Hawaii Gov. David Ige must have used the expression half a dozen times during a recent Civil Beat Editorial Board meeting.
It’s a key part of Ige’s vision to make government more effective and efficient — in this case, finding ways to collect money that already should be coming into state coffers but, for various reasons, is not.
“I worry more about doing good than looking good.” — Gov. David Ige
The lost revenue isn’t pocket change. Ige pointed to the establishment of a tax-fraud unit that he said has already stopped $20 million in fraudulent claims since he took office.
“Tax modernization” also fits with Ige’s core belief that the state should be fiscally healthy before it considers big new spending measures — “getting our financial house in order,” as he puts it.
Hawaii is challenged by exorbitant costs of living and obligations such as unfunded liabilities for health and pension payments for government workers and retirees.
Ige, who knows the state budget as well as anyone, given his many years in the Legislature and his tenure as chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, clearly believes he is the right person to lead the state at this time.
It’s no surprise that his approach to governance is very much along the lines of an engineer, which is how he was trained professionally: Identify a problem, examine it thoroughly, consult with experts, tinker as needed, then apply a logical, practical fix.
Ige truly seems to enjoy focusing on basic issues such as “tax modernization” and government efficiency. He gets excited about his office going paperless, about an uptick in the state’s bond rating, and about improvements in how state contracts are executed.
“He promised contemplative, he promised thoughtful, he promised us being an engineer, he promised us not being a public speaker. And I believe he delivered on all those things.” — John Hart, Hawaii Pacific University
This sets him apart from his predecessors.
Linda Lingle promised a “new beginning” and was a smooth-talking executive with public relations chops, while Neil Abercrombie proclaimed a “new day” and could rouse crowds with passionate oratory.
Ige is, in many ways, the antithesis of Abercrombie, something that clearly appealed to voters when they ousted the incumbent in a historic landslide last year.
“It’s a different style,” said Dan Boylan, MidWeek columnist and a political science professor. “I think he drives us who have to write a column every week, or who are in certain lines of interests, kind of nuts. ‘Oh God, what do I write about this week?’ He’s a very quiet guy. But all that said, he has probably done fairly well.”
John Hart, chair of the Communication Department at Hawaii Pacific University, said, “He promised contemplative, he promised thoughtful, he promised us being an engineer, he promised us not being a public speaker. And I believe he delivered on all those things.”
Ige is governing pretty much as he said he would. As those who have known him for a long time say, “What you see is what you get.”
In his inaugural address last December, the governor hinted at a “new” plan of his own — a “new tomorrow,” he said, one reached by … well, by balancing spending and making government more efficient, as he explained in his State of the State speech in January. He called it “transforming the culture of government.”
Dozens of people, on and off the record, were asked about Ige’s first year. He generally receives positive, if tentative, reviews. Many feel it’s too soon to render judgment.
“The first year, you just kind of feel things out,” said former Gov. Ben Cayetano, who vocally backed Ige’s candidacy despite a longtime friendship with Abercrombie. “The office is so different from being in the Legislature, and I think his performance toward the end of the first year … shows that he can’t make everybody happy.”
“Overall, he did well,” said Cayetano, adding, “I supported him and I think the fact that he is an engineer — because for that office it really requires methodical thinking — it’s good that he carefully considers things before jumping into it.”
Scott Saiki, majority leader in the House of Representatives, agreed that the shift from being a legislator to running the show is a big one.
“I think the first thing is that, as with all other governors who came on board, the realities of office probably hit him really hard, compounded by some really big festering issues that he had to clean up, like the Hawaii Health Connector, the Maui hospital and TMT,” Saiki said, referring to the Thirty Meter Telescope project. “So, I know a lot of time was spent — inordinate — on those kinds of issues.”
Saiki said he believed the governor’s forte is in fiscal matters.
“I think he gave himself a B, but I give him a D, as in dog. Why? He hasn’t done anything.” — Duke Aiona, Ige’s Republican opponent in last year’s general election
“I think he really wants to fix state finances,” Saiki said, pointing to paying down unfunded liabilities as a major example. “I believe that is his strength, and I am expecting this session to be focused on the fiscal side, because he knows that we are fortunate we are in an up-cycle right now, but it will go down. He wants to prepare for that. He’s not a flashy guy. He’s not there just to get media attention. He just rolls up his sleeves.”
