The Civil Beat Editorial Board Interview: Hawaii Gov. David Ige
August 21, 2022 · 29 min read
About the Author
The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Kim Gamel, John Hill and Keona Blanks. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Editorial Board spoke on Tuesday with David Ige, governor of the state of Hawaii. This interview has been edited for length and clarity and also for breakout stories, including one already published earlier this week on his disappointment in the outsized role of super PACs in the Hawaii primary election. Ige was also asked about the Democratic primary for governor.
Civil Beat: There was a lot of talk about financial disclosures on the part of the gubernatorial candidates and accusations on the part of some that the others were not sharing their documents. Where do you stand on this as someone who actually holds that job? If someone’s running for governor, what should they disclose to the public in terms of their finances?
Ige: I’ve fully disclosed my finances and probably more than I really need to in many instances. I think it’s important to the people to know. And I know that there is some misunderstanding, but the governor has always been prohibited from having another job. So it’s never been an issue, as you know, last year or the year before, they actually passed a law to make it clear that the lieutenant governor can’t have another job and that the mayors can’t have another job. So that’s a new requirement. And obviously, it’s more than a full-time job.
What was your take on that? Do you think the campaign descended too much into “Show us your documents. How much did you make? What’s this LLC all about?”
I do think that there were a lot of those kinds of questions raised. Once again, I think it’s OK if the candidates are raising it, because they have to stand behind the question if it’s asked in a debate, or they would have to be able to explain why they care about it. I guess I’ve always had faith in the voter, that they can sort it out and they can determine whether it’s a valid concern and question or not. And voters ended up deciding.
It’s been a very interesting couple of weeks from the Supreme Court decisions at the end of June that have really upset many people, particularly in the Democratic Party — abortion, guns, prayer and so forth. The Inflation Reduction Act, a surprising landmark legislation on climate change, on taxes, on health care. I know you’re in close touch with your fellow Western governors. Give us your lay of the land come November nationally and how that might affect Hawaii.
It’s hard to get a read on the issues of the day clearly. My Republican governor colleagues are happy about Roe v. Wade and the Supreme Court actions. I do know that many of them support some of the infrastructure bill and some of the Inflation Reduction Act. I think all of them appreciated the American Rescue (Plan) funds. I mean, to a person, they might not publicly talk about it because it’s become very partisan.
For me personally, I’m excited that we have a president and a Congress that shares our core values. You know, that we are in alignment. The American Rescue Plan provided much-needed federal funds, $1.6 billion to help me avoid layoffs and furloughs. We provided support for food stamps and enhanced unemployment benefits. And for the first time, we’re providing unemployment benefits for sole proprietors and small business people. The Paycheck Protection Act provided much-needed funds for small businesses. We were able to offer and maintain Medicaid roles. And we had a 25% increase in enrollment in Medicaid as people lost their health insurance.
Women’s reproductive rights should be something between a woman and her physician and not intervened (in) by the Supreme Court.
It’s those fundamental values that I think most of us in the islands share. The whole notion that health care is a right, not a privilege, that everyone should have access to health care. Women’s reproductive rights should be something between a woman and her physician and not intervened (in) by the Supreme Court or any other institution or body. I think that all of those things, I think are all very important and resonate with most of us here in the islands. I do think that there is a shift. It’s unfortunate that President Biden’s approval ratings started to slip. I guess it’s the politics.
Why do you think he’s so unpopular given this landmark series of bills? Even inflation is starting to come down a little bit.
Yeah. I do think that it will be helpful in the run up to the general election. I had to work with Trump when he was president, and he made this big deal about infrastructure. And he wanted to invest $4 trillion in infrastructure, and nothing happened! And there was Republican control of the House and a Republican-controlled Senate and nothing happened. And he talked about how important it was and all of that.
And, you know, Biden and Democrats delivered. I mean, that’s the reality. They fulfilled the promises they made. And I do think that overall, the people in the country benefit from it. Everyone, even in Republican states.
