Democratic gubernatorial candidate David Ige was barely known to Hawaii voters when he trounced Gov. Neil Abercrombie last month in the biggest upset of an incumbent governor in a primary election in U.S. history.
Today, the 57 year-old Ige’s name is widely recognized here but most residents still don’t know much about him as a person or as a candidate.
They probably are unaware that he kept his parents in the dark after prestigious colleges such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology accepted him, and to this day he irons his own clothes and cooks his family’s everyday meals, and that he once liked to “toilet paper” his friends’ cars.
To find these things about Ige and more, I asked to meet with him outside of the workplace; to spend time with him doing something he enjoys. I also requested interviews with the friends he has known since his intermediate school days in Pearl City, and his teachers.
Campaign spokeswoman Lynn Kenton arranged for me to meet Ige at 7 a.m. last Thursday on the Pearl Harbor bike path where he likes to run.
Ige told me he used to jog about five miles three times a week but now with the campaign in full swing, he says, he hadn’t run in five weeks.
I was thinking it might be fun to do the interview while jogging. But I realized it would be difficult to keep up with him while trying to take notes and think of good questions to ask him. Besides, Ige is fast. He has run a Honolulu Marathon in a respectable four hours and 18 minutes.
After Civil Beat photographer PF Bentley took some pictures, I ran with Ige for a short distance before we sat down at a picnic table at Pearl City’s Blaisdell Park — not alone but surrounded by small clusters of homeless people on the grass or sitting at picnic tables in a nearby park pavilion.
As an example of how things have changed for Ige, people in the park recognized him; even some homeless men greeted him by name.
Ige says homelessness has increased dramatically in the last three years with people camped out everywhere, not just in Waikiki and in Chinatown but also in residential neighborhoods like his own Pearl City.
He says if he is elected governor he will address the issue “by engaging each and every community in Hawaii with nonprofits and churches in the communities working together to find shelter for the homeless campers who are the most motivated to find jobs.”
He sees the state, county and federal governments joining the effort by providing services and housing to vagrants eager to work.
Ige admits his plan excludes hard-core homeless people who elect to live on the streets and have no intention of working. But he says by focusing on motivated individuals first “it will allow us to reduce the numbers of homeless.”
When Ige was growing up in Pearl City in the 1960s and 1970s, most people didn’t worry about homelessness. Extreme poverty wasn’t as visible in Hawaii as it is today.
Both of Igeʻs grandfathers had worked on Oahu sugar plantations. Ige’s father, the late Tokio Ige, served with the 100th Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Europe, where he was wounded in France. After World War II, Ige’s father was employed as a steelworker on construction projects. Ige’s mother, Tsurue Ige, worked as a registered nurse and a dental assistant. The family is Buddhist.
Ige was the fifth child in a family of six boys. With his parents working fulltime, Ige says he learned by the time he was in the third grade to cook, clean, do laundry and iron — chores he continues to do in his Pearl City home today.
Loren Yamamoto, who is now a physician, became friends with Ige in the seventh grade at Highlands Intermediate School. Yamamoto says Ige’s parents were the least well off of all his friends and sometimes had to struggle when Ige’s father was between construction jobs and Ige’s mother became the sole breadwinner.
Ige’s campaign manager, attorney Keith Hiraoka, remembers their childhood days before there were cell phones and computer games, playing out of doors with Ige, riding their bikes and organizing football games on the streets and shooting baskets at the Pearl City rec center.
Hiraoka met Ige at Highlands Intermediate where he said they were “band geeks” — Hiraoka played the tenor drum, Ige played the tuba.
When I asked Hiraoka about Ige’s main hobby then, he laughed. “I think his hobby was studying. He was very studious, very smart.”
Pearl City High School news-writing teacher Arlene Aranita remembers that Ige was always very kind to the other students. She said sometimes, when she and the students were working hard to make their deadlines for the school paper, “The Messenger,” one of them would say something negative about another student. Ige would say, “Eh, you folks. Watch out. Be nice.” Aranita said Ige always spoke well of other people.
Ige applied to the University of California at Berkeley and MIT. But he didn’t tell his parents when he got into Cal at Berkley, MIT and other top engineering schools. He simply informed them he had been accepted at the University of Hawaii, where he planned to enroll.
Ige says, “I didn’t want them to know about MIT because I knew it would be difficult for them to afford it. I also knew if I decided to go the to the mainland it would limit my youngest brother’s options for college.”
Ige worked during the summers at the Del Monte Pineapple Cannery for $1.60 an hour to help pay for his own education.
Childhood friend Yamamoto said he didn’t know until very recently that Ige had been accepted at MIT. “That’s how humble he is,” says Yamamoto.
At the UH where Ige studied to become an electrical engineer and later got a master’s degree in business administration, he continued to hang around with his Pearl City High School friends.
Hiraoka says that through college and to this day Ige continues to be very straight, that he does not drink alcohol, or smoke cigarettes or marijuana.
The only possible scandal that could be attached to Ige, Hiraoka says, was his eagerness as a freshman at the UH to help his Pearl City friends “toilet paper” the cars of friends who had scored dates when they had not.
