Gov. Neil Abercrombie‘s appointment of Bruce Coppa as chief of staff signals a shift in leadership from a longtime political aide with little Hawaii experience to an accomplished executive rooted in the state’s business and labor communities.

Abercrombie announced Thursday that his chief of staff, Amy Asselbaye, and deputy chief of staff, Andrew Aoki, had resigned “in order to spend more time with their families and young children.”

Asselbaye has worked with Abercrombie for nearly her entire professional life, starting in Washington, D.C., but didn’t have deep roots in Hawaii politics. Aoki was a newcomer to politics, joining Abercrombie’s gubernatorial campaign from Kanu Hawaii.

Coppa was named in December as comptroller for the state Department of Accounting and General Services.

Reached by Civil Beat Thursday, Coppa declined to comment on his new appointment.

New Jersey Native

Coppa, a New Jersey native whose family originally came from Sicily, has spent the past 36 years in Hawaii. He graduated from high school in 1971, and three years later earned a business administration degree from Fairleigh Dickinson College. He also holds a master’s degree in Business Administration Global Management from the University of Phoenix.

Coppa started his Hawaii career on Maui, climbing the corporate ladder of construction company E.E. Black Construction. He spent 18 years with the firm.

He then served as executive director for 11 years for the Pacific Resource Partnership, an organization representing contractors and the carpenters union. He spent five years as chief operating officer for Communications Pacific, one of Hawaii’s top public relations firms, before launching Coppa Consulting, a boutique management-consulting firm.

Overwhelming Labor, Business Support

Coppa’s nomination to the comptroller position received overwhelming support from labor union leaders, construction firms, real estate developers, and heavyweights in Hawaii’s business and nonprofit communities.

His nomination, which required Senate confirmation, received about 100 pieces of testimony in support.

Supporters repeatedly described Coppa as having integrity and a good sense of humor, being a problem-solver and a strong business leader with a commitment to the community.

The testimony speaks to the strong support Coppa carries from local unions. The heads of the United Public Workers union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union, the Hawaii Laborers’ Union and the Hawaii Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust all supported Coppa, highlighting his ability to understand the industry and its challenges.

In addition to union support, Coppa received backing from local business executives, most of whom noted a personal and professional relationship with him. These included executives of:

  • The Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii
  • Castle & Cooke Hawaii
  • Swinerton Builders
  • Kiewit Building Group
  • Central Pacific Bank
  • Queen’s Health Systems
  • Young Brothers
  • The Gas Co.
  • Olelo Community Media
  • Honolulu Star-Advertiser
  • University of Hawaii Foundation
  • MW Group
  • DTRIC Insurance
  • HEMIC
  • Imanaka Kudo & Fujimoto
  • YMCA of Honolulu
  • March of Dimes

Supporters described Coppa with glowing qualities:

  • “A genuine leader”
  • Having “incredible problem-solving skills”
  • Having “business street smarts”
  • A “people person”
  • An “out of the box thinker”
  • Possessing “a ‘can do’ attitude”
  • “Fair-minded and honest”
  • Having “a great sense of humor to lighten tensions”
  • “An excellent volunteer and community citizen”
  • Having a “solid dedication to public interests and public service”
  • Having “a heart with the capacity for understanding and appreciation of those he encounters”
  • “Deeply committed to making Hawaii a better place”
  • Having “a professional and level demeanor to ensure a win/win result for all parties”
  • “Highly intelligent and very involved in community activities”
  • “A clear-thinker (who) deals with people in a no-nonsense, straightforward manner”
  • Having “a deep understanding of complex financial matters”
  • Having “exceptional communication skills”

Public’s Best Interest in Mind, Heart

In his own written testimony to the Senate, Coppa wrote:

“My vision for DAGS is to be able to provide quality service to the public with reliability, flexibility, responsiveness, and innovation. We can accomplish this by creating and enriching the environment through trust, cooperation, and mutual respect of our employees and customers.

“There are many challenges facing us as a State. While we might not be able resolve all these issues, you have my commitment that I will always have the public’s best interest in mind and in my heart.”

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