You’re somewhat hopeful, then, about nationally what might happen on November the eighth?
I am hopeful. I really do think that the Supreme Court rulings were a wakeup call to everybody. I never thought I would see the day that Roe v. Wade is overturned. I was appalled to see Republican legislatures just trying to pass the worst abortion laws in the country because they wanted to challenge the Supreme Court to be as overturning as they could. I don’t think any of them actually anticipated that they would overturn Roe v. Wade. And when they did, I think even Republicans were a little bit shocked about what impact that would have.
And you can see the chaos that’s occurring all across the country. I mean, you know, you have a 12-year-old rape victim who needs to get an abortion and can’t get it in her state because she’s a day after the 12 weeks, or some ridiculous deadline, that has to travel out of state to have the pregnancy terminated. And there’s just now a mismatch of what the rules are.
We’re concerned in Hawaii from the standpoint of, is there a liability for physicians or health care providers providing services to somebody who travels from out of state? It’s that gray area of what happens when your state explicitly prohibits it. And Republicans are getting clever about trying to make it a crime for anybody to provide services to somebody who lives in their state.
Is that something the attorney general is looking into?
We definitely are looking into that and trying to understand what the impact would be and what we would need to do. Obviously, we license physicians and health care providers here. And it does get tricky about how to provide support for those who want to come. But I don’t think we want to get into the business of performing abortions per se. Right?
I know that we would want to help the women who seek services. It is tragic, the fact that we are going to see now, because it will be states that will be determining abortion policy in the country. And there’s no clear indication. I mean, the Republican states are trying to restrict it to zero, right? Many of them would want absolutely no abortions.
It was actually part of their strategy to pass the worst abortion bills to see how far the court would go in dialing back Roe v. Wade. So now they have these laws on the books. And the court said, ‘I changed my mind. This was a mistake. You guys have the whole ball of wax in terms of policy.’ You know, it’s a different world.
You were saying that you’re going to be looking into how it’s going to affect Hawaii. And Hawaii doesn’t probably want to get into the business of providing services. How much control does the state have over that?
Well, I think that the fundamental premise that we’re looking at and concerned about is that clearly, the Republican states are trying to be as expansive as they can in enforcing their view on abortions as broadly as they can. They started to do a number of things that created issues for general people, right? I mean, they allowed individuals the right to sue people. They’ve been giving individuals the right to press charges for different violations. And we are concerned that they’re going to start to say that or trying to say that health care professionals who are out of state, who provide services that are not allowed, could be reprimanded or penalized or whatever.
So, I mean, from our perspective, we just want to make sure that we can support our health care professionals here and try to make sure that we can create a legal framework that would provide them as much protection as we can. We wouldn’t want an OB-GYN to be in a situation, have a patient who happens to be a traveler, and a lot of times you don’t know if they end up in the ER or something like that, to have to worry about, you know, where is this patient from? Can I or can’t I? Or if I do, will I be liable for it? So I think it’s those kinds of implementation laws that we want to make sure that we can evaluate and put forth legislation that would protect them as best as we can.
Going back to the primary and looking ahead to the general election, I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the Republican showing. We have a story out today about the large turnout among the Republicans. And Hawaii News Now had a story about the poll workers — a lot of Republicans were volunteering at the polls. Trump isn’t up for election. What’s energizing them and how concerned are you in terms of how this increases competition?
Well, just a couple of things: I’m not concerned at all. I think every effort to get people to show up to vote is great, regardless of whether they’re Republicans or Democrats. I do believe that — I’m proud of voters in Hawaii in general. I think they actually, the overwhelming majority of them, try and understand as much as they can about the candidates and think about who they want to invest their vote in. So, I’m glad that the Republican Party is working to get poll watchers and people involved in the election process.