Hiraoka recalls that Ige nearly crashed his battered green Oldsmobile Cutlass which he’d named “Norman Greenbaum” after the singer famous for the song “Spirit in the Sky.” This was when they were all out on a toilet-papering expedition and came across the dating couple whose car they intended to toilet paper still sitting in their car.
Ige yelled to all his friends riding in “Norman Greenbaum” to duck so they wouldn’t be seen; Ige, the driver, ducked down so low to hide himself that his car nearly swerved into a tree.
If this all sounds kind of nerdy, Ige admits to being a nerd but he assures me that many nerds and geeks have gone on to become highly successful.
Ige’s strangely attractive laugh is about his only characteristic that friends say propels him into the rock star category. It is a combination of a giggle, a guffaw and a chuckle. I have never heard a laugh like it. It cuts through the air in any room.
Ige’s wife Dawn, who is now a public school vice principal, says it was David Ige’s laugh that first drew her to him when they were students at the UH.
“The laugh — it was loud,” say Dawn Ige. “ It also showed me that someone who was intelligent but also had a sense of humor and lots of laughter in his life. I knew from that point on, life with David would not be boring.”
Childhood friend Yamamoto says, “When you hear David’s laugh, you turn to find him in a room. It is so distinctive. It is like his fingerprint.”
After college, Ige says he was offered 41 engineering jobs. He has worked as an engineer ever since, full time when the Legislature is not in session and part time during the session.
After 34 years of working in the private sector, Ige finally quit his full-time engineering work in July 2013 when he announced he was running for governor.
Ige says he has always considered himself a full-time engineer, not a full-time politician. He says before each election, he had meetings with his family after dinners at home to decide if he wanted to run again. He says continuing to seek public office was never a given.
“I am willing to put my leadership skills up against any candidate. I have a record to prove I can lead.”
When questioned about his ability to lead, Ige talks about the many engineering projects he managed and administrative positions he has held with private firms, and the fact the he has held important chairmanships during his 29 years in the Legislature, including the all important Senate Ways and Means Committee, to make the case he is capable of inspiring people and making difficult decisions.
He points to shepherding through Hawaii’s automobile insurance reform laws in the 1990s as evidence of his ability to deal with tough challenges. Also his refusal to approve Abercrombie’s push to tax pensions even though the plan would have helped reduce the budget deficit and Hawaii is one of only ten states which does not tax pensions.
“I am willing to put my leadership skills up against any candidate. I have a record to prove I can lead.”
When I point out that to Ige that he has never been a CEO, he replies, “But how many CEOs have become governor in Hawaii?” True. Most Hawaii governors have been attorneys.
Yamamoto says has always been touched by Ige’s quiet way of leading.
Once in their daily carpool from Pearl City to the UH, Ige urged Yamamoto and his other carpool passengers to stay late on campus to attend a beauty pageant in which a student in their honor society was competing. When Yamamoto begged Ige to drive them home earlier, Ige persuaded him and the other riders to remain, saying because the honor student was not in a sorority and lacked her own cheering squad it was the right thing to do. “It is important to support friends,” he said.
Yamamoto says Ige never tries to push what he wants on others. He just calmly outlines why something might be worth it.
Ige won the primary election despite the fact he was outspent 10 to 1 by Abercrombie who raised more than $5.5 million to Ige’s $584,488.
Ige was so cash-strapped in the last few days before he beat Abercrombie, he had to loan his campaign $50,000 to keep his ads on TV.
Now it is no longer the brave little David facing the hugely funded but much disliked Goliath Abercrombie.
Ige is going to have to work hard and spend more money to make himself known to voters for his own qualities not just because he is “anybody but Abercrombie,” as he was to some voters in the primary election.
Ige says he is well aware this race is going to be a different game than the primary. “I know it will be the most difficult challenge of my life.”
Ige is certain he will be outspent by his Republican opponent Duke Aiona.
Aiona told me in a phone converstation, “I am going to raise as much as I can to get my message out.”
He did not say how much money he thought he would have to collect, but in Aionaʻs unsuccessful bid for governor in 2010 he spent $3.5 million.
Ige knows he will have less because he has agreed to limit his spending in the general election by abiding by the state’s voluntary campaign expenditure limit for a gubernatorial race, which is $1,597,208.
By following all guidelines for the voluntary program, Ige can qualify for an additional $100,000 in matching funds.
Igeʻs childhood friend and campaign manager Hiraoka says Ige has agreed to the spending limit “because he doesnʻt believe the election should be bought.”
Independent Party candidate Mufi Hannemannʻs spokeswoman Sandra Sagisi says Hannemann has also agreed to the campaign expenditure limit for the governorʻs race.
Some of Ige’s supporters worry he will become less independent as he moves into the general election if he is forced to take campaign donations from the same big donors who co-opted Abercrombie.
“If he does that, I will be the first one to smack him,” laughs childhood friend Yamamoto.
Ige says, “My record speaks for itself. I have never been dominated by any special interest group. If something is not right. I will not do it.”