In late April, in the final days of the Hawaii Legislature’s 2014 session, Gov. Neil Abercrombie suddenly dropped a bombshell on legislators.
The administration had brokered a deal for the state to conserve more than 600 acres of Turtle Bay Resort land that was slated for development.
There was just one problem: Abercrombie did not explain how the state would come up with the $40 million required to seal the deal.
Many legislators were shocked by the governor’s action.
While they were generally supportive of the deal for Turtle Bay on Oahu’s North Shore, they had already largely locked down a $12 billion spending plan for fiscal year 2015.
The budget included hundreds of millions of dollars for important projects in legislators’ districts, something especially critical in an election year like 2014. House Speaker Joe Souki said it might be better to hold off on taking up Turtle Bay until the governor’s agreement could be examined more closely.
But David Ige, the chairman of Senate Ways and Means, proposed a novel way to come up with the $40 million: restructure the debt owed on the Hawaii Convention Center.
“At first it seemed there was no way to do this,” said Sen. Laura Thielen, a member of Ways and Means. “All the CIP (capital improvement projects) was committed, there was no money. But David decided to take a look at what could be done.”
“He was the one who saved Turtle Bay, and he didn’t have to.” — Sen. Laura Thielen
Thielen described the effort as an “almost lose-lose” situation for Ige because he was bound to upset some lawmakers if he took away CIP funds or cut money for programs. He would also be handing a victory to Abercrombie, whom Ige is challenging in the Democratic primary for governor.
“But overnight he found a solution. He was the one who saved Turtle Bay and he didn’t have to,” said Thielen. “It was so tempting to say at the last minute, ‘All the money is accounted for.’ But that was one where he went to solve the problem and found a way.”
Ige’s Turtle Bay solution, say Thielen and others who have worked closely with Ige in the Legislature, illustrates his leadership style: work with all stakeholders, often quietly, to solve a problem without worrying who gets the credit.
Ige told Civil Beat he would bring the same approach to policy and governance should he be elected governor as he has employed during his 29 years as a legislator.
“I do believe I bring a different style of leadership,” he said. “I would look for people with shared core values — being open, honest, caring for the community, being respectful, listening and doing the right thing. I am collaborative. I would identify all stakeholders and bring them to the table, talk about the issues and find common goals.”
Seasoned political observers might understandably groan when they hear yet another politician say how they are different and will make a difference. But a half-dozen of Ige’s fellow lawmakers say the senator is entirely sincere.
“I see no artifice or guile,” said Rep. Gregg Takayama, a House Democrat who is helping Ige with his campaign on a volunteer basis. “What you see with him is what you get, and that is his leadership style. He leads by example, not rhetoric. You put your nose to the grindstone, do the hard work and research. That is not unlike the qualities of a professional engineer. Just get the job done.”
Sen. Les Ihara agrees.
“His basic approach to things is like an engineer,” he said. “You identify a problem and then you solve it. It’s very straightforward without drama.”
Ige, if you don’t already know, is an engineer.
He earned a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, then went to work for GTE Hawaiian Tel. He later took graduate courses at UH and earned a master of business administration in decision sciences.
In addition to his legislative work, Ige has 34 years experience as an electrical engineer and project manager focused on information technology, telecommunications, network and public policy. He was a program and project manager with Robert A. Ige and Associates, his older brother’s firm, but resigned to run for governor .
Ige brought his engineering skills and analytical ways to the Legislature when he was appointed to a vacancy in the House of Representatives in 1986 by Gov. George Ariyoshi.
“We have been in the Chess Club since the very beginning,” said Ihara, who was elected to the House in 1987 and who moved over with Ige to the Senate in 1994. “It used to be called the Aloha Bamboo Club, then the Chess Club. We were not the popular group. We were the more nerdy group.”
The group included Suzanne Chun Oakland, who is still in the Senate, and Carol Fukunaga, who is now on the Honolulu City Council.
Ihara said Ige, though he has evolved, is still “pretty much the same guy” he was when they first met — “basically, a techy nerd. I remember he was PC and Carol and I were Mac. But we came together because of that documentary on Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.”
Ihara is referring to “Triumph of the Nerds,” a 1996 television documentary that used as its title a play on the 1984 film “Revenge of the Nerds.”
“When that happened, nerds became cool,” said Ihara. “They were the ones who created things. But David was always like that.”
“A lot of times it’s not the guy that screams and shouts that gets things done.” — Rep. Sylvia Luke
A common stereotype of nerds — and something that has been raised by some as a concern about Ige’s mild-mannered character — is that he might be easily pushed around by stronger personalities. But Ige’s colleagues say that’s just not the case.