I would be concerned if they’re advocating that they ignore the law and start to fabricate fraudulent claims of voter fraud. That’s not helpful. But I do think that any effort that would get people interested in the election process, whether they serve as poll workers for the Republican Party or a Democratic Party, I think is a good thing to get people engaged.
What do you think is energizing them?
I do think they have more candidates than they have had in the past. I think that (GOP Party Chair) Lynn Finnegan has — and remember, she’s definitely not a Trump person, she’s more of a centrist — I think that she did a good job of finding candidates, finding people. I think this election, they had more candidates than they have at least in the past several elections. And it does take work to build a party. It takes a lot of work. So, hats off to the Republican Party. I do think that once again, it wasn’t building on the Trump base. It was trying to get others involved with the election.
I do think that having somebody high profile like BJ Penn who’s kind of a recognized name, maybe not in the political context, but certainly somebody that had name recognition, and is very colorful person, I do think that every candidate will work hard to get others interested in the election and hopefully cast their vote for them. So, I think that that was helpful. And that’s why I think the overall turnout is really concerning because of so many people being up for election and so many people running for office.
Do you think the Honolulu rail project is finally turning the corner or under control, do you think it will actually make it to Ala Moana Center, and do you think there is any possibility in the years to come for a third bite at the apple, even more of an increased extension or funding at the state level.
I did have the opportunity to meet with (Transportation Secretary) Pete Buttigieg up in Idaho, and rail and HART was one of the projects that I talked about with him. I did let him know that I supported the county’s and HART’s revised application. I expressed to them that I felt that the city was reasonably conservative in their revenue projections on the project, that they were being pragmatic and realistic about acknowledging that if they don’t get costs under control and they don’t do a better job of managing the project, that they were at risk of running out of funds.
But the fact that they were willing to put our recovery proposal in front of them, that for the first time were acknowledging that they’re not going all the way to Ala Moana, I think was much needed. And I did express to the secretary that, with the Legislature giving the counties a 3% (hotel tax), that the county wasn’t spending all of it on the recovery plan, at least at this point in time. And so my assessment was that the county had resources that they could apply to the project should it see another significant increase in the project costs.
Did the secretary ask about it? Did you bring it up? And I’m curious what he said to everything you just said.
I brought it up because, when I go to (the Western Governors Association), I have a laundry list of things. It’s an opportunity to meet with secretaries. With Covid, we’ve had virtual meetings, but it’s definitely different than being in the room and being able to look somebody in the eye and talk to them. It’s a different opportunity for connection.
So there were a number of things that I wanted to talk with the secretary about: broadband, making sure that Hawaii gets more than its fair share of highway and airport and harbor funds. I talked to him specifically about the marine harbor program. In Hawaii’s situation, our harbors can’t qualify for federal support in that program. And I expressed to him that I thought it’s because of our unique situation. I asked them to take a look at how they qualify those projects and recognize that no other state is like Hawaii, where 90% or 95% of what we need comes in via ocean, and even inter-island is a vital link –– that it comes into Oahu and then needs to get distributed.
And we can’t qualify for federal assistance. But it’s as important as the highway system is to any other state, because we can’t get connected. When I go to these conferences, I do try to maximize the opportunity. I generally will go in to a meeting with a specific agenda of things that I want to talk about, and try and get the secretary’s attention. I try and focus on why I think Hawaii is different and how we would need to be treated differently than other states, as a preface to when we actually submit competitive grants.
With rail, did he make any comments?
He did say that they do believe in transit as critical infrastructure projects. And obviously there’s a separation of the existing projects versus new projects. I was just trying to make sure that he was aware that at least from the local level, the county and state are aligned on the recovery plan — that I felt good about the prospects of success. It may be that they may not get to the final station depending on what the bids are and how that goes through, but that there would be additional resources that the county could make available if they needed to.
And then just on climate and the environment, what are the key steps you think that we need to take, and the approach if we’re really going to be aggressive and really kind of ramp up in these years ahead with your successor, what really needs to happen to stay on pace with that?
