Indecisive. Poor communicator. Looks weak.
Sends contradictory messages. Not perceived as being in charge. Defers too much to others.
Avoids conflict. Lacks the skill set to govern. Rolling disaster.
Those are some of the words and phrases used to describe Hawaii Gov. David Ige.
They come from some of the most powerful people in the state who work directly with the governor on a regular basis.
The frank consensus among them is that Hawaii is stuck with the wrong person in the state’s most important job at a time when strong, decisive leadership is needed most.
These top elected officials have firsthand insight into how Ige is doing during the COVID-19 crisis. They would only speak with Civil Beat for this story if they were granted anonymity in order to not compromise their professional relationship with him and others.
It’s an important story and an important time for the public to understand how capable its top leader is of handling the biggest crisis in state history, so we agreed we would not identify them.
The void created by Ige’s leaderless style has forced others in government to step up and guide the state, including leaders in the state House and Senate, the congressional delegation, the lieutenant governor, county mayors and business executives.
The irony is that Hawaii’s infection and death rate are among the lowest in the nation, something that Ige can rightfully take credit for. The state and counties are gradually reopening recreation and retail in the hopes that an economic recovery can begin.
But the fear of a new spike in COVID-19 lingers, and no one is under the illusion that the danger has passed us by for good.
That uncertainty only underscores the frustration many feel with Ige, who still has two and a half years to serve in his second and final term of office. While there is no serious thought of trying to remove him from office — the state constitution does not allow for recall but does vaguely mention impeachment — an Impeach Governor David Ige petition at change.org had garnered nearly 67,000 signatures as of Monday.
To be fair, that petition was started a year ago in response to the planned Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. But it only illustrates that disappointment with Ige is not new.
And, while the ongoing TMT standoff is serious, COVID-19 is literally a matter of life and death. It is the public that most suffers when the head of government inspires little confidence.
It’s not as if those around Ige haven’t tried to get him to rise to the occasion.
On May 9 Senate President Ron Kouchi and House Speaker Scott Saiki convened a high-level meeting at the Hawaii Convention Center. The agenda focused on how and when to reopen the state.
Participants included Ige, Kouchi, Saiki, Lt. Gov. Josh Green, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency Administrator Luke Meyers, Director of Health Bruce Anderson, State Epidemiologist Sarah Park, Ige’s “navigator” on economic recovery Alan Oshima, banker Peter Ho and HMSA executive Mark Mugiishi.
Park, Ho and Mugiishi are members of the House Select COVID-19 Committee on Economic and Financial Preparedness, which Ho and Saiki co-chair.
The committee has determined that the prerequisite for the state to “incrementally” reopen before a vaccine exists is infrastructure to test, screen, monitor and quarantine. Details on the color-coded phased-recovery and reopening matrix were finally released Monday.
According to people familiar with the proceedings, Ige was mostly silent during the five-hour meeting, even though he is the state’s chief executive. Many in the room were in favor of moving forward with a reopening plan, but Ige tended to side with Anderson and Park, who work for him and who have stressed concerns about risking public health.
The DOH officials have instituted a state response distinguished by social distancing, something that most people agree is working. But there has been less urgency from the administration on testing and tracing the people COVID-19 cases have come in contact with.
Green, a medical doctor, has called for a massive increase in testing since the pandemic arrived in Hawaii in early March. Just last week, Schatz said Ige’s Cabinet is dragging its heels on contact tracing, even as the senator has helped secure tens of millions of dollars to do the work.
The five-hour meeting concluded without consensus and was followed up with more meetings the following week, when a plan was finally settled on. But the plan comes months after state officials were aware of the threat of COVID-19, again showing Ige slow to respond, and being reactive to events rather than proactive.
The five-hour meeting is described by those familiar with it as just one example of how much time and effort is expended to “get the governor to be a governor,” as one official put it.
“It is almost impossible for him to take decisive action,” said another official.
Another said, “He does not have the skill set to be a governor” — specifically, the fundamental ability to identify issues that need to be addressed, mobilize people to resolve them, provide direction and communicate what has to be done.
