When it finally came down to it, the Chess Club, a faction of senators loyal to Gov. David Ige, decided not to support Carleton Ching, the governor’s choice to head the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

There has been so much sympathy for all the agony that the Chess Club members had to go through, so much discussion of the anguish and emotional turmoil the faction members felt.

Club members themselves were not shy about describing their agony. Sen. Les Ihara compared it to the decision he made to become a conscientious objector against his father’s wishes.

In fact, it’s all misplaced pity on the Chess Club’s part as well on as ours. Those senators don’t deserve sympathy for having to make an agonizing choice. That’s their job. What they deserve is criticism for doing that job so badly.

Chess Club

Members of the Hawaii Senate’s Chess Club faction are topflight, respected legislators, which is exactly what makes their handling of the Ige nomination so surprising.

MichaelMaggs via Wikimedia Commons

This is particularly sad because the Chess Club senators are topflight, highly respected legislators. It’s like a group of AP students blowing their SATs.

How did they blow it? The Chess Club exaggerated the importance of loyalty and showed a lack of understanding of the Senate’s role in the nomination process.

To understand why this is so, we need to take a closer look at factions generally and in that light consider how ineffectively the Chess Club behaved.

Let’s begin with the Founding Fathers. You may think that this is a boring, diversionary rehash of your eighth-grade social studies course. Be patient for a few paragraphs.

The issue of factions became important, even before the U.S. Constitution was ratified.  You can see it in the Federalist Papers. James Madison in Federalist No. 10 worried that factions, which he defined more or less as groups of people with selfish interests, would be a threat unless there was a strong central government to counter them.

In response the brilliant French philosopher Montesquieu said that the separation of powers — which, by the way, he invented — would take care of the faction problem by making it difficult for factions to concentrate their power in one place.

The theory behind the separation of powers is that government is composed of separate institutions, each with its own rules and obligations, sharing powers.

For instance, executives like presidents and governors make nominations. Congress and legislatures have the right to approve or disapprove. Same issue, but very different roles and responsibilities.

Factions have also played an important role in American legislative politics, especially in one-party states like Hawaii where there is no effective opposition party to fall back on.

Sometimes the factions are based on personal loyalties. At other times the factions divide by ideology.

Today’s congressional tea party faction is boisterously ideological as it evocative name (from the Boston Tea Party patriots) indicates.

Lots of mystery and ambiguity surround factions in the Hawaii Legislature because the members of these factions don’t talk about what they do. They appear to be based more on personal loyalty than ideology as their names suggest, like Opihi (as in, we stick together like the tenacious gastropod clings to rocks on the sea shore) and the Chess Club. These sound more like the names of school cafeteria table cliques than ideologically based political groupings, a further indicator that personal loyalty is their center.

Let’s focus on the Chess Club because Ige was part of this faction when he was a senator. During the nomination process the Chess Club was incompetent in three serious and destructive ways.

Three Areas of Incompetence

First, faction members failed to distinguish between their role when Gov. Ige was a colleague and their role when he became governor. When Ige was a fellow senator, the Club could act as if they were all equal members of the school cafeteria clique. But when Ige became governor, things should have changed dramatically.

Friends, friend, friends, they will always be. Well, maybe so, but that is only part of the story. The Chess Club may still be a friend with the governor, but, according to the state’s constitution, the faction’s members have tasks and obligations that differ from the governor’s and at times rival his.

The job of the Senate in the appointment process is to assess and vote on the governor’s appointees. They are cafeteria monitors, not cafeteria clique members.

Or as Montesquieu might have put it, “That, mon ami, is what — how shall I say — the essence the separation of powers, no?”

In fact in all the reams of words written about the Ching nomination, the separation of powers never came up. Instead you had the governor trying to unseperate the powers by outrageously interrupting the Senate nomination hearing and lecturing the committee members about the bias of their questions.

This Senate committee’s hearing on Ching’s nomination was a graphic example of this dereliction of duty. Instead of firmly reminding the governor that his interruptions during that hearing were out of line, the committee, which included Chess Club members, said nothing. In fact, its members should have respectfully but firmly required the governor to remember his eighth-grade social studies, sit down and be quiet.

The second failure was one of accountability. A ton of testimony against Ching by all sorts of people, a lukewarm, emotionally distant public defense by the governor, at best a D+ performance by Ching himself, and yet members of the Chess Club said virtually nothing about their own positions.

Ihara, who did take a public position by voting against Ching, did so in a way that at best can be described as counterintuitive. He said that even though he voted nay in the committee, he would likely vote in favor of Ching in the final Senate confirmation vote.

What the heck was that supposed to mean, and why would you do that? No answer.

In a Civil Beat story, Nathan Eagle described this silence as “palace intrigue.” Maybe so, but the state Senate isn’t supposed to operate like a palace. Democratic institutions are supposed to be transparent and accountable, not secretive and mysterious. Constituents have a right to know where their legislators stand on an issue as important as this one.

The Chess Club’s third and final failure was full of irony. The more the faction tried to help the governor, the worse they made it for him.

Here was the situation: An unpopular nominee who did an awful job defending himself; a governor who was strangely distant and emotionally dispassionate in that nominee’s defense; an extraordinary amount of public opposition with virtually no significant public support.

There were essentially two ways to interpret all of this. One was that the handwriting was on the wall. No way would the Senate vote in Ching’s favor. The other was that Ching might carry the day, as apparently he almost did because of the Senate’s loyalty to Ige, but that victory would have had significant costs to the governor.

In other words, little good could come from a victory.

If things worked the way they should have worked, the key Chess Club senators would have spoken truth to power. After the disastrous Senate committee hearing, if not before, they would have publicly stated the problems with the nomination. Ige would have withdrawn it in a timely manner, saved some dignity and moved on to fight another day.

Instead we got this bit of political farce, as reported by Civil Beat’s Anita Hofschneider. Just minutes before the Senate was scheduled to take a vote on Carleton Ching’s nomination, the governor’s chief of staff Mike McCartney dramatically walks on to the Senate floor and, Mission Impossible-like, hands Senate President Donna Kim a note saying that the governor was withdrawing the nomination.

Then McCartney and Kim embrace.

So here is the finally tally on the Ching nomination: For: 0, Against: 0, Hugs: 1.

Cheap melodrama and abominable politics — a fitting end to a failure of the process.

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