Well, I think a couple of things. Clearly, we’ve made tremendous progress in setting the table in a lot of different areas. When we talk about 100% clean, renewable energy, there’s a lot of things that we’ve done to help facilitate that. And you’re right. In 2015, when we passed that (2045) commitment, Hawaii was the first and only state. And now, seven years later, there’s 10 states or 11 states that have committed to a similar kind of thing. And it’s helpful. But no other state is like Hawaii in the sense that we are totally isolated grids. Every single island has to be self-reliant. It’s easy to be 100% renewable in Wyoming because they just put up the windmills and let them run and their demand is so low that they don’t have any trouble with meeting the requirements. And that’s the fundamental difference.
When we talk about 100% clean, renewable energy, there’s a lot of things that we’ve done to help facilitate that.
So, we’ve gotten the (Public Utilities Commission) to change the regulatory process. And we’re trying to get their opportunities for financial return aligned with our community opportunities about accelerating green energy and clean energy. Hawaiian Electric is actually accelerating some of their projects. We’ve been pushing them to be open. And we are seeing that happen.
We are at the point now that solar plus battery (storage) is significantly cheaper than producing electricity by fossil fuel. And so we will begin to see that when we (go) green, the generation will actually be reducing costs to the consumer as we get more and more of these projects online. We’ll be the first state to close the door on coal completely, which I think is helpful for us just from an image perspective, but also as firmly establishing Hawaii as a leader in this space.
We’ve made progress in the 30×30 plan, especially for the watersheds. We’re getting better on how to fence in those hard to reach places. And we are certainly finding more private sector partners who want to help us be successful.
I do think in general that we are poised to really accelerate the pace at which we would be changing electricity generation and we will be accelerating protection of oceans and watersheds and obviously production of food that we eat. I know that we’ve been struggling with how you measure. I know when I talk to farmers, they say that we’ve more than doubled food production. I know that we’re struggling on how to demonstrate that in an objective, measurable way. The feds stopped capturing that data and trying to figure out how we do that.
But I do know my unscientific, anecdotal Costco “poll” tells me that in 2015 there was no local produce sold at Costco. And today, there’s fresh greens and lettuce, there’s cucumbers, eggplant, tomatoes. And when I talk to the farmers, they believe that they produce nearly 100% of the tomatoes eaten in Hawaii, fresh tomatoes today.
That was your promise, of course, to double food production by 2020. And so, it’s anecdotal, it sounds like.
Yes, we haven’t been able to find a way to consistently measure. And part of it is that the products of agriculture have changed. We shut down the last sugar plantation. But, up until that shutdown, that was kind of a big output. So when you look at value and all of that, it gets hard to be consistent in measuring what that means, to double local food production.
Just a couple of weeks ago, we had (Honolulu) Mayor Blangiardi sitting right in that chair and we reported the severe staffing shortage in the City and County of Honolulu. And I wonder, as you are nearing the end of your eight years in office, how’s that gone? Staffing at the state level, vacancies?
We definitely had challenges in vacancies. The challenge is that we have an aging workforce and we are filling vacancies like crazy, but we have people retiring like crazy. And I’ll just give you one example, and I know the Legislature gets after the Department of Agriculture on vacancies like crazy, and when you look at the net gain, they had 300 vacancies last year and they have 300 vacancies this year. What’s going on? But when you actually look at it, that’s because they’ve hired 300 people for new jobs and they’ve had retirements or people departing.
Just reading that story, I don’t think we have the same kind of problems per se. My personnel people said that we accepted 25,000 applications last year, and that’s down. We typically receive between 35,000 and 40,000 applications for state jobs every year.
I know that vacancies are the challenges. There are some positions that we have extreme difficulty in filling. They tend to be the professional positions — engineers. The State Historic Preservation Division has challenges hiring cultural experts and cultural architects and those kinds of things. We have shortages in elevator inspectors because private sector guys pay more than we do. It’s a constant churn.
