Gov. David Ige’s nomination of development lobbyist Carleton Ching to head the Department of Land and Natural Resources continues to generate lots of heated reaction.

Virtually all environmental organizations, reflecting a spectrum of styles and interests, have publicly expressed their opposition to the nomination. Online comments are running overwhelmingly negative, and as of Tuesday morning, 7,248 people had signed a petition asking senators to vote against Ching’s confirmation.

The administration’s response has been feeble at best, counterproductive at worst.

Governor David Ige enters press conference held at his office.  12 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Gov. David Ige talks with reporters Feb. 12.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The feeble part of the response has been the administration’s decision to stand aside while dispatching Ching on his own to take part in small gatherings, akin to campaign coffee hours, where the nominee introduces himself and tries to answer questions.

The problem has reportedly been that Ching’s answers to the hard questions have largely reinforced concerns that a longtime lobbyist for a major developer is almost by definition not a good choice to lead the agency charged with protecting and preserving our natural and cultural resources from development. He has been an officer and director of groups representing builders and large landowners pushing to reduce and remove impediments to further development.

These are serious and legitimate concerns, but the governor and his people have failed to tackle them head-on, instead staying at arm’s length from the process.

The more pressure that senators are under from their constituents who oppose the nomination, the higher the cost in political capital of a “yes” vote. That can’t be making senators happy.

I’m guessing that while Ige and his administration have chosen to stay out of the public fray as much as possible, they are carefully counting votes in the Senate. They likely expect the governor to be able to garner the votes of enough former colleagues to get the controversial nominee confirmed.

That may very well be the case, but bulldozing the nomination through the Senate will leave a residual of resentment and disillusionment among the large community of environmental and conservation voters, and others who just don’t like the way this has played out. With all of that in mind, no one should assume that winning the Senate vote spells victory for the governor.

Critics are no longer only questioning Ching and his qualifications. They are now moving on to ask how the administration’s handling of the nomination reflects on the governor himself.

For Ige, this marks a politically dangerous turn in the debate. Questions about Ching are increasingly overshadowed by questions aimed squarely at the governor.

Carleton Ching candidate DLNR.  9 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum

Carleton Ching, the governor’s nominee to head the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

During the campaign, Ige was largely an unknown entity, favored mainly because he wasn’t the incumbent and didn’t seem to have piles of negative political baggage. Now there are concrete reasons to question his political leanings and possible obligations to special interests.

Since the public hasn’t gotten a coherent explanation of why the administration wants to put a pro-development lobbyist in charge of our natural resources, it’s no wonder that some now believe developers are setting the direction of the fledgling administration. Can Ige control these special interests? Has he already been captured by special interests?

These aren’t necessarily fair questions, but they are natural results of the way the nomination has been pursued.

And then there’s the administration’s quite counterproductive turn to secrecy. As noted in an article last week by Civil Beat reporters Sophie Cocke and Anita Hofschneider, both Ige and Mike McCartney, the governor’s chief of staff, declined requests for interviews to discuss the Ching nomination. The governor’s office also rebuffed questions about the qualifications of other candidates considered for the DLNR slot.

Further, the governor’s office refused to even identify members of Ige’s transition committee, which has been screening candidates for top positions.

By making themselves unavailable for comment, and then retreating into secrecy at this very early stage in the governor’s first term, Ige’s inner circle is feeding the conspiracy theories and, intentionally or unintentionally, eroding his political base.

I doubt they appreciate just how much political capital they are squandering on this particular nomination.

“Political capital refers to the trust, goodwill and influence a politician has with the public and other political figures,” according to an entry in Wikipedia. “This goodwill is a type of invisible currency that politicians can use to mobilize the voting public or spend on policy reform.”

The more pressure that senators are under from their constituents who oppose the nomination, the higher the cost in political capital of a “yes” vote. That can’t be making senators happy, and it weakens Ige’s ability to pursue more important parts of his agenda. Meanwhile, Ige’s reserve of political capital with environmentalists and other progressives is quickly being drawn down to a dangerously low level.

There’s still time for Ige, and the key insiders he relies on, to come out of their bunker and engage critics directly, get a first-hand feel for the depth of the opposition, understand the viewpoints of opponents, and factor into their calculations the political cost that will be paid for pushing Ching’s nomination forward to a full Senate vote.

Listen to Ian Lind discuss the Ching nomination with Civil Beat’s Pod Squad.

About the Author

  • Ian Lind
    Ian Lind is an award-winning investigative reporter and columnist who has been blogging daily for 15 years. He has also worked as a newsletter publisher, public interest advocate and lobbyist for Common Cause in Hawaii, peace educator, and legislative staffer. Lind is a lifelong resident of the islands. Read his blog here. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.