Others said Ige needs to do more.
“Three things,” said Gene Ward, a Republican who is minority leader emeritus in the state House of Representatives. “One, if this were a trial, the jury’s still out. If this were a baby luau, all the potential is yet to be realized. But if this is politics, the honeymoon is over. Show me the beef.”
Ward continued: “You are the governor, and the state of Hawaii has one of most powerful governors in the whole union — line-item veto power, releasing appropriations instead of the Legislature. He doesn’t realize that governors have a very strong position.”
The harshest criticism came from the man who finished second to Ige in the November 2014 general election, Republican Duke Aiona. Aiona took 36.7 percent of the vote, which along with independent Mufi Hanneman’s 11.6 percent and Libertarian Jeff Davis’s 1.7 percent kept Ige at 49 percent — a plurality but not a majority of the electorate.
“I think the fact that he is an engineer … it’s good that he carefully considers things before jumping into it.”—Ben Cayetano
Asked for his opinion of Ige’s first year, Aiona said he would need a week to discuss it. Indeed, the governor’s performance has been fodder all year on Aiona’s 808 State Update program on talk radio station 940 AM KKNE.
“I think he gave himself a B, but I give him a D, as in dog,” Aiona said. “Why? He hasn’t done anything — he hasn’t, really. I was with him through the whole campaign, and he did not have any platform.”
Aiona ticked off a litany of criticism.
Ige, he said, came late to embracing renewable energy and tackling homelessness, issues that Lingle (whom Aiona served under as lieutenant governor) made priorities years ago. He argued that Ige made a mistake in suggesting there would be a compromise that would appease the telescope protestors who halted the TMT construction atop Mauna Kea long enough for the Hawaii Supreme Court to step in and halt it indefinitely.
Aiona also faulted the governor for failing to staff his Cabinet and boards and commissions in a timely manner.
Even areas where Ige has claimed credit, said Aiona — such as paying down unfunded liabilities, protecting Turtle Bay and privatizing Maui hospitals — are accomplishments owed more to past governors and legislatures.
“I am not really surprised, actually, that he has not done anything, but am surprised that he gives himself such a great grade,” Aiona said. “I think he really thinks he doing a good job, but he really does live in an echo chamber, a bubble, and is not seeing what is happening on the outside.”
For some, there is buyer’s remorse, a feeling of being let down, a belief that Ige’s enthusiasm for a “transformation of the culture of government” is not universally shared. They see Ige as lacking leadership skills.
Some even question whether a “shadow governor” is actually in charge, namely, Chief of Staff Mike McCartney, informal advisor Robbie Alm or Ige’s wife, Dawn Amano-Ige.
And there is already talk that Ige may have a Democratic primary challenger in former Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa — even though the next gubernatorial election is nearly three years away.
The disappointment with Ige reflects unease in some circles that he is too slow and methodical.
There was the aborted nomination of Carleton Ching to lead the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (a decision Ige still defends, although he is pleased that Suzanne Case ultimately accepted the job). And there was the inability to move forward with the TMT construction even before the Hawaii Supreme Court ordered the project back to the Land Board for an intensive review.
Ige remains committed to the TMT and science on the mountain — an example of strong leadership, said Cayetano.
“I do know that by definition (being) governor means criticism. And so you just deal with it.”— Gov. David Ige
The governor has also been strident on energy issues.
Ige came out against NextEra Energy’s acquisition of Hawaiian Electric, saying he doesn’t think the Florida company is sufficiently committed to alternative energy. That decision ultimately lies with the very person he appointed to run the Public Utilities Commission and two other commissioners.
And Ige said the state should not use liquefied natural gas as a “bridge” fuel while Hawaii transitions away from heavy dependence on imported fossil fuel toward a mostly renewable portfolio by 2045. (Aiona said Ige actually favored LNG on the campaign trail.)