I’ve been on a mission to restore pride in public service since I’ve become governor. And we’ve been doing a lot of different things to really support the public servants. I think that we tried to promote and attract people. I know that there is a disconnect in that many of our students aren’t aware of what jobs are like. We’re making a big push to increase student internships all across state government because we have shortages. And I’ve challenged the directors to be promoting the career opportunities that are available in the state.
The mayor said he was surprised to find that they didn’t even go to job fairs to really get out the word.
Yeah, we do go to job fairs quite frequently and we have so many vacancies. I don’t think we have more than 3,000, though. But we are pretty active in job fairs and we’ve been trying to connect the dots between career opportunities and the students — SHPD, for example, we’ve been pushing housing and wanting to commit to production of housing, and SHPD and historic preservation is kind of in the middle of that. And we’ve been promoting filling those positions. We keep losing them to private sector because they pay more and then we hire and fill and they’re there for a while and then they’re gone again.
The Red Hill crisis did create a lot of antipathy here, or distrust, toward the military. And the leases are coming up, right? Do you see room for the military to sort of redefine its relationship here? And can you give us any insights on these negotiations?
I’ve been involved with the Legislature for a long time, and I’ve kind of seen the cycle of the relationship with the military, with the local community. I would say probably about 20 years ago or so, they really made a huge effort to connect the community with the men and women that serve. And I do believe that we went through a period, I think, of tremendous progress. Every unit in the Department of Defense had adopted a school. There were a lot of activities connected to that — soccer leagues and baseball leagues and all of those kinds of things that make the community come together certainly improved the relationship between the military and the general community, I think tremendously, in the late ’90s, early 2000s.
When my kids were at Pearl Ridge Elementary, to see the sailors, the men and women show up to read to students. They were active and present on most of the school campuses across the state.
So fast forward to today, I think generally the community still recognizes the importance of the military in the islands. Obviously this Red Hill fiasco is challenging those relationships. It certainly was a wake up call to the community in general. I know that there have been expressed many concerns for a number of years.
We have had difficulty in the state working with the Navy on Red Hill from the very beginning, from 2014 or 2015 when we had that big spill. And this current situation is just a culmination of a lot of failures on the part of the Navy to really be open and transparent in sharing of the information.
I do get a sense that, like much of the community, we are seeing this wave of retirements, of losing people with a lot of experience. And for the longest time, the staff working on Red Hill was working on it for 10, 20, 30 years, doing the same thing the same way for a very long time. And lots of those people have retired. And you know what? A lot of people working there now don’t know what the entire system is. And I think that the Navy’s report really illuminated that fact, that training was lacking, that there was not a full understanding of the systems
I think that for me as governor the most troubling is the fact that the alarms were going off in May and nobody responded — no one shared that information with us. The concern is that we thought that they were fully transparent, but we are learning that they weren’t.
And we are focused on getting them to be specific in what repairs and what investments need to be made. We definitely are concerned about how long that would take because we want to de-fuel the tanks as quickly as possible. But based on what they provided, we don’t have a clear path about what investments need to be made, what projects need to be completed to get the system to the point that we would feel comfortable with de-fueling the tanks, and that’s the challenge.
On that note, you just said something about really being open and transparent and sharing information. I was wondering if you could talk about your decision to veto Senate Bill 3252 last month (on public records)?
Obviously, when I look at all of those bills, I’m just trying to make a determination about the things that I think would kind of move our community forward. The concern that I had with that bill is that I do think that we have a decent balance when it comes to access to information. We get requests from people and there is a process to try to accommodate the request, and there is a process for us to try to get recovery of costs. I think that that creates a balance for the requests and the requesters.
