WASHINGTON — Gov. David Ige, a Democrat in a state dominated by Democrats, is in Republican-controlled Washington for the National Governors Association winter meeting.

He came to the nation’s capital to advocate for Hawaii — its environment, its culture, its health care system and its economy — in what has been called the most poisonous political environment in living memory.

Voters across America are describing themselves as “terrified,” “disheartened,” and “disgusted,” pollster Frank Luntz told the governors Sunday. Much of their rage is focused on Washington, he said, and how it is being governed.

Gov. David Ige at the National Governors Association gathering in Washington. Courtesy of Gov. David Ige's Office

The nation’s mood has never lifted since the ferocious political campaign between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton ended in a popular vote victory for Clinton but an electoral college win for Trump. What has followed is an acrimonious transition period, with Democrats and Republicans becoming increasingly polarized in their views.

For many Democrats, any sign of cooperation with the Republican administration is viewed as treason to progressive ideals.

As liberal criticism of President Trump continues to crest, conservative energy is also growing. Last year, the Conservative Political Action Conference was divided on candidate Trump, so he decided to skip its meeting altogether. Last week, however, he was greeted with rousing cheers by people who support his brash and combative governing style and his attacks on the media.

Representing Hawaii’s Interests

So Washington is not an easy or pleasant environment for the leader of a state that is deeply Democratic in its principles and ideology, but that depends on federal spending and largesse. The state’s sugar industry shut down permanently in December when the final mill closed, and tourism can be a notoriously undependable source of income.

In a world of Zika viruses and terrorism, only a few bad news events could have damaging repercussions on the state’s economy.

Ige believes it is his job to represent Hawaii’s interests, and he has spent the time in Washington attempting to do exactly that, he told Civil Beat in a wide-ranging interview Sunday morning at the hotel where the governors have converged.

Ige prepares for a meeting during the National Governors Association gathering in Washington. Kirstin Downey/Civil Beat

He arrived Wednesday and the next day, he attended a meeting of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, a multi-agency group trying to protect coral reefs. The organization, which includes representatives from states that contain coral reefs, was established in 1998, and each year its members schedule their winter meeting to coincide with the governors’ meeting. Still, no governor had ever before shown up before.

“I’m the first governor who ever ended up going to the meeting,” Ige said. “I wanted them to understand the Hawaii perspective.”

So he talked with them about global warming, coral bleaching, watershed protection and runoff, and what Hawaii is trying to do to protect its reefs. Some might have thought it was wasted time to talk with scientists and environmentalists who are likely to have little power in the current administration, but it was part of Ige’s policy of trying to reach out to anyone who might help the state.

Some people in Hawaii will doubtless be angry that Ige went to the White House dinner. He doesn’t think he had any choice.

He has stayed busy. He attended a meeting with Elaine Chao, Trump’s new secretary of transportation, who will likely oversee any infrastructure work the country undertakes. Hawaii has roads and bridges in serious states of disrepair.

Ige also attended a closed briefing by federal officials from the Department of Homeland Security.

He spent several hours in a session on cybersecurity, where computer experts talked about how threats to one state’s information technology can spread to other states and suggested strategies to reduce the risk.

Ige said he is also scheduling meetings with every federal official whose work is relevant to Hawaii and who will agree to see him.

“I’m trying to meet with cabinet members so that I can try to explain from my perspective why Hawaii is unique and needs to have a different relationship or interaction with the agency than they might otherwise,” he said.

He had a breakfast meeting with Scott Pruitt, the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, a former Oklahoma attorney general who engaged in repeated legal battles with President Barack Obama over clean air initiatives. A horde of emails and letters that have come to light have made it clear he worked closely with executives at oil and gas companies in opposing the Obama administration’s efforts to fight climate change.

Senate Democrats fought Pruitt’s nomination, but he was confirmed because of his overwhelming support by Republicans. For Ige, that’s simply a fact of life in 2017 Washington.

“For me, Scott Pruitt is the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and whether I think his core values are exactly aligned with me or not, or if his beliefs about how he wants to administer the Environmental Protection Agency are different than mine, he is still the administrator,” Ige said. “The reality is that the state of Hawaii still needs to interact with the Environmental Protection Agency. … I am the governor. I need to explain to him why I think Hawaii needs to be treated differently in certain instances, and I look forward hopefully to find a way to work together, because I know that is important to the people of Hawaii.”

Ige was glad to learn during his brief meeting with Pruitt that the Oklahoman is familiar with Hawaii and admired the state’s environment and beauty.

Ige had a chance to attend a group meeting with Tom Price, a former Republican congressman from Georgia who was confirmed as secretary of health and human services Feb. 10 in a party-line vote. Price will oversee the changes that will be made to Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans ran for office promising to repeal.

Ige said he saw some reason for optimism after hearing Price’s comments about ways the Affordable Care Act had helped some people.

Ige hopes to get a private meeting with Price this coming week. He wants to tell him that Hawaii has been successful at reducing insurance costs because of its long history of providing medical care through the Prepaid Health Care Act, the state’s health insurance plan enacted in 1974, under which 90 percent of the population had health insurance. He wants to tell Price that Hawaii has the longest life expectancy in the country as a result of that insurance.

He believes Hawaii will be affected less severely than some other states by the changes in health care that are under consideration, and he thinks he might be able to give federal officials information that will help minimize the damage in Hawaii and other states.

“Our perspective is how do we take the best of both worlds, to preserve what has helped the people of Hawaii for so long, for more than 40 years,” he said.

A Different Washington

Ige said his first visits to Washington after his election in 2014 were a lot easier to navigate.

Obama is from Hawaii, and he had chosen officials to run the major government agencies who were aligned with the Democratic Party ideals generally shared in Hawaii, the same values that aided Ige’s rise to power. The Cabinet officers were all eager to be obliging to the governor from the president’s beloved home state, and Ige quickly arranged interviews and meetings with them. Of 16 agencies the new governor hoped to visit, he got appointments with 13 of them.

“I knew when I met with all the cabinet members in the previous administration that they would do whatever they could to help the state of Hawaii,” he said. “So yes, it’s very different.”

Now, Ige wants to find ways to reach across the ideological divide and communicate with people who have views different than his.

“When I meet with his administration, I don’t assume they will be willing to work with me, so I’m sitting with them, trying to give them every reason to want to help me to be successful.” —Gov. David Ige

In Hawaii, all four members of the congressional delegation are Democrats. The 51-member House of Representatives is overwhelmingly Democrat; in the fall, the last remaining Republican in the Senate was ousted by a Democrat.

But big swaths of the rest of the country have turned Republican. There are 33 states with Republican governors, 16 with Democrats and one with an independent. And of course, the  GOP controls Congress as well as the White House.

Ige has to find ways to communicate with them.

“When I meet with his administration, I don’t assume they will be willing to work with me, so I’m sitting with them, trying to give them every reason to want to help me to be successful,” he said.

On Sunday night, Ige and his wife dressed up to meet with President Trump, whose candidacy was soundly rejected in Hawaii. At a White House dinner for the governors, Trump said he would speak with them Monday about issues like health care.

Then Trump raised a toast to what he called the “great, great governors of the United States.”

Some people in Hawaii will doubtless be angry that Ige went to the dinner.

He doesn’t think he had any choice.

“I’m fundamentally focused on being able to deliver for the people of Hawaii,” he said. “I try to put politics aside so I can do the best for the people of Hawaii.”

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