A Lawyer. A Doctor. An Engineer.

Voters in Hawaii will soon choose between the first two to replace the third. The engineer, Gov. David Ige, who is not seeking reelection because of term limits, has often been criticized as being an ineffective communicator due to his low-key approach to the office.

His reputation as a quiet problem solver who does not crave the spotlight came to the fore amid the coronavirus pandemic, leading to complaints about conflicting messages and miscommunications as his administration struggled to control the situation.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a medical doctor who stepped into the void and is now the Democratic nominee for the state’s top job, says he will continue his hands-on approach. His Republican rival Duke Aiona, a former judge and attorney, also promises a more active style of communication.

Honolulu Civil Beat's Know your candidate with gubernatorial candidates Duke Aiona Josh Green.
Duke Aiona, left, and Josh Green, right, promise very different styles of communication from Gov. David Ige. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

How the next governor communicates will determine how effective he can be in pushing things through the Legislature and dealing with longstanding problems like the state’s housing crisis, controversial issues like the future of Mauna Kea and leading Hawaii through the next crisis that presents itself.

Green describes himself as a sensitive guy who speaks passionately about issues he cares about. He said he would hold weekly press briefings and post social media updates akin to his whiteboard presentations and social media presentations on Covid-19. He also said he would speak directly to state lawmakers.

Aiona said he also would hold regular press briefings and would have his department heads collaborate with subject matter chairs in the Legislature on policy decisions. While he said he also can get passionate at times, his years as a judge taught him to temper his messaging.

Both candidates promised to be more direct and more collaborative. Ige, a former state legislator, promised the same when he took office in 2014. But the governor’s understated and methodical approach didn’t please everyone.

With the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, he was criticized for appearing indecisive at a time when the state needed swift action and reassurances. That largely ended up being provided by other state leaders, including Green and several lawmakers, as well as business executives.

Ige was – in his own words – “not the most popular guy on the planet” as he eventually imposed mask and vaccine mandates and other coronavirus prevention measures that critics said were often done via conflicting messages.

Medical technicians collect COVID-19 nose swab samples from people lined up in their cars, around the block, at the Blaisdell drive-through testing site in Honolulu, Monday, December 27, 2021. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
The pandemic posed a test for Hawaii’s leadership. Critics said Gov. David Ige was ineffective as a communicator during the early stages of the public health crisis. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2021

The governor said criticism comes with the job, but he has defended the state’s strict stance and testing programs that helped to keep the number of deaths from Covid-19 low compared to other states.

“It’s not the most heartwarming kind of feeling to know that you’re focused on doing the right thing, and there’s just a lot of people that will not like it. But you’ve got to do it anyway,” Ige said in an interview with the Civil Beat editorial board in August.

“It’s really easy to talk about different options, and its really easy to talk about things that you should’ve or would’ve or could’ve (done) — but when you’re responsible for it, its a very different situation.”

Will the next governor do a better job of reaching out to lawmakers and the public?

“They’re both good communicators in their own way,” Hawaii Pacific University communications professor John Hart said. “Duke Aiona is very pleasant, he’s ethical, likable, was a trial lawyer. Josh Green has that doctor’s persona, and everyone wants a doctor that’s caring and compassionate.”

Handling Criticism

Ige faced much criticism during his tenure as governor, but he was known to keep a cool head and rarely held grudges.

By contrast, heated exchanges between Green and Aiona at recent forums hosted by Civil Beat and KHON2 highlighted a chink in both the candidates armor: they are quick to react if they perceive they are being attacked.

During the Civil Beat forum earlier this month, Aiona said the state can’t discuss anything with civility, and minutes later called Green a “fearmonger” for comments he made in 2020 about crowds outside of Costco possibly “ending up in body bags.” Green defended himself, saying he was only trying to express the urgency of the situation as Covid quickly spread in the community.

Green later implied that Republicans are out of step with the values of most people in Hawaii. Aiona, who is from Pearl City, responded by implying that Green doesn’t understand locals because he wasn’t born in the islands. (Green grew up in Pittsburgh.)