I did feel that the measure that passed really opened the door to making it easier for people to make requests, making it too easy for people to seek the waiver of having to pay for the cost of recovery. And there was just an overall concern that the unintended consequences of passing that measure and then implementing it would make it more difficult to respond to (Uniform Information Practices Act) requests.
Late in your tenure, I wonder if we’re watching TMT begin to circulate again, and it’s pretty clear that the scientific community does not want to take no for an answer. And I’m sure you know, some of the Hawaiian activists, they feel pretty much the same way in terms of allowing that project to proceed. Do you have any advice for the next governor in terms of how to cope with that issue?
I think part of the legislation is about mutual stewardship. And just in talking to Norma Wong and some of the advocates, it’s really trying to acknowledge and think about the fact that Mauna Kea is sacred to many Native Hawaiians and needs to be treated in that context. And Mauna Kea is clearly the best scientific location for exploration of the cosmos, bar none. There is no other site on the planet that is better than Mauna Kea, and the whole notion of mutual stewardship is, can we create an authority that can work to the mutual celebration of both of those ideas in a way that divergent views can be honored and respected? So that’s the challenge in implementing that law.
I do think that, the National Science Foundation, in their requirement for completing the national environmental impact statement, does have a requirement for a cultural consultation. The hope is that they can engage and listen to the concerns raised. As you know, there were some concerns with the Daniel K. Inouye solar telescope on Haleakala and the NSF was able to engage the community in a way that allowed them to develop a plan to respond to the biggest concerns that allowed the project to move forward. So we are hopeful that we can have that kind of engagement in the community to arrive at a better solution that would allow protesters to be heard and the recognition hopefully that science and culture can coexist in a mutually beneficial way.
Mauna Kea is clearly the best scientific location for exploration of all of the cosmos, bar none.
You’ll be out of office less than four months from now. How are we going to remember Gov. David Ige’s terms in office? What’s going to stand out, do you think, for future historians?
Keeping the community safe and healthy. Covid dominated the last two-plus years of this administration. And clearly it was unanticipated, but we had to respond. I’m proud of the state’s response to Covid. Commonwealth Fund had evaluated all states and Hawaii ranked No. 1. We’ve had among the lowest per capita infections and amongst the lowest per capita deaths. I think when I look at that survey, the thing that I’m most proud of is, Hawaii is the only state in the country that had zero days where the health system was overrun.
And as you know, and I’ve said many times during the pandemic, that the health and safety of our community is my No. 1 priority, that we don’t have the luxury if our health system is overrun of shipping patients to California or anywhere else — that that would be the priority, that would drive my decisions. And it was borne out in that study.
I think that that will be a big part of that legacy. And the fact that nobody else in the country could do it the way that we did it — we involved all aspects in our community to be aware of what was happening and to try and get input from the hotels and the visitor attractions and the businesses in a way that included everybody. And I’m proud that our people in the community recognize that it’s not about personal privileges or personal wants or desires, that when you have a public health emergency, it’s about sacrificing personal wants on behalf of the community.
You were also called an authoritative dictator for the mandates and so forth. I mean, you took a lot of flak.
I certainly did. And that’s part of the job, and I recognized that. Early on in the pandemic, the business community came to me and they said they wanted me to order the mask mandate everywhere indoors. And I talked with them and said, “Well, why do you want it?” “Well, it’s because I don’t want to say that my business is requiring the masks.” They wanted to be able to say that the governor is requiring the masks. And so everywhere: masks required by order of Governor Ige.
I get it. That’s my job. And that’s why I’m not the most popular guy on the planet. But I do believe that it was important for us. The Safe Travels program, every state at the early days talked about implementing a quarantine of travelers. Nobody did anything other than Hawaii.
And being able to implement a pre-travel testing requirement and come up with authorized lab partners and the whole nine yards, nobody at all implemented any of those kinds of procedures to keep their community safe. And I do believe that has helped to accelerate the recovery. So I do think that that’s one of the things that I’ll be proud of.
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