Gov. Josh Green accused the Senate of “playing politics.”

Despite strong public support, a panel of state senators decided against recommending Ikaika Anderson to lead the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

The 4 to 1 vote came at the end of a contentious five-hour meeting that saw Anderson under fire, in just his first few weeks in office, for his handling of a $600 million spending plan passed by the Legislature last year.

Anderson was the first member of Gov. Josh Green’s cabinet to face a confirmation hearing in the Senate.

“It’s not Ikaika’s fault. He’s been put in an extremely difficult position,” said Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, the chairwoman of the Hawaiian Affairs Committee who recommended that senators not appoint Anderson.

“He has an amazing resume but no background with DHHL,” Shimabukuro said in an interview after the vote. “Being put in charge of this extremely complex department, not his fault.”

Ikaika Anderson’s bid to lead the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands could be in jeopardy after a key Senate committee voted against his nomination. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Instead, Shimabukuro said that Anderson was caught in an apparent dispute between the governor’s office and DHHL, which included the firing of a former public information officer among other disagreements.

Anderson declined to comment after the hearing, saying he wanted to speak with his team first.

Green came out swinging, saying in a written statement that “today, the people lost.”

“The people elected us to take on problems like the housing shortage, affordability and homelessness, not to play politics,” Green’s statement said.

The governor noted that Anderson’s confirmation had the support of former governors and mayors who wanted to give Anderson a chance.

Green said the committee sided with former DHHL Director William Aila, whom the governor criticized for not delivering enough housing units and leaving the department with unfilled positions. Aila opposed Anderson’s nomination.

“We need to change if we hope to get better results,” Green said.

The Hawaiian Affairs Committee voted 4-to-1 against Anderson. Shimabukuro along with Sens. Kurt Fevella, Jarrett Keohokalole and Les Ihara voted against him.

Sen. Tim Richards voted to recommend approval. “I want someone that can work and move hard,” Richards said shortly before the vote.

Ihara criticized Anderson for not standing up to the super PAC Be Change Now, which supported Anderson’s failed bid for lieutenant governor while launching a barrage of attack ads against his opponent, current LG Sylvia Luke. The same super PAC also supported Green’s campaigns in 2018 and 2022.

Anderson’s confirmation will still head to the full 25-member Senate for a vote. But Shimabukuro said she does not think he has the votes to win the appointment.

“It’d be close, but I don’t think he’d make it,” she said.

Rough Hearing

Anderson faced questions from the committee for about two hours and at times sparred with senators over disagreements about his work history and how he characterized his plans for spending DHHL’s $600 million.

Keohokalole said that Anderson misled the Senate during budget hearings in January. Anderson said that any confusion over the department’s spending plan was his fault and that he did not plan to deviate from what the commission approved last year.

In one odd exchange, Ihara tried to get to the bottom of why DHHL’s former spokesman, Cedric Duarte, was suddenly let go. Aila earlier accused Green of ordering Anderson to fire Duarte. Anderson said the AG advised him not to talk about that issue but described bringing up that situation as “divisive.”

Anderson faced tough questions from senators on Tuesday. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Shimabukuro also questioned incidents involving Anderson’s time on the Honolulu City Council, including a spat over a parking space that landed in front of the city Ethics Commission.

In one particularly heated exchange, Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, who was not on the committee but was allowed to ask questions, grilled Anderson about his past employment with a local labor union after leaving the City Council.

She said union leaders told her that Anderson was terminated for not showing up to work at the right hours.

Kim also said that she fired Anderson when he worked as a legislative aide years ago. Anderson said he resigned and told Kim that her recollection of that incident was different from his.

Broad Support

The committee’s vote stood in stark contrast to the public testimony the committee received, which tilted heavily in favor of Anderson. More than 100 pieces of written testimony were submitted in support of Anderson while just 43 were opposed.

One testifier who appeared before the committee, Benson Medina, said he wasn’t surprised to see Anderson meeting with homestead communities in Panaewa just days after being appointed in December.

Medina, president of the Hawaii Island Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce, worked with Anderson’s grandparents and thought he was humble and listened in his interactions with community members, but Medina was worried for Anderson.

“We knew he was going take, as we call them on the Big Island, cracks from these guys,” Medina said during the hearing Tuesday.

In the past two months, Anderson has endured quite a bit of criticism from the Hawaiian Homes Commission, state senators and Native Hawaiian beneficiaries frustrated with both the lack of progress DHHL has made in reducing a waitlist of more than 29,000 people and Anderson’s apparent lack of details on how the administration plans to spend $600 million to reduce that waitlist.

Anderson’s supporters who testified in person include Gov. Josh Green and former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, seated at right. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Green appeared at the start of the hearing to support Anderson and defend his nomination. Green told the senators that while he understands some of the criticism levied against Anderson in recent weeks, he hopes the committee would “give it a shot.”

The governor noted Anderson’s work with the homeless community in Waimanalo and the development of a village of tiny homes there, something that Green supports as part of his plan to tackle homelessness.

“He’s devoted a good part of his life to caring for the Hawaiian community,” Green said.

Former governors John Waihee and Neil Abercrombie also supported Anderson’s nomination.

“I’ve had nominations that have come through the grinder of confirmation and not without opposition and controversy. That’s not unique to this particular situation,” Abercrombie said. “All of us, everyone here, who is serving in public office has had opposition. The question is, can we meet the challenges and keep our eye on the prize?”

But there’s been disagreement in the state over how to best to help Hawaiians, in particular when it comes to how to manage the 200,000 acres of land held in trust for DHHL beneficiaries.

Aila, the former DHHL director, said Anderson didn’t have a grasp on the duties of a chair. The main concern for a DHHL director is to ensure the security of the Hawaiian homelands trust, and not necessarily its beneficiaries, according to Aila.

“The trust has to be there for beneficiaries today, tomorrow and 100 years from now,” Aila said.

One of Anderson’s most vocal opponents was former DHHL Director William Aila. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Aila was worried that possible changes to DHHL’s current $600 million spending plan could jeopardize that funding. DHHL has until 2025 to spend the money.

Aila and others had concerns that trying to incorporate proposals from a plan put forward by the beneficiary group Sovereign Council of Hawaiian Homestead Associations could delay spending the $600 million.

The current plan focuses mostly on lot development while plans supported by Green and the SCHAA put more of a focus on acquiring or building actual homes.

Anderson’s opponents were especially concerned about his performance in two Senate hearings where he struggled to answer questions and often had to turn to Green’s housing director, Nani Medeiros, for advice.

Kali Watson, a developer and former director of DHHL, said that Anderson’s preliminary ideas for altering the spending plan still fall in line with what the Legislature called for.

“He’s not the perfect candidate but he has a willingness to learn and go from there,” Watson said.

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