DAVID IGE: WALKING THE TALK
The “Year of the Dog” began happily for Gov. David Ige. With three years under his belt as Hawai‘i’s chief executive, he was looking forward to launching his campaign for a second term. But his glee quickly turned into a nightmare on the morning of Jan. 13, when many cell phones, but not all, blared a warning message about an incoming nuclear missile, saying the alert was not a drill. Panic ensued throughout the state. The alert turned out to be a false alarm, mistakenly triggered by an employee of the Hawai‘i Emergency Management Agency, or HI-EMA.
On television newscasts that evening, Gov. David Ige stood before cameras to explain what had happened and why it had taken 38 minutes to cancel the alert. But eight months later, the incident continues to dog the governor as he battles for re-election.
“I’ve not run from it,” Ige told the Herald in wide-ranging interview in early July. “So, let’s go to that 38 minutes,” he said. “The alert went off and me, like everyone else, was startled by the alert. Security rapped on the door: ‘Protocol is we take you to the shelter.’” Ige said he knew “there was no capability for a missile launch, so I said I’m going to confirm. I tried to contact Emergency Management. The lines were all busy. Continued to make calls. The adjutant general (Joe Logan) finally called me to confirm that it was a false alert.
“There is a very strict chain of command when it comes to emergency management; we don’t want the public to get mixed messages and so there is a very strict protocol about keeping the public informed. And the protocol was followed,” Ige insisted.
He said the alert identified several flaws in the system that told HI-EMA their its plans were not as complete as they should have been. “Clearly, we’ve initiated action to make sure that we do that.” The changes also included replacing HI-EMA’s leadership.
“Actions speak louder than words,” Ige maintains, pointing to HI-EMA’s response to this past April’s storms and the flooding along Kaua‘i’s north shore and in East Honolulu.
“And, clearly, with the Kïlauea eruption in Puna, everyone has had nothing but praise for the actions taken by the effort of both at the federal, state and county levels to really respond to that emergency.” Within hours of the start of the eruption, Ige said he had contacted the White House, notifying the Trump administration of the eruption and telling them that the state of Hawai‘i would be seeking a presidential disaster declaration.
But it has not staved off criticism of Ige’s leadership abilities.
In his 2014 bid for governor, Ige enjoyed the endorsement of two former governors — George Ariyoshi and Ben Cayetano. This year, however, both are backing Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, saying Ige lacks the leadership Hawai‘i needs.
Ige said he respects their right to support the candidate of their choice, but is confident that by taking his record to the voters, they will see who has done the most for Hawai‘i’s people.
“I think that we’ve done tremendous things,” said Ige. “How can people say that there has been a lack of leadership when Hawai‘i is the first in the nation to commit to 100 percent renewable clean energy for electricity?” Hawai‘i was the first state in the nation to commit to the Paris Climate Agreement after the Trump administration withdrew from the pact last August. He said Hawai‘i also joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan coalition of governors.
“As governors, we believe that the U.S. has to be represented, and if the Congress is going to fail [to do it] and if the president is going to walk away from that issue, we’re going to say absolutely not.”
Ige said he was proud to have signed the Kupuna Caregivers Act, which provides monetary assistance to family caregivers still in the workforce so that they can hire help for their loved ones while they continue to work. “And I’m proud that Hawai‘i leads in health care in so many instances,” he said, noting that Hawai‘i was the first state to raise its legal smoking age to 21.
“So it’s easy to criticize and I just believe that actions speak louder than words. And clearly the record makes a mockery of the notion that there’s been a lack of leadership in the state for four years.
State Rep. Gregg Takayama agrees. He said he supports Ige for the same reasons he did four years ago. “Nobody’s more honest, knowledgeable and devoted to improving state government,” the Pearl City Democrat told the Herald. “There are different kinds of leaders — David is the kind of leader who stands up for what he feels is right, won’t agree to backroom deals and believes in setting an example for others by deeds rather than words.
He said Ige has taken “an engineer-like approach to problems and I think he has results to show for it, but he’s never been good at promoting himself, and so he’s suffering to some degree for that.”
Former Hawai‘i Gov. John Waihee is also supporting Ige. Four years ago, Waihee, who was governor from 1986 to 1994, supported then-incumbent Gov. Neil Abercrombie.
“It had nothing to do with whether David was good or bad,” Waihee told the Herald. Calling himself “old-school,” Waihee said, “I don’t think it’s good for the Democratic Party to bring up challenges against an incumbent governor in a re-election primary when he is doing a good job.” He said he told Ige that in 2014 when he decided to challenge Abercrombie.
Waihee said he believes in Ige. “Actually, I’m very impressed with his record. I think he’s really an under-rated governor,” he said. “He’s very quiet, but that used to count for something,” Waihee said, recalling that even more “quiet” was the governor many consider Hawai‘i’s most respected: John A. Burns.
Waihee shared his views on the false missile alert. “Yes, it was bad; it was tragic, and it lasted 38 minutes, but the truth is long before that, people were saying it was fake.” He said the only political figures who are responsible for people’s lives in an emergency are the governor and the county mayors. “It’s in their job description,” he said. “What the governor did was make absolutely sure it was fake before he called it off.”
“David’s leadership was demonstrated in his ability to fix the system and I think it’s kind of a cheap shot to come up with Monday morning quarterbacking, talking about this happened and that happened,” Waihee said.
He said no other state had a warning system in place to deal with a missile crisis. “Now, as a result of what happened, we’re the only state that does.”
Waihee said he wishes Colleen Hanabusa had remained in the Congress. He said her seniority in the Congress would have benefitted Hawai‘i, especially this year, when many believe Democrats stand a good chance of retaking the House of Representatives. Waihee thinks Hanabusa “definitely” could have gotten a chairmanship.
