At age 19, Les Ihara Jr.’s first major political decision was whether to file as a conscientious objector of the Vietnam War. His father was a U.S. Army major in the Pentagon at the time, and Ihara knew it would break his heart.

But Ihara felt it was a matter of integrity and filed his papers. As a result, his father disowned him. His eyes still well up when he remembers the pain of that decision.

The 63-year-old state senator from Kaimuki was reminded of all that when it came time to state where he stood on the confirmation vote for Carleton Ching to serve as head of the Board of Land and Natural Resources.

Ihara has known David Ige for 29 years and is a close friend of the governor and his chief of staff, Mike McCartney.

A vote against Ching would be a strike against the governor only four months after he was elected. But after much introspection, the senator told Ige on Tuesday that he could not vote in favor of Ching.

That decision helped turn the tide in the closely divided 25-member state Senate against Ching, whose nomination had generated vociferous opposition from environmentalists and others.

Right, Senator Les Ihara chats with Senator Will  Espero and Senator Kalani English during recess before DLNR Carleton Ching nomination hearing at the Senate.  18 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Sen. Les Ihara, right, talks with Sen. Will Espero, middle, and Sen. Kalani English during a recess before the Carleton Ching nomination was withdrawn Wednesday. Both English and Ihara decided just this week to vote against the confirmation.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

As head of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, the lobbyist for development company Castle & Cooke would have overseen a department of nearly 900 employees and chaired a seven-member board that makes key decisions about the use of Hawaii’s conservation land and waters.

Ige withdrew the nomination Wednesday over an hour into the Senate’s floor session and minutes before lawmakers were scheduled to vote on the nomination.

McCartney walked onto the Senate floor during a long recess and handed President Donna Mercado Kim the withdrawal letter.

Senate President Donna Mercado Kim holds the governor’s withdrawal letter delivered by Chief of Staff Mike McCartney during recess before the announcement.

The governor’s chief of staff, Mike McCartney, hugs Senate President Donna Mercado Kim in the Senate chamber after handing her a letter from the governor withdrawing his nomination of Carleton Ching.

The decision was a victory for environmental groups that have lobbied heavily against Ching’s confirmation since he was nominated. They criticized his lack of experience in natural resource conservation and ties to development advocacy groups that have sought to weaken the historic and environmental protections that the DLNR is charged to preserve.

Ige told reporters he decided to withdraw the nomination after learning that he didn’t have enough votes in favor of confirmation. He said he didn’t want to put Ching and his family through a losing vote.

“Up until this point I believed he was going to get in,” Ige said. “There was broad support earlier in the week.”

Ching said that he was disappointed, but that he doesn’t view it as a setback.

“We’re not wounded by this,” Ching said of himself and his family. “We move on as our ohana.”

Ige also felt disappointed.

“I do regret the fact that Carleton won’t have the opportunity to serve the people of Hawaii,” the governor said. “He would have made a great chair for the department. I’m disappointed that he won’t have that opportunity.”

Ige must submit a new nominee to the Legislature by April 6 in order to have him or her confirmed this session.

Changing Tides

Until Wednesday morning, Ige expected Ching to be confirmed.

But Senate Majority Leader Kalani English from Maui and Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland decided Wednesday to vote against Ching.

English didn’t reply to requests for comment Wednesday. But Chun Oakland, who spent weeks mulling the decision, told Civil Beat she believes she was the last person who decided how she would vote.

She liked the governor’s reasons for picking Ching, which she said included the fact that Ching would be in a good position to turn under-utilized DLNR-owned properties, such as Banyan Drive and parcels along the rail line, into revenue-generating parcels that help fund the department’s conservation programs.

But in the end, Chun Oakland felt she couldn’t support Ching because she had received so many opposing calls and emails and didn’t want to damage the public’s faith in the democratic process.

DLNR nominee Carleton Ching speaks to media with Governor David Ige.  18 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/ Civil Beat

Carleton Ching tells reporters that he has no regrets during a press conference in the governor’s office as Gov. David Ige looks on.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Ihara said he wasn’t surprised that the withdrawal came down to the last minute, comparing the process to a chess match where the last few moves are decisive.

Like Ihara, Chun Oakland is a member of the Chess Club, a Senate faction that Ige was a part of when he was a legislator. Both Ihara and Chun Oakland said they aren’t afraid of any repercussions from the governor due to the Ching vote because Ige understands that Chess Club members as a rule vote based on personal conscience.

“Up until this point I believed he was going to get in. There was broad support earlier in the week.” — Gov. David Ige

Last week, Ihara said at the end of a two-day Senate Water and Land Committee hearing on Ching that he intended to vote in favor of the nomination on the Senate floor.