Lt. Gov. Josh Green speaking at Democratic Party of Hawaii Unity Breakfast Sunday 14th, 2022. CivilBeat Photos Ronen Zilberman.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a medical doctor, was the administration’s lead communicator after the pandemic hit Hawaii in March 2020. He promised to continue his public style if he becomes governor. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2022

In an interview, Green said he tends to react if he feels someone is making a personal attack, and he’s more comfortable talking about “science, numbers and analytics.”

“I am a sensitive person,” Green said. “I’m happy to say that openly, it’s one of my strengths, actually. I really feel a lot. I use my heart more than people are used to in politics.”

He said he carried that sensitivity from his time as a medical doctor, a setting where it’s important to empathize with patients’ feelings.

Green said he gets calmer during high-pressure situations, like those he’d likely face if he wins the election.

“That’s not the space where I end up in conflicts,” Green said.

Aiona already anticipates dealing with criticism if he’s elected, saying “it comes with the territory.”

He is also no stranger to pressure involving conflicts after more than a decade as a judge.

“As a judge, you don’t get defensive at all,” he said in an interview. “I don’t want to confuse passion with getting defensive on something because I respect everyone’s opinion on a matter that’s before me. My style is always to listen.”

Emergency Communications

The pandemic often revealed major differences between Green and Ige. Green, for example, often preempted the administration’s announcements with presentations of his own delivered on a whiteboard and broadcast widely on social media.

“I try to be as open as possible in real time,” Green said Tuesday.

He doesn’t plan to change his approach much and has promised on the campaign trail to be direct and quick in his communication. Green said he would continue those social media presentations covering topics like housing, homelessness and the economy.

“We’re going to have weekly press conferences, that’s our plan,” Green said. “And I really enjoy that, I intend to bring experts into them so that people get more information than the regular, typical update.”

 

Gubernatorial candidate Duke Aiona called a press conference urging tje Ige/Green administration to convene a legislature special session to address a criminal and public safety issue.
Duke Aiona said he would be the state’s primary spokesman during critical situations. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Aiona has painted Green as part of the conundrum that took place during the pandemic. He said that while he would take the advice of department heads and other advisers, he would ultimately be the administration’s point person during emergency situations so that the government is speaking with “one voice.”

“When it’s at a level that affects everyone, instances of important public safety and other matters, I think the governor should be addressing those issues,” Aiona said Tuesday.

Wrangling The Legislature

Perhaps nowhere was the Ige administration’s communication problems on fuller display than with the Legislature even though it was dominated by fellow Democrats.

After his first term, top lawmakers who viewed Ige as an ineffective leader endorsed Ige’s opponent, Colleen Hanabusa, in the 2018 governor’s race. Ige beat Hanabusa, but the relationship between the governor and the Legislature never fully mended.

Aiona said he would largely rely on department heads to liaise with the Legislature, especially with subject matter chairs overseeing areas like the economy, budgets, agriculture and energy, during the offseason between May and December each year.

House Chambers Legislature opening 2019.
Communicating with the Legislature will also be a challenge for the next governor, as it was for Ige. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Aiona also promised an “open door” policy with lawmakers and said he would be willing to take meetings with them any time during the year.

Green said he would just walk from the governor’s office on the top floor to the lower levels of the State Capitol to personally meet with lawmakers and talk on the benches and railings. He also said he would hold regular, informal conversations with legislators to go over policies and would encourage his department heads to do the same.

Both Aiona and Green agree that the Legislature is necessary to implement much of their policy proposals. The Legislature would likely be a larger hurdle for Aiona. He has experience working with legislators when he was lieutenant governor under Republican Linda Lingle, but there are far fewer Republicans in the State Capitol now.

Meanwhile, in addition to his political affiliation, Green’s running mate is Sylvia Luke, the outgoing chairwoman of the House Finance Committee who will still have many legislative allies come the 2023 session and beyond. Aiona’s running mate, Junior Tupai, has no legislative experience.

“It’s difficult for (Aiona) … how can he wrangle a Democratic statehouse?” Hart said. “Josh has Sylvia, the head wrangler.”

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