The former governor is deeply concerned about how Super PACs, especially Be Change Now, are impacting Hawai‘i’s elections, saying they are “in a sense, demonstrating a kind of ambition to be the number one political force in Hawai‘i, and they do it by being negative. Then you get to intimidate politicians. I don’t think that’s right,” Waihee said.
But what has impressed him most is Hawai‘i County Mayor Harry Kim’s endorsement of Ige. In his career, Kim has endorsed only two candidates: the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka in his race against then-Congressman Ed Case, and Ige this year, according to Kim’s managing director Will Okabe.
“To me, it’s just fraud to pretend that he has no leadership in a crisis when the people that are in a real crisis endorse him for re-election,” Waihee said.
Ige has sought and gotten federal emergency funds for Hawai‘i’s natural disasters. Asked whether it was awkward to be requesting federal monies while challenging the Trump administration over issues such as its Muslim ban, immigration, climate change rollbacks, fuel emissions and other national policies.
Ige said he has discussed the state’s relationship with the Trump administration with his cabinet. “We have to interact with the federal government,” he said. “It’s not going to be political; it’s really about public service, what we need to do to ensure that the people of Hawai‘i can get their fair share of support from the federal government,” he said.
However, “We also decided that there are some fundamental issues and values that we know truly represent our community. And we are going to stand up and be counted on those issues,” he continued.
Ige said when it came to natural disasters such as the Kaua‘i and East Honolulu flooding and the Kïlauea eruption, the White House was neither political nor vindictive in its response.
“When we requested the federal disaster declaration for the eruption, this is the first time that the president responded in less than 24 hours.” He credits the relationships he has formed with some officials in the Trump administration. He said he has spoken with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen several times since the Kïlauea eruption on May 3. Nielsen, who oversees the Federal Emergency Management Administration, has assured him that FEMA will assist Hawai‘i.
He has also spoken with Defense Secretary James Mattis. “When we needed access to helicopters and other assets that the Pacific Command had that we didn’t, we made a phone call and they supported us,” he said.
“Yes, politics gets involved, and yes, they have to execute the president’s policies and I know that they don’t all agree with all of them. But they’re professional and the people of Hawai‘i can be thankful that the core of federal government are professional people,” Ige said.
He said the teamwork demonstrated by the emergency management people working with Hawai‘i Island Mayor Harry Kim and Hawai‘i County’s Civil Defense director Talmadge Magno and HI-EMA director Tom Travis has been inspiring.
“I’ve been to the emergency operations center in Hilo probably dozens of times. It’s truly remarkable to see the room of federal, state, county workers just really focused on keeping the community safe. They’re all working; there must be 50 people in the room. And, you can’t tell who’s a state worker, who’s a county worker, who’s a federal worker. They are all just focused on doing their part to really keep the community safe or move to that next level.”
What really excites Ige is the subject of education and the pathway it can creae to jobs and careers that will keep Hawai‘i’s young people at home, or in the case of his own children, bring them home after college and some work experience on the Mainland.
“I believe it starts with education,” he says. The goal is to improve the whole spectrum of education, from kindergarten to grade 12 to the University of Hawai‘i. Ige said his administration’s new “blueprint for eduction” calls for empowering schools and communities and doing away with the “one-size-fits-all” policy.
Ige is especially proud of the Early College program, which allows high school students to begin earning college credits while simulatenously completing high school, calling it a “game changer” in improving public education.
The first cohort of 16 Early College freshmen recently graduated from Waipahu High School. Six of the 16 were immigrant children, “so it really allows immigrant families who have never had a college graduate to actually believe that they’re smart enough, that if they spend the time and effort in education, that they actually can complete an associate of arts.” All 16 graduates said they plan to go on to a four-year college.
Ige believes the University of Hawai‘i has to be a part of the state’s economic engine. “When you look at all of the case studies involved in Silicon Valley or Boston 128 [technology corridor], or Austin, Texas, and Dell, it all starts with a world-class university.”
He also supports development of a “world-class” cancer center,” calling Hawai‘i’s ethnic diversity ideal for studies and trials at the Cancer Center of Hawai‘i. Both will drive research and development, as well as health care and bio-science jobs.
Ige also sees potential for job creation and growth in fields such as cybersecurity and information technology. “We believe that computer science and coding is really the skill of the future, that the more our students can understand coding they can help drive that software development industry.” He also said to generate interest in cybersecurity, the state started “cyber camps” for younger students.
Ige is also excited about Hawai‘i’s investment in digital media programs in the public schools, calling it “the best in the country.” Additionally, UH-West O‘ahu has a new Academy for Creative Media.
“We’re building a new studio out there, so we’re talking with all of the digital media people about making an investment in West O‘ahu, and it’s really digital media, film, it’s game and virtual reality, it’s augmented reality. All the kids today are immersed in that . . . . I think the careers and jobs are what young people want and that’s what we’ll pursue.”
Ige knows that controversial decisions will always invite people who disagree with him. “It’s really about being able to explain how and why these decisions are made, trusting that the general public will be able to evaluate whether it’s a good decision or not over the long run.”
“One of the things my father always taught me was to walk the talk, right? And it’s really not being so verbal, but really living your values,” he said. “I know that I am who I am because of those who came before me, so, obviously, my parents, my father, my mom, who really instilled in me the values of hard work and determination,” he said, noting that his father was a World War II veteran of the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team.
“It’s about being part of that legacy and being committed to extending the legacy in a positive way,” he said.
When David Ige’s time in the Governor’s office is over — he’s hoping it will be in 2022 — he looks forward to traveling.
“And, clearly, I’ll be on a mission to get the kids home, so trying to work to improve our economy, to create career opportunities that my kids will want to see and will motivate them to be home.”