A conversation with David Ige is like a dialogue with a monk who only recently emerged from a lengthy period of meditation.

The vocal pitch is steady, almost monotonic, never rising or falling more than a note or two on the chromatic scale. Though there might be issues on the table that would draw excited engagement from someone else, Gov. Ige seems to understand the challenges he faces as neither good nor bad. They simply are, and the karma of our lives is a process that prepares us for whatever comes next.

As Ige joined my Civil Beat colleagues and me last week for an editorial board meeting marking his first 12 months as governor, we had an extensive opportunity to discuss issues — some on which the governor has made considerable progress and others that remain stubbornly resistant to anything other than small, incremental movement.

No matter the topic, he sat comfortably straight, intently focused, his voice rarely much louder than a strong whisper as he explained what he and his administration are doing to make Hawaii’s state government operate more efficiently, more effectively and, well, smarter.

Gov. David Ige, speaking to Civil Beat, said he continues to support construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea.
Gov. David Ige, speaking to Civil Beat, said he continues to support construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

At a time in which the vainglorious superlatives of Donald Trump so dominate our public political dialogue, it’s a style that has a certain ease, a low-key confidence that lends itself to a sober discussion of needs, strategies and tactical solutions.

Ige knows he’ll never take home the prize for Most Dynamic, but he also gratefully gets what the end point of good governance ought to be. As he said in recounting the points of progress in his first year, “A lot of it isn’t flashy or dramatic, but it improves the lives of citizens every day.”

And so we spent an hour and a half talking about matters such as better execution and management of state contracts, saving billions by recalibrating pension fund payments and unfunded liabilities, reducing by $100 million a backlog of big-ticket federal projects, preventing tax fraud and improving tax collections and otherwise “getting the financial house in order” so successfully that a recent $750 million bond issue drew four times the number of subscribers it could accommodate.

You know, the sexy stuff.

In each of those areas, Ige has made significant, substantial progress that not only serves Hawaii’s interests well in the short term, but will pay dividends for years to come. For instance, the state’s improved bond ratings — an outcome of solid fiscal policies and management — will provide for progress and save money in the coming budget year on key infrastructure projects: school facilities, roadways and airport modernization.

‘All I Can Control Is What I Do’

Ige is aware of the ongoing undercurrent of criticism by some who label him as too cerebral, slow to act and out of sync with the sentiments of voters. It was easy to see the discontent in some of the biting criticism aimed at him after he announced recently that, if asked, Hawaii would live up to its constitutional obligation to accept federally approved refugees from Syria and Iraq.

Comment boards blazed with condemnation from panicky posters seemingly fearful that the entire leadership team of ISIS might deplane at Honolulu International, or convinced that Ige somehow had forgotten the 7,000-plus individuals struggling without homes around our state.

Ige held a hastily arranged press conference the following day to tamp down concerns, patiently explaining why Hawaii is highly unlikely ever to be sent Syrian or Iraqi refugees, while underscoring his belief that accepting victims from places wracked by war and terrorism is morally the right thing to do.

“As governor, regardless of the decisions I make, there will be criticism,” he said. “There will be some who are happy and some who are upset. You just deal with it. … All I can control is what I do. So I really focus on that most.”

The homelessness situation, which Ige declared a statewide emergency in October, is one of several extremely contentious issues he focused on at length over the past 12 months; the ongoing controversy over construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea is another. In both of those matters, Ige’s measured and thoughtful responses served him well.

The governor’s leadership team on homelessness has made more progress possible more quickly than the uncoordinated and poorly conceived efforts of the recent past (though more clearly still needs to be done). His pensive, lengthy consideration of the TMT/Mauna Kea issues led to tangible changes and a new approach to management of natural and cultural resources atop the mountain.

“I do reflect on (stumbles), but I believe more in moving forward than moving back. I still believe Carleton Ching would have made a great director of DLNR. And I think Suzanne Case is doing a great job.” — Gov. David Ige

In neither of those issues did we see emotional outbursts from the governor, temperamental flares or self-righteous finger pointing. In fact, the only incident we can recall in which the even-keeled Ige seemed ready for a fight was that moment in the confirmation hearings for developer lobbyist Carleton Ching, his nominee to lead the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Ige rose from the audience to challenge Water and Land Committee Chair Laura Thielen’s line of questioning. And later in the day, he held a press conference in which his frustration was visible over the beating Ching was taking in hearings and media coverage. He ultimately pulled the nomination at the 59th minute of the 11th hour, sending Chief of Staff Mike McCartney to deliver the news to Senate President Donna Mercado Kim on the Senate floor just ahead of a vote Ching was certain to lose.

Ige responded to the setback with a new nominee, environmental lawyer Suzanne Case, who won unanimous approval from lawmakers while earning back some support from environmentalists who had bitterly criticized him over his first choice.

It’s one of a few moments he acknowledges from Year One that didn’t go as planned. But he doesn’t waste much time dwelling on them.

“I do reflect on them, but I believe more in moving forward than moving back,” he said. “I still believe Carleton Ching would have made a great director of DLNR. And I think Suzanne Case is doing a great job.”

Gov. Ige says he still thinks Carleton Ching would have made a good natural resources commissioner.
Gov. Ige says he still thinks Carleton Ching would have made a good natural resources commissioner. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The comment called to mind a statement he made early last week on any potential first-year regrets. Coming out of another politician’s mouth, it might have sounded arrogant and defiant. But though the Zen filter one must apply for David Ige, it made perfect sense.

“I don’t regret any decisions that I’ve made,” he said. “And I don’t see any of them as mistakes.”

In the coming days and weeks, Ige will give his “state of the state” address and unveil his first budget proposed developed entirely by his team — the budget for the current year was due only days after he took office, so much of it was carried over from the Neil Abercrombie administration. Taken together, the address and proposed budget will provide a lens through which to see not only his priorities and values, but what lessons he learned from the past 12 months.

Ige wouldn’t tip his hand on what to expect from either. But the hard work of “making the core of government function better,” of “strengthening the foundation,” as he said, has set the stage for a year ahead that could represent much more than just treading water.

“We needed to make things right,” said Ige, softly, “to make things happen.”

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