Donovan Dela Cruz Goes On The Offense - Honolulu Civil Beat

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Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

The powerful state senator aggressively defends the controversial first responders’ campus. But will his strategy succeed?

Rarely one to passively absorb criticism, the chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee last week fired back at detractors of a planned multimillion-dollar first responders’ campus.

In his newsletter, Donovan Dela Cruz called it “intriguing” that the First Responders Technology Campus is “currently facing significant scrutiny and criticism from the media, a few House members, and a board member of the Hawaii Technology Development Corporation.”

By “intriguing,” the senator meant ridiculous, possibly something stronger. By “media,” he meant in part Civil Beat, which has run a number of articles and op-eds raising questions about the campus, which is planned to house 19 government agencies on 243 acres of state land in Mililani near the senator’s district.

By “House members,” he meant especially Rep. Amy Perusso, who has been open in her opposition to the campus as well as the murky process of drafting the state budget to help pay for it. And by “board member,” he meant directly a recent Civil Beat article that revealed why that HTDC board member had been booted. (Hint: Dela Cruz’s fingerprints are all over the booting.)

From left, HI-EMA Administrator James Barros and state Sen. Michelle Kidani, Donovan Dela Cruz, Sharon Moriwaki and Maile Shimabukuro at Battery Birkhimer. Sen. Glenn Wakai was part of Friday’s media tour but did not join the HI-EMA facility visit. (Chad Blair/Civil Beat/2023)

On Friday, Dela Cruz continued his counteroffensive by roping in several of his Senate colleagues (there were no House members in attendance) and agency officials to illustrate firsthand to local media why the FRTC (it already has an acronym, though it does not yet physically exist) is so essential.

We were given a detailed tour of the Kalanimoku Data Center in the basement of a state office building near the Capitol and the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency headquarters inside Diamond Head Crater. Both the data center and HI-EMA are scheduled to be among the first tenants at the FRTC, which is currently an empty field occupied only by Albizia trees.

The tour was impressive, and persuasive. Even the most cynical observer (i.e., me) could not help but be disturbed by the data center’s decay, disarray and decor, which dates to its creation in the 1970s. Exposed cables are strung haphazardly. Large fans stand ready should the power and AC suddenly die.

The center is also located below the water table — not the ideal place to house the state’s cyber security operations and essential computer systems. The proposed Mililani site is above the coastal inundation hazard zone and near military infrastructure.

About 70% of the data center’s data has been transferred to cloud services like Microsoft, Google and Amazon and to mainframes in Chicago and Omaha. But officials argue that a physical location is still needed in Hawaii for the other 30%, described as “critical justice information systems” that must stay under state control. The media was not allowed to take photos or video of the facility.

HI-EMA, in the meantime, has its facility in a coastal defense emplacement with four 12-inch mortars built beginning in 1916. Known as Battery Birkhimer, the state’s emergency operations hub looks better suited to defending Oahu from an invading army than responding to earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis.

The media tour of the HI-EMA facilities at Diamond Head on Friday. (Chad Blair/Civil Beat/2023)

There are water seepage problems, exposed wiring and little space to fit FEMA, the Red Cross and other first responders in the event of a manmade or natural disaster. The HI-EMA facility is so old that the ceiling appears to be coated in grimy asbestos. It’s not, an official assured us, explaining that the dirty orange color of the material came from years of cigarette smoking.

Good Press

Dela Cruz’s media blitz paid dividends. That same evening, KHON ran a story about the facilities and why a new facility is necessary (while also linking to previous coverage that included skepticism from some lawmakers).

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, which has also reported on concerns about the FRTC and editorialized its own serious doubts, ran a similarly supportive story headlined “Old emergency management facilities in need of modernization.” It was the lead story on the paper’s Saturday online-only edition and featured a photo of Dela Cruz and HI-EMA Administrator Col. James Barros outside Battery Birkhimer.

On Monday, the Star-Advertiser’s front-page story was a profile of the Hawaii Community Development Authority and its expanding portfolio, which includes the first responders’ park. One lead photo showed a rendering of the FRTC, which looks as if it would fit right at home next door to Apple’s futuristic HQ in Cupertino, California. The other photo was of HCDA’s executive director leading his PowerPoint presentation of the FRTC to the media.

A layout of the First Responders Technology Campus. (Hawaii State Senate/2023)

Smartly, the media package included press releases from the Senate and cooperating agencies, advocacy quotes from the likes of Chief Information Office Doug Murdock, a video of the PowerPoint, a Flickr photo file, and a multiple-page PDF of what the FRTC will look like once it is built, who will be there and where, and why it’s all so necessary.

