dead and buried, and I don’t believe that he’s doomed to lose a re-election bid, it is causing people in some quarters to look for an alternative,” said Randy Perreira, executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association.
That includes people in the building trades unions who hope to convince U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa to run for governor in 2018. Observers agree that if a prominent candidate such as Hanabusa enters the race, the contest would likely be competitive.
Ige, who says he will run for re-election in 2018, refuses to quarrel publicly with his critics. His supporters say he accepts that he may face significant primary opposition in two years, but he won’t change his approach to the governor’s job.
Staff with Hanabusa’s office said she was unavailable for an interview on the subject.
THE TOUGH ISSUES
Gov. David Ige had his share of controversy in his first two years as governor. A few examples:
Issue: Ige nominated Carleton Ching as chairman of the state Board of Land and Natural Resources in 2015. Ching was vice president of community and government relations for Castle & Cooke Hawaii, one of the largest developers in the state.
Outcome: Ching’s nomination to become manager of environmental and cultural resources and state lands triggered an uproar among environmentalists. Ige lobbied senators and testified in support of Ching’s confirmation, but finally withdrew the nomination.
Issue: Protesters opposed to development of the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope near the summit of Mauna Kea on Hawaii island blocked construction crews from reaching the construction site in 2015. Dozens of protesters were arrested, and Ige announced a temporary halt in construction.
Outcome: The construction time-out was extended considerably when the Hawaii Supreme Court in December 2015 invalidated a conservation district permit for the project. A contested case hearing is now underway in Hilo to help decide if the Board of Land and Natural Resources should issue a new permit.
Issue: Florida-based NextEra Energy Inc. and Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc. announced in 2014 that NextEra planned to purchase the Hawaii utility for a total of $4.3 billion. Ige announced the following year that he opposed the deal.
Outcome: The state Public Utilities Commission in a 2-0 vote denied NextEra’s purchase of HEI, citing doubts about NextEra’s commitment to the state’s goal to reach 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. The commission also questioned how much the sale would actually benefit Hawaii consumers.
Issue: The public school system serves 180,000 students, and Superintendent of Schools Kathryn Matayoshi has run it since 2010. She won a favorable evaluation from the state Board of Education in September, but was notified in October that her contract will not be renewed. Matayoshi told the board she wants to continue in the job.
Outcome: Ige has appointed eight of the nine members of the Board of Education responsible for hiring and firing the superintendent, but said he wasn’t involved in the decision to replace Matayoshi. However, Ige did not include Matayoshi in his effort to draft a new “blueprint” for the future of public education, and Matayoshi said Ige met with her in October to tell her he wanted a leadership change.
Issue: Ige supported turning three state-run hospitals in Maui County over to a private operator. The initiative to shift control of Maui Memorial Medical Center, Kula Hospital & Clinic and Lanai Community Hospital to a nonprofit hospital company is the largest privatization effort in state history.
Outcome: State lawmakers authorized the plan, and Ige signed a deal to have Kaiser Permanente operate the hospitals. Ige predicted this will save the state $260 million over the next decade. Public worker unions representing about 1,400 hospital employees fought the changeover, which has been delayed until July 1, 2017.
Issue: Ige proposed increases in the state’s gasoline tax, vehicle weight tax and registration fees in 2016 to help finance road construction projects, but lawmakers rejected the tax increases.
Outcome: State Department of Transportation officials announced they are deferring hundreds of millions of dollars in long-awaited, highway projects designed to ease traffic congestion because without the tax increases, they don’t have enough money to build them. Ige said he will re-introduce the gasoline and other tax increases in 2017.
Issue: The state held a $1 billion surplus as of June 30 — the largest surplus in state history — but the Ige administration proposed that tens of thousands of state and county public workers receive no raises for the next two years.
Outcome: Ige wants to tuck away part of the budget surplus as cash reserves, and to pay down public workers’ future pension and health care costs. Negotiations with the state’s public worker unions are ongoing, but the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association has turned to binding arbitration to try to reach an agreement with the state and counties.