“Absolutely not,” said Rep. Sylvia Luke, chairwoman of House Finance. “The thing is, he makes a decision and sticks by it. I’ve never seen a situation where I felt like he was a pushover. And I have never felt he would take advantage of me.”
Ige’s approach to legislating and working through the budget, said Luke, was even-handed.
“A lot of times it’s not the guy that screams and shouts that gets things done,” she said. “Clearly, you look at the Legislature, with all the personalities and needs and demands, and for four years this guy was able to get things through and have the respect of both chambers. That’s kind of amazing. So no, he could not be pushed around.”
Luke did not know Ige well until she became Finance chair two years ago. By then, Ige was already into his third year as WAM chairman.
“It was huge learning curve for me, and I can tell you that the surprising thing was he was very fair,” she said of her experience working directly with her Senate counterpart. “Unlike what people thought, he did not want to play games on any issue.”
Luke continued: “He did not hold up anything hostage for leverage. He was very up and up. Everything was based on the merits. That made it very easy for me, because that is how I proceed on decisions.”
Thielen, Takayama, Ihara and Luke — all Democrats — are supporting Ige’s campaign and have contributed donations. But Ige also draws praise from the other side of the aisle.
“I’ve known him for nearly 30 years, and I have always had respect for him,” said Sam Slom, the only Republican in the 25-member Senate. “And as far as how I have specifically been treated in WAM, I could not ask for anything more.”
Slom described Ige as fair and open, even when Ige’s committee has overridden him as chair.
“When that happened, he did not try to be heavy-handed,” said Slom. “What I like most is, because of his engineering background, he is very thoughtful. He will look at things differently than a lot of our colleagues. He is willing to listen to all of his committee members.”
Thielen, who also sits on WAM, said she admires how Ige will post his recommendations for WAM business online so that his intentions are known.
“He will look at things differently than a lot of our colleagues. He is willing to listen to all of his committee members.” — Sen. Sam Slom
“More astoundingly, he then encourages discussion on it,” she said. “There were times when other senators would bring up concerns of this impact or that, and he would change and adapt his recommendations to address matters that either he had not fully considered or because new testimony of information came along.”
Thielen continued: “There is no ego involved. He always strives to make the best policy decision, the best fiscal decision he could make. And that’s impressive, because there could be a lot of abuse of power with a $12 billion budget. But I never saw any personal agenda or favoritism. David gave as much time and access to me, a freshman, as to senators he had worked with for 20 to 30 years.”
Takayama said he was surprised when he first heard that Ige was going to run for governor.
“To be honest, I could not figure out why he would give up a safe seat and chair of WAM,” he said. “The more I became exposed to him, the more I learned about him. My impression was that he was doing this because he truly believes it’s the right thing to do.”
Running for office means talking about accomplishments, something his colleagues say does not come easily to him.
“He finds it very difficult to embellish or exaggerate what he has done,” said Takayama. “We have a hard time getting him to take credit for things he has actually done.”
“Once he makes up his mind, he will stick to it.” — Rep. Scott Saiki
Luke said Ige deserves major credit for the state’s plan to bring down its unfunded liabilities for state employee health and retiree plans.
“Unfunded liabilities is something everyone takes credit for, but actually it was his bill,” she said. “The governor may have raised the idea about the payments, but David pretty much crafted the idea. It’s an example of his fiscal approach to government.”
Like Luke, Scott Saiki, the House majority leader, did not know Ige very well until he and Luke came into leadership positions two years ago. He, too, has been impressed by what he has seen.
“What I have observed is through a district issue, which is Kakaako,” said Saiki, who represents the area. “David met with residents when they asked for meetings. He listened to their concerns and engaged with them. And then he assisted them with legislation.”
Saiki’s House Bill 1866 made significant changes to the way the Hawaii Community Development Authority operates its control over Kakaako development.
“Once he makes up his mind, he will stick to it,” said Saiki, who has also contributed to Ige’s campaign. “He will also explain to people how he arrived at a decision.”
Ige was asked recently at a candidate forum what accomplishment he is most proud of. He said it was his work to improve public access and transparency at the Legislature.
“There were so may internal rules when I got in that prohibited that,” he said. “I have changed those rules, so the gridlock that happens in Congress can never happen at the state Legislature. You can go online to access documents, and you can track every single transaction of the state budget.”
Ige said his experiences, accomplishments and relationships as a legislator are his biggest strengths as a possible governor.
“I think they know that I am one who is more interested in doing good than in looking good, and I think that everybody respects that,” he told reporters last week.” I am confident that I can work with them. You know, in order for us to move the state forward, it really is about all of us working together on a common goal and a common vision. It’s about having priorities, it’s about the give and take of embracing good ideas regardless of where they start or where they end or where they come from.”
Ige concluded, “And that’s a fundamental difference that an Ige administration would have from the current administration.”
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