The appointment of Oshima — a former executive with Hawaiian Electric — as the state’s navigator was widely hailed as a good move. But Oshima’s actual role has turned out to be vaguely defined. On Friday, House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke rejected a $10 million request from Oshima for consultants and staff salaries.
Based on Ige’s performance of the past two months, there is anxiety about what comes next.
“Things are really tough right now, but things are going to be tough for the next couple of years,” one official said. “Not everything is going to be solved overnight, and my fear is that the governor will not be able to lead over the next two and a half years.”
Ige is heavily faulted for not communicating clearly about his emergency orders.
For example, when he first implemented his stay-at-home order (since modified to be called safer-at-home), many were confused over what the governor meant by closing state beaches. Ige later clarified that people could cross beaches to go swimming and fishing, but that social distancing had to be followed and groups would not be allowed to gather.
The confusion over statewide orders is exacerbated somewhat by a governing structure unique to Hawaii: the four county mayors are not simply a mayor of, say, Lihue or Hilo, but of entire islands. Home rule grants the counties certain latitude in establishing their own rules and regulations.
And so, following Ige’s stay-at-home edict that took effect March 25, Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim did not close businesses and allowed some county parks and beaches to remain open. For his part, Kauai County Mayor Derek Kawakami had already implemented nightly curfews five days earlier.
Later, Ige said he would require that the mayors get his approval first for any action related to COVID-19. But instead, subsequent events made it appear that Ige was sometimes leading from behind.
Kawakami soon announced that Kauai would extend its stay-at-home and 14-day quarantine for arrivals to the end of June, and Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell did the same. But Ige did not officially order the same for the entire state, even as he said in a Facebook Live chat that he was considering it.
The governor also apologized on May 6 for an announcement earlier that week regarding the reopening of retailers and other businesses as part of his seventh emergency supplementary proclamation. After Caldwell said Oahu would not open stores until May 15, Ige amended his order.
In the meantime, the governor’s own Cabinet members have sent mixed messages. Hara has warned of possible civil unrest, something Ige downplays. Hara also told lawmakers he asked Ige to order DOH to accept help on contact tracing.
Ige did not return a request for an interview about his leadership made with his office on Friday.
Not all the observations of Ige are negative.
Some credit him for sharing executive branch responsibilities in a way that no previous governor would even consider. He’s let the Legislature take the lead on closing the $1 billion deficit in the state budget, on determining how $862 million in CARES Act funding is to be spent and on how to help the beleaguered Department of Labor and Industrial Relations process an avalanche of unemployment claims.
Another official said it is refreshing to see a governor not unduly influenced by lobbyists and other special interests. He also does not appear to hold grudges or get involved in vendettas.
The problem, one official said, is that Ige “may underneath be a pretty smart guy with solid ideas, but he can’t express them.” His inability to project authority leads those around him to run over him.
Said another official, “I believe the governor is a well-meaning and basically an honest person, but another characteristic of a good leader is the ability to personally self reflect and to acknowledge mistakes or flaws and then to improve on them. I am not sure if he has that.”
On Monday, Ige finally announced that the state was transitioning from the safer-at-home phase to an acting-with-care phase that would eventually lead to a “new normal” that would still call for guarding against the coronavirus.
In a nod to his administration’s reliance on health experts, Ige said the reopening/recovery plan is informed by the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Johns Hopkins Public Health Principles for a Phased Reopening.
“I am committed to making decisions based on data, science and best practices,” the governor said during the press conference.
He also officially extended the 14-day quarantine for travelers arriving in the state as well as for interisland travelers through June 30.
“Together we will emerge stronger and more resilient as a result of learning from and overcoming this challenge,” he said.
But confusion persists.
Within hours of Ige’s press conference and eighth supplemental order, Hawaii County’s Kim issued a press release and order of his own stating that that county’s beach parks would open Tuesday.
Minutes later, Kim’s office sent out two revisions of the press release, both clarifying that the mayor would first submit the proposal to Ige for final approval.
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