“Consolidate the state and city’s emergency responders and data center into a central location,” the PDF explained. “Strengthen and coordinate public safety. Reduce costs for development, maintenance and repair by agencies sharing facilities.”

If the governor approves funding for the data and emergency centers, it could lead to occupancy of that phase of the first responders’ campus as soon as 2028 or 2029.

‘Dog And Pony Show’

Not everyone is buying what Dela Cruz is selling. One local blogger called the tour a “dog and pony” show.

Perusso on Saturday fired back at Dela Cruz in a Facebook post, taking him to task for “significant factual inaccuracies” in his newsletter. Dela Cruz is wrong, she said, when he contends that Perusso did not hear a bill to fund the project.

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“The conversation around this project should be based on facts and principled discussions of policy,” Perusso wrote. “There have been a multitude of voices critiquing, opposing, or simply asking for more information about this project — as there should be for any project of this size and scope.”

The person Dela Cruz has to convince is Gov. Josh Green, who could well line-item veto the $50 million in the state budget slotted for the FRTC. In his newsletter, the senator makes a point of explaining that the governor himself specifically called for inclusion of the money, albeit less than the $100 million that had been proposed.

“Also, the budget requests from the Department of Defense and the Department of Law Enforcement emphasized the need for funds to be allocated to the FRTC in the budget bill,” he wrote.

This is Dela Cruz’s clever way of arguing that the FRTC is not just his own field of dreams. But the support in some cases is questionable — for instance, when he notes that the Senate voted 25-0 for the state budget bill.

That they did, though many of them appear not to have actually read House Bill 300, which was finalized only a short time before it was voted on. In the House, by contrast, eight representatives voted against it, six others voted with reservations and two did not vote.

I think Donovan Dela Cruz is one of the smartest, knowledgable, connected and most ambitious legislators I have ever met. Some readers of Civil Beat, including Dela Cruz, may feel that we pick on him too much. But he’s at the center of so much of what happens at the Legislature and thus the state.

That includes corralling the Senate confirmation process of Cabinet nominees, castigating state agencies for not understanding their own budgets and directing monies to projects deemed most important for Senate districts.

Many may not appreciate that Dela Cruz’s academic and professional background is in journalism and communication. I find him personally very charming and likable, too, and a person with a “land and power” vision for Hawaii whether one agrees with it or not. He is so well known in some circles that he is recognized simply by the acronym DDC.

But for a guy with such an astute PR sensibility he is often his own worst salesman. He can appear gruff, impatient, ruthless and transactional. Think of his support for the Hu Honua biomass plant on the Big Island that just doesn’t make sense and has been rejected by both the Public Utilities Commission and the Hawaii Supreme Court, or the brutal scuttling of Scott Glenn’s nomination to lead the state Office of Planning and Sustainable Development.

But Dela Cruz is betting that Green and other leaders, if not the media, will heed the argument that Hawaii will only become more vulnerable to cybersecurity attacks and threats from climate change. The state has only about 10 years to act, he said. And Mililani is the perfect location.

“Rather than working towards solving our state’s problems and developing plans to proactively address these challenges, opponents of the FRTC seem more interested in being the first to criticize our facilities and systems in the event of a catastrophic event,” he wrote in his newsletter.

If Dela Cruz succeeds, maybe they’ll name the facility the DDC FRTC. And if he does not, my hunch is that he won’t give up and will come up with yet another plan of action.

Read this next:

Hawaii Governor Axes $71M For First Responders Campus

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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

Latest Comments (0)

I think Donovan Dela Cruz is one of the smartest, knowledgable, connected and most ambitious legislators I have ever met.Really? Does anyone have any background on DDC before he became a career politician bc he does not come off to me as super intellectual, or even charismatic. Aside from running for office, has he ever run his own business, or even worked for a significant company, to gain some insight into what runs this state and what the needs of the people are? IMO, DDC is simply someone who has whittled his way into politics and power, which he would never have in the private sector. And power is money as they say and I'm sure he has some important supporters in the wings waiting for government projects to go out to bid. Rail is the poster child, but this vision won't be far behind the stadium and if it gets a foothold will be at least $1B before done. When do we get to vote again?

wailani1961 · 3 months ago

I just read the story about the shocking cutbacks to the public education budget in Hawaii. A lot of that deficit could be funded with the money saved by the Governor's line item veto of Donovan Dela Cruz's pet project, which Dela Cruz slipped into the budget after he failed to get it passed through the normal legislative channels. I hope there is a way to reallocate that money to public education, where it is so badly needed. The children of Hawaii deserve better.Joy Fisher

joyfisher · 3 months ago

No Sir, you don’t get to escape the public review. Pathetic.

MaxTax · 3 months ago

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