That announcement was confusing to many onlookers because within the committee, Ihara voted in favor of Chairwoman Laura Thielen’s decision to recommend against confirming Ching.

In the days since the hearing, Ihara said he “dove deep” and reviewed whether Ching was the right person for the job.

He told Civil Beat he believes the governor’s vision was to use Ching to help bridge the deep divide between the environmental and development communities on land-related issues.

Ihara said he supports that vision. But over the weekend he realized that wasn’t possible in this case.

Reaction to Decision

On the Senate floor Wednesday, Republican Sen. Sam Slom expressed his displeasure at the governor’s decision to withdraw Ching’s nomination, saying it deprived the public of a much-needed discussion.

“I think what’s transpired during the past week has been a good example of bullying and political pragmatism,” he said.

He criticized the opposition to Ching, who Slom supported in last week’s committee vote. Slom said the state has lost an opportunity to get a fresh pair of eyes to help the DLNR and that the confirmation had become a popularity contest.

“We’re basing our decision on politics… rather than what’s right and what’s wrong,” Slom said.

People opposed to the Carleton Ching nomination jubilate after Senate President annouced that Governor was withdrawing the DLNR nomination. 17 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

An opponent of the Carleton Ching nomination throws up her hands in jubilation after the Senate President announced that the governor was withdrawing the nomination. Opponents wore red to show solidarity against Ching’s confirmation.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Sen. Clarence Nishihara agreed. Sen. Lorraine Inouye also criticized the governor’s decision to withdraw.

“In Mr. Ching’s leadership I see hope and the need for change,” Inouye said.

But Anthony Aalto, who leads the Oahu Chapter of the Sierra Club, called Wednesday’s developments “democracy in action.”

More than 8,500 people signed a petition opposing Ching and urging lawmakers not to confirm him.

“The governor has got to get out of the bubble and come and meet us. And if he does, he’ll find people who are genuinely interested in working with him.” — Anthony Aalto, Sierra Club

Aalto said he personally called his senator, Ihara, three times and wrote him a two-page letter. He finally received a response after midnight last night.

“I think the members of the Senate understood that this is something that has broad public support,” Aalto said of the opposition to Ching. “This was not just the same-old, same-old one or two environmental leaders going in and talking to a few senators. This is thousands of people expressing their concerns.”

He said he and others are willing to work with the governor to find a more appropriate nominee. Aalto said he doesn’t have a problem with the nominee having a background in development, but that he also wants to see demonstrated interest in natural resource protection.

“The governor has got to get out of the bubble and come and meet us. And if he does, he’ll find people who are genuinely interested in working with him and making his governorship the most successful in the state in these issues,” Aalto said.

What Does This Mean?

Local political analysts said Wednesday that Ige’s misadventure with Ching is a setback, but that it’s too early to tell how it will impact the new governor’s term.

John Hart, professor of communication from Hawaii Pacific University, said the Ching nomination is a bellweather issue because people are looking to see what kind of governor Ige will be.

“He’s early in his administration, it’s certainly not fatal,” Hart said. “This certainly isn’t a high point.”

Colin Moore, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said Wednesday’s result makes the governor appear weaker.

“One of Ige’s selling points was that he had a great working relationship with the Legislature,” Moore said.  “To really try to push this vote and lose, it’s very damaging.”

Senators stop on the rotunda level coming from the chamber level after session.  Governor David Ige withdrew his DLNR nomination.  18 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Senators riding the elevator stop on the rotunda level after Wednesday’s floor session.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Moore also said that the result points to the power of the environmental lobby.

While less than one fourth of the written testimony submitted to the Senate Water and Land Committee was supportive of Ching, the organizations that did support him tended to be in the construction and development industry and were significant political donors.

A Civil Beat analysis of campaign spending data dating back to 2006 found that the organizations that supported Ching spent nearly $900,000 backing political candidates, including thousands of dollars given to Ige and state senators. Castle & Cooke, Ching’s employer, made more than $114,000 in donations during that period.

In contrast, the organizations opposing Ching — mostly environmental groups — gave less than $5,000 in campaign donations and none of it to Ige.

But ultimately, that didn’t sway the vote. Moore said that he didn’t think that the business organizations were lobbying aggressively for this nomination, and that environmental groups were buoyed by grassroots support.

Former University of Hawaii political science professor Neal Milner also complimented environmental groups’ well-organized opposition but said, “I think that this was an easy one for them.”

He contended that the governor’s decision to nominate Ching didn’t make sense from the outset.

“He did a crappy job defending a crappy choice,” Milner said.

Read Ige’s withdrawal letter below:

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