Nearly eight months into Gov. David Ige’s tenure, it’s clear that the low-key technocrat’s deliberative, slow-to-judgment approach is serving Hawaii well in most cases.
Ige has faced down multiple issues that might have tempted a leader with a different personal style to pander to passionate advocates or wade unadvisedly into murky waters. Instead, he has resisted the sort of reactionary, polarizing grandstanding for which too many other governor’s offices are known elsewhere.
On balance thus far, we like what we see.
Perhaps the best example of the Ige approach is his leadership on the Thirty Meter Telescope controversy, which has inflamed much of the Native Hawaiian community and drawn international media attention and scrutiny since March. As the situation threatened to boil over on the summit of Mauna Kea in early April, he called for a work stoppage to allow for dialogue with stakeholders on all sides of the issue.
It was initially thought that the “timeout” would only last a few days. But weeks passed, and observers grew antsy — including the New York Times, which in early May blasted him in a Sunday editorial as “far too withdrawn” on the matter.
But when Ige finally announced his position 50 days into the stoppage, it was well informed, nuanced and surprisingly personal, including both important changes in how Mauna Kea will be managed in the future and unequivocal support for the completion of TMT. In short, a balanced compromise that got it just right.
While matters are not yet resolved on the mountaintop, Ige’s leadership has reduced tensions considerably and focused most responsible parties on a practical way forward.
Ige demonstrated similar thoughtfulness in March, when he stepped in to cancel a $14 million contract to build a new financial accounting system for the state Department of Transportation and an $11 million effort intended to replace budgeting, payroll, grant management and attendance IT systems.
In each instance, he halted longstanding projects that were spiraling out of budgetary control rather than throwing good money after bad in vain efforts to force solutions.
With both projects, Ige was critical of what he called the state’s over-reliance on consultants and vendors, and took steps to salvage work that can be of benefit to Hawaii going forward.
Even in Ige’s most notable misstep, his failed nomination of developer lobbyist Carleton Ching to lead the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, he forwarded respected environmental lawyer Suzanne Case in a clear nod to the most resonant criticisms of the Ching nomination and saw her confirmed without incident in a unanimous vote. Notably absent was any protracted defense of Ching or belabored insistence that he was right and the critics were all wrong.
Ige has faced down multiple issues that might have tempted a leader with a different personal style to pander to passionate advocates or wade unadvisedly into murky waters.
On other potentially divisive issues — approval of medical marijuana dispensaries, for instance, or rejection of a flawed sex-trafficking bill — Ige has deftly navigated rocky terrain, mostly by keeping his head down and doing his job. On more complex matters that require consultation with numerous stakeholders and development of thoughtful plans, Ige follows the TMT blueprint, keeping his counsel until he is fully prepared to act.
Such is the case now with the growing homeless encampment in Kakaako — a squalid, squatter village created by the City of Honolulu’s feckless sit-lie bans and sweeps designed to push the homeless out of the tourism industry’s collective Kodak moments.
Grumbling is growing in some quarters over the governor’s lack of response. But the Kakaako dilemma is a complicated one, made so by the city’s failure to come up with temporary shelter before hastily embarking on its new policies. What’s more, it’s part of a larger homeless crisis that has been growing for years, despite efforts by the city and state to address it.
We don’t begrudge the governor a bit more time, then, to create a meaningful plan that has a chance to work, as he told the Hawaii Publishers Association last week that he is doing, rather than simply delivering something, anything quickly. While Civil Beat has been among the voices criticizing a lack of urgency on homelessness and affordable housing, we also recognize what a failure the city’s sit-lie quick fixes have been and have no appetite for more government “solutions” whose details and contingencies haven’t been adequately thought through.
If there is an abiding complaint to be made with Hawaii’s CEO, it’s one that he himself raised during a Civil Beat Editorial Board visit in April, in which he acknowledged he’s “not the most eloquent communicator.” As we said then, there are many who need to hear more from the governor — a lot more — for him to be able to put his wisdom, experience, ideas and temperament to best use.
That still holds true. The public doesn’t always need to hear a finished answer on any given challenge, but letting us know that a solution is in process and providing an idea of a time frame helps lower anxieties. Ige could build confidence in the work of state government with more open-ended press conferences, progress reports and publicly accessible dialogues on the various challenges facing our state.
As Ige has said, he’d rather be “doing than communicating” — “That’s the engineer in me.”
But to be the most effective leader he can be, he’ll have to learn to be skilled at both.