Gov. David Ige’s administration and the Senate are fighting again, this time over a cabinet nominee.
Rona Suzuki, the governor’s pick to head the state Department of Taxation, was set to go through a confirmation hearing before the Senate Ways and Means Committee but asked that her name be withdrawn from consideration Thursday morning after learning that the committee would not support her confirmation.
In response, Ige wrote a letter to the Senate, asking that the senators reconsider and rebuking them for “putting political considerations ahead of the public good.”
“It is irresponsible and shameful,” Ige wrote. “Our ability to recruit capable leaders will be frustrated by Senators’ treatment of nominees.”
The committee didn’t actually take a vote on Suzuki’s nomination on Thursday. It adjourned without making a decision.
Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, responded in a letter to Ige that the Senate will welcome the opportunity to vet Suzuki’s qualifications.
“The Nominee was given the opportunity to make opening comments,” Dela Cruz wrote. “She surprised members when she announced she was requesting her nomination be withdrawn.”
Ige wrote in his letter that the Senate’s criticism stems from work Suzuki had done outside her role as head of the tax department. Earlier this year, Ige tapped Suzuki to coordinate the use of federal relief funds.
“As I pointed out in my testimony, Rona has always been a team player, taking on every assignment to the best of her ability,” Ige said in his letter.
Suzuki, along with other cabinet members, have been heavily criticized by a special Senate COVID-19 panel that has scrutinized the Ige administration’s response to the pandemic.
Several members of that panel are also on the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
Suzuki’s nomination drew support from 156 people who submitted testimony to the committee Thursday morning with just two opposed, Dela Cruz said during the hearing.
“Rona has always been a team player, taking on every assignment to the best of her ability.” — Gov. David Ige
“I’ve never wanted to subject myself to this public process,” Suzuki said in her opening statement to the senators, adding that the outpouring of support has helped.
Clearing a committee hearing is just the first hurdle for nominees. They must also win approval by the full 25-member Senate.
Suzuki replaced Linda Chu Takayama, the governor’s chief of staff, as head of the tax department in August 2019.
Previously, Suzuki worked as a senior assistant in the same department, managing Hawaii’s beleaguered tax modernization program. She was also executive director of the Office of Community Services in the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.
Several other nominees also face a tough road to confirmation. Chris Yuen, a nominee to the state land board, and Craig Hirai, the state budget director, came under fire Tuesday from separate Senate panels. Their nominations could also be in jeopardy.
Senate committees are expected to make recommendations on those two nominees Monday.
Ige has had a tough time getting some of his cabinet members cleared by the Senate.
Last year, he withdrew his nomination for Jobie Masagatani to lead the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands after it became clear she would not make it. This year, William Aila, her successor who hired her back into the department, also faced a tough confirmation process.
Last year, Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda faced a series of hearings in which Senators drilled into issues with state jails and the sheriffs division.
In 2015, the governor pulled his nomination for Carleton Ching, a development lobbyist who was Ige’s pick to lead the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
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Blaze Lovell is a reporter for Civil Beat and a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He was born and raised on Oahu. You can reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @blaze_lovell