It actually may be Gov. David Ige’s best decision yet as he tries to navigate the Thirty Meter Telescope quagmire.

Some might say that Ige’s surprising decision to toss the political hot potato that is the Mauna Kea standoff to Big Island Mayor Harry Kim is just a matter of passing the buck.

Others say it’s more like a strategic move in a long chess match. As Ige noted in his statement, Kim is “closest to the situation and the impacts are greatest on the island he leads.”

Having Kim take the reins of both county and state negotiations to somehow resolve the dispute over the planned TMT takes the heat off Ige, whose growing list of critics includes his own lieutenant governor, Josh Green.

Gov. David Ige, right, has asked Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim to take charge of TMT negotiations. 

It also alters the narrative, which for the last nine days has been dominated by images of kupuna being arrested, convoys obstructing traffic on the H-1, a columnist labeling the governor “limp” and social media shoutouts for the “protectors,” from New Zealand to New York City to Dubai.

It’s also wise, because Ige realizes he has not been able to do as he promised — bring the TMT to Mauna Kea. Kim, a well-respected figure statewide, might well be able to make that happen.

Fairly or not, the TMT story has shifted from a culture vs. science debate to an anxious battleground featuring a rising righteous-indigenous-rights hui vs. greedy-heartless-inept government. And the hui is winning impressively.

The man at the center of it all is a governor who can’t even hold a press conference in Hilo without being ridiculed. Among the hundreds of comments that were made to the governor’s Facebook page as Friday’s presser was carried on a shaky live-feed were these:

Kawena Holu · Brah u live in Hawai’i yet you have no clue how to respect the lāhui. You definitely need to be impeached. The best way to have a safe operation is to stop your temper tantrums now.

Nanea Kenoake’alohilani Leonard · Shoots. Me running for governor would do a better job than him. :P

Shelby Smith · Yep he was the one when push the Missile thret to

As Ige spoke, commentators let loose hundreds of angry emojis that floated across the screen. A petition calling for his impeachment had collected more than 43,000 supporters as of Tuesday afternoon.

To be sure, the governor and the TMT also have lots of supporters. But those saying “build the damn telescope” are drowned out by those declaring “onipaa” (meaning “steadfast” and “resolute”).

Recognizing The ‘Protectors’

The governor and the mayor are, by virtue of their personalties and history, very different leaders.

Ige is an engineer. Kim likes to sit quietly in the forest and believes he can hear Pele.

Ige has been in office for decades but only became a major figure five years ago. Kim has been a Hawaii island household name since his Civil Defense days three decades ago.

One day after Ige said there were reports of drug and alcohol use on the mauna and that leaders of the Puʻuhonua o Puʻuhuluhulu near the Mauna Kea Access Road could not keep order, Kim toured the area and liked what he saw.

“I think this is a gathering of people together for the first time, openly — as hard as it is for some to believe — that they really proud to be Hawaiian,” Kim said. “The organization and respect for their orders and authorities … (it’s) unbelievable unless you’re here.”

Ige, you’ll recall, flew to the Big Island but did not meet with the Kapu Aloha folks camped out several thousand feet above sea level. Given the animosity toward the governor, that may have been a good call at the time. On Tuesday evening, however, Ige made his first visit to the TMT protest site.

But contrast Ige’s Friday no-show with Kim’s actions on Saturday. Mileka Lincoln of Hawaii News Now posted video of Kim shaking hands and hugging the protesters Saturday. At one point he’s seen sitting in a lawn chair, watching and listening to what the protesters — some 2,000 of them at the time — have to say.

That said, it’s instructive to take a close look at Ige’s handoff to Kim on Tuesday. It shows signs of a governor who has also been listening. Ige, for example, calls the demonstrators “the protectors of Maunakea.”

Mauna Kea means “white mountain,” but Maunakea is short for Mauna a Wākea — “the mountain of Wākea, one of the progenitors of the Hawaiian people. Maunakea is believed to connect the land to the heavens,” as the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy explains.

Kim himself uses Maunakea in his official vision for the mountain (“Maunakea to be a symbol of nations working together for the pursuit of peace and harmony, a beacon of hope and discovery for the world,” it states).

Ige also said in his statement Tuesday that he shares with the protesters the belief “that the issues underlying what is taking place today are far deeper” than TMT or the mauna.

A screen shot from Gov. David Ige’s Facebook page Friday. 

“They are about righting the wrongs done to the Hawaiian people going back more than a century,” he says.

The governor gets it: This is major, this is sensitive, this is complicated, and this is longstanding. I’d say that shows leadership on his part. So does handing the baton to Kim.

Ige also makes clear that “hard decisions” are ahead and that the governor and the mayor together will work toward a resolution “in the best interests of all the people of Hawaii.”

It’s worth noting that Ige was supposed to attend a National Governors Association meeting in Salt Lake City this week. He cancelled, says his office, and he has no plans for vacation, either.

TMT Mauna Kea demonstrators hug. July 17, 2019
Protesters hug in celebration of a minor victory after police retreated from the Mauna Kea Access Road on the day that 34 kupuna had been arrested. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

It is not clear whether there is common or middle ground to be found on the TMT and Mauna Kea, or whether Kim can come up with a solution that has thus far proved elusive. Perhaps it could begin with an agreement that allows employees of the 13 telescopes already on the summit to go back to work.

But how do you suppose Colleen Hanabusa would have handled this crisis, had she defeated Ige in last year’s Democratic primary? Or Andria Tupola, the Republican nominee, in the general?

Would they have acted to, say, move construction equipment to the TMT site more quickly? Would protestors now be sitting in jail? Would someone have been hurt?

It’s a moot point now. Ige is in charge and he has put Kim in the driver’s seat. And we are all along for what looks to be a long ride.

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