David Ige: The race for Governor

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HONOLULU STAR-ADVERTISER

The race for Governor

A state senator finds support from those opposing his rival over issues and style


By Derrick DePledge


State Sen. David Ige’s approach to public service is rooted in three simple principles: Be open and honest in communication; be respectful and listen to all views; and do the right thing in the right way.

The unassuming electrical engineer from Pearl City has gained a reputation over three decades at the state Legislature as a policy wonk. As the chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee for the past four years, he has won over colleagues with a sturdy, unflappable demeanor during the din of state budget negotiations.

But Ige’s long-shot Democratic primary challenge to Gov. Neil Abercrombie seems out of character for a quiet man who has spent most of his political career looking for consensus, not crusades.

“I see Hawaii headed in the wrong direction,” said Ige, 57. “I see so many decisions now today being made on behalf of special interests rather than the public interest. And I believe that Hawaii is on the brink of really irreversible decisions that will change the future and nature of Hawaii forever.”

Abercrombie, 76, should be savoring his last campaign after four decades in Washington Place, Congress, the Honolulu City Council and the Legislature. The state’s economic rebound from the recession, and policy breakthroughs on issues such as a minimum wage increase, land conservation at Turtle Bay Resort, and marriage equality, should be enough in a Democratic primary.

Yet Abercrombie’s job approval ratings in the Hawaii Poll have been under 50 percent since his first six months in office, and the governor — once considered among the most reliably liberal politicians in the state — has let down many liberals on environmental and development issues.

Public and private polls have shown that not only Ige, but also former Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona, a Republican, and former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, of the newly formed Hawaii Independent Party, might have a chance against Abercrombie.

Ige has brought in about $389,600 for his campaign — compared with Abercrombie’s $4.7 million — and is still unknown to many voters across the state. No governor has lost re-election since William Quinn, a Republican, in 1962, so an Ige triumph in the primary would be one of the biggest political upsets in Hawaii history.

The backlash against Abercrombie from influential Democrats has been unusually personal, a breach that is difficult to explain given the state’s tradition of granting governors second four-year terms. Some of the governor’s loyalists have dismissed the rancor as the last throes of an old guard that thrived under the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, and who have found a perfect canvas in Ige.

But the schism seems deeper.

Former Gov. Ben Cayetano, an old friend and political ally of Abercrombie who is now backing Ige, said the governor is “desperate and worried sick at the thought of losing to a guy like David Ige.”

Former Gov. George Ariyoshi, at 88, has also been out campaigning for Ige. “He doesn’t understand financing,” he said of the governor. “A leader is not only one who proposes, but how to go about making it happen. And that’s what he doesn’t have. He’s not a very good steward.”

While Ige has profited politically from an “Anybody But Abercrombie” mutiny among some voters, much of his support is a reflection of disappointment with the governor, not enthusiasm for the challenger.

Despite Ige’s warning that Hawaii would face “irreversible decisions” in a second Abercrombie term, the state senator has outlined few black-and-white policy differences.

Ige counters rival on preschool plan

The most significant policy split is over a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would allow public money to be used for private preschool. Abercrombie says the constitutional amendment is necessary to build capacity at both public and private schools so the state can eventually offer preschool to all 4-year-olds, while Ige has questioned the estimated $125 million annual cost and whether private schools would ensure that all children are treated fairly.

Ige has chastised Abercrombie for his wholehearted embrace of urban redevelopment in Kakaako and his administration’s endorsement of the Hoopili and Koa Ridge residential development projects in West and Central Oahu. But Ige also says growth should occur in Kakaako and along the corridor of the city’s $5.26 billion rail line. He has concerns, however, that developers in Kakaako are catering to foreign and mainland real estate speculators, not local residents, and that the housing projects in West and Central Oahu will take out agricultural land.

The two Democrats have also engaged in a prolonged disagreement over credit for a record $844 million state budget surplus at the end of fiscal year 2013, along with the mechanics of the state budget.

Governors traditionally enjoy disproportionate credit and blame for the state’s economy, even though market forces are often more important than government policy choices. In a sign of a soured relationship, Ige and others at the Legislature have been reluctant to award Abercrombie much credit.

CANDIDATE PROFILE

>> Age: 57
>> Religion: Buddhist
>> Family: Wife Dawn Amano-Ige; daughters Lauren, 23, and Amy, 22; son Matthew, 18
>> Education: University of Hawaii-Manoa, decision sciences, master’s degree, 1985; electrical engineering, bachelor’s degree, 1979; Pearl City High School, 1975
>> Experience: Robert A. Ige & Associates, project manager, 2003-present; NetEnterprise, vice president of engineering, 2001-2002; Pihana Pacific, project manager and senior principal engineer, 1999-2001; GTE Hawaiian Tel, governmental affairs director, senior administrator, supervising engineer, 1981-1999; Pacific Analysis Corp., electronics engineer and research analyst, 1979-1981
>> Politics: State Senate, 1994-present, representing Pearl Harbor-Pearl City-Aiea; appointed by Gov. George Ariyoshi to fill a state House vacancy in 1985, elected House member from 1986-1994

Other than labor savings from the state’s negotiations with public-sector unions, the Legislature rejected most of Abercrombie’s tax and benefit adjustment ideas to reduce a projected budget deficit during his first year in office in 2011. One of Abercrombie’s chief recommendations, a pension tax, was blocked by Ige and has turned into a campaign theme in the primary.