Ige upset some power-brokers in organized labor by not keeping Abercrombie appointee Dwight Takamine — a former legislator with deep union ties — as director of Labor and Industrial Relations. Instead, Ige picked Linda Chu Takayama, a lawyer, lobbyist and executive director of the Honolulu Mayor’s Office of Economic Development, as well as the wife of his friend and state legislator, Gregg Takayama.
Ige praised Chu Takayama’s “deep understanding” of the regulatory matters that are handled by the department.
He kept Abercrombie appointees Scott Enright at Agriculture and Jobie Masagatani at Hawaiian Home Lands (where Abercrombie’s Land Board chair, William Aila, was shifted by Ige to be Masagatani’s deputy).
The administration has struggled to fill some important posts, including a director of the Office of Planning. Ige replaced environmental law professor Denise Antolini with former plantation manager Bill Balfour on the Commission for Water Resource management.
Hanabusa, who narrowly lost to Brian Schatz in last year’s U.S. Senate primary, did not respond to Civil Beat’s inquiries about whether she’s considering running for governor. But in interviews with political insiders, her name came up repeatedly.
Then a congresswoman, Hanabusa had considered challenging Gov. Abercrombie herself before she ultimately decided to take on the incumbent Sen. Schatz. And yes, there is still chatter that Hanabusa — who has kept a high public profile since leaving office — might want a Senate rematch, though that primary is just eight months from now.
Ige has heard the talk of a potential challenger — “murmurs,” as he described it. But he does not seemed worried, saying he will certainly seek re-election and welcomes competition.
“I think the people of Hawaii benefit from having choices,” he told Civil Beat’s Editorial Board. “I worry more about doing good than looking good. … I feel the voters can figure it out.”
In small groups or one on one, Ige can be personable, thoughtful and engaging, and it is obvious that he is well versed on many complicated matters facing the state. On others, he’ll talk his way around them just like any politician would.
Ige’s interpersonal skills do not always shine when addressing larger groups or the media. Still, his communications team is working to better convey his priorities and accomplishments.
This month, Ige has been all over the news as he’s met with editorial boards and reporters at various news organizations.
Here’s a summary of what he has been telling them about the accomplishments of his administration during his first year in office, many of which are highlighted on his official website:
Ige said he does not reflect much on his past decisions, a characteristic that some describe as stubborn and others as evidence that he is satisfied that he made the right decision. If criticism hurts him inside, he does not show outwardly that he is bothered by it.
“I do hear about it, but, you know, as governor regardless of what decisions I make, there will be criticism,” he said. “And it doesn’t really matter. … There will be some who are happy about it, there will be some who are upset about it. So, I do know that by definition (being) governor means criticism. And so you just deal with it.”
A new governor inherits the biennial budget of their predecessor, so it doesn’t really represent the priorities of the current leader, especially by the time the money committees in the House and Senate get through with it.
On Monday, Ige will submit his supplemental budget, the first fiscal indication of where he plans to take the state. His administration will later submit its legislative package for the 2016 legislative session that begins next month — another indicator of where he wants to go. His second State of the State address will follow.
Ige declined to share much with Civil Beat about his plans — “Stay tuned,” he said — but he described what’s ahead as “the first opportunity to really work with directors and really shape state government … working hard to share it in a way that makes state investments and moves the state forward.”
He said he is working on maintaining relationships with his former colleagues at the Capitol, too.
“I do work hard to keep that relationship,” he said. “I think the biggest challenge is there is only so many hours in the day, and we try to keep them abreast.”
Regarding other big ticket items, Ige said he will continue to support the Honolulu rail project. But he is not in favor of increasing the general excise tax to improve public education, an idea floated by the teachers’ union.
After the legislative session concludes in May, a fuller measure can be taken of Ige’s job performance.
Maybe by then he’ll consider taking a vacation, something he hasn’t done as governor.
“My wife keeps reminding me,” said Ige. “She does all the time.”
The Iges do plan to attend the May commencement ceremonies for their oldest daughter, graduating from law school in Georgetown, and middle daughter, graduating from nursing school at the University of Rochester.
That’s also around the time he has to start weighing whether to sign or veto bills, so going to those graduation ceremonies may be the only vacations he gets for a while.