In the next three years, as the state moved into the recovery, Ige and other lawmakers often trimmed Abercrombie’s spending requests. So Ige maintains that the record surplus was mostly the creation of the Legislature’s difficult decisions in 2011, improved tax collections during the recovery, and the Legislature’s check on the governor’s spending requests.

While Abercrombie, the governor’s budget advisers and the Legislature worked together to address the unfunded liability in the public workers retirement system, reducing benefits for newly hired public workers, it was Ige who led the drive to contain the unfunded liability in the public workers health care system by placing the state and counties on an annual payment schedule.

Ige was also responsible for devising an innovative bond financing plan for the state’s $40 million share of a $48.5 million agreement to acquire a conservation easement and preserve land at Turtle Bay Resort, one of Abercrombie’s main policy victories.

But rarely does any piece of legislation become state law without the countless fingerprints of lawmakers, Cabinet directors, lobbyists and interest groups, so Ige has been hesitant to claim individual credit during the primary.

“I have been a collaborator,” Ige said. “I do believe in listening to and being respectful of all views. And I do believe in finding common goals and common ground.”

The ‘chess club’ at the capitol

Appointed by Ariyoshi to fill a state House vacancy in 1985, Ige was elected to the House in 1986 and served until he moved across to the state Senate after the 1994 elections. His policy strengths are in education, economic development, health and technology. Before his chairmanship of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, where he oversees the state budget, he was probably the most visible as one of the forces behind automobile insurance reform in the mid-1990s.

Ige’s faction in the Senate, known among insiders as the “Chess Club” for their wonkiness, has stayed largely intact through three leadership changes at the top of the Senate over the past eight years.

Committee chairmen in the Senate have broad power — one executive branch leader refers to them privately as “little barons” — yet Ige, who leads the most powerful committee, is among the most restrained. For example, a few months after Ige took control of Ways and Means in 2011, he lost an important committee vote on a general-excise tax increase to help reduce the deficit, a rare defeat that could have unraveled a more temperamental chairman. Ige simply moved on.

A few of his House and Senate colleagues were privately unhappy this year that Ige appeared to take stands on education policy that aligned too closely with the Hawaii State Teachers Association, which has endorsed him for governor. But his colleagues say Ige otherwise did not use his Senate role to try to score political points against Abercrombie.

“He really has no ego,” said state Sen. Laura Thielen, a freshman Waimanalo Democrat who has been impressed by Ige’s evenhandedness on the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Thielen has been disappointed by Abercrombie’s stands on environmental and development issues, particularly the governor’s initial — and spirited — defense of the Public Land Development Corp., which lawmakers and the governor repealed last year after complaints about its sweeping exemptions to land use regulations. She has also disagreed with several of the governor’s appointments to influential boards and commissions.

“I don’t want to say that he would run from controversy, I don’t want to give that impression,” Thielen said of Ige. “It’s more that if there is a clash on the policy positions, what he’ll do is he’ll look at what people are arguing over and work calmly with people to figure out is there a way to fix the issues with the bill or the law that’s leading to this clash. Or is it something that does need to be repealed?

“As compared to, ‘Dammit, this is a great bill and anybody opposing it has got to be wrong.’”

Having legislated, he wants to execute

For many, the starkest difference between Ige and Abercrombie is not on public policy, but personality. While Abercrombie has tethered some of the blistering rhetoric that made him a warrior of the left since his days as a Vietnam War protester, the governor is still prone to bombast and confrontation. Using a football analogy for leadership style, the governor describes himself as a quarterback, while Ige, he suggests, is more inclined to stand on the sidelines.

But, as Abercrombie was before he was elected governor, Ige’s political experience is as a legislator. Aiona and Hannemann argue that what Hawaii needs now is a chief executive.

“That’s one of the reasons I’m running for governor, because I really do see it as totally different jobs,” Ige said. “And, quite frankly, from sitting as a legislator, I see that legislating and establishing good policy and law is less than half of the job. Because the biggest part of the job is really execution on behalf of the governor and the executive branch.

“And I’ve seen so many instances where execution just falls far short of the legislative intent and the legislative design.”

For Ige, his distinction from Abercrombie is three decades of work in the private sector as an engineer, project manager and administrator. Having a foot in both business and government, he said, has taught him to be a better collaborator and listener.

“They don’t feel like they’re getting good value from government today,” Ige said of voters. “Government is not working for them. Too many times government stopped listening to their concerns or is not hearing their concerns.

“Part of that is restoring faith and trust in government.”

Abercrombie said he would restore trust and faith in government when he ran four years ago after eight years of Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican, at Washington Place.

“You just need to talk to the voters,” Ige said. “They don’t believe that he has.”