Ige taking a laid-back approach to re-election

Governor touted his administration’s key successes during a recent Maui visit

Gov. David Ige speaks during a “Community Connection” meeting in October at the University of Hawaii Maui College. Ige’s laid-back style and habit of not seeking attention have left some Neighbor Islanders wondering if he’s “Oahu-centric” and “out of touch” with their concerns. -- The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

Unlike some politicians who’d grab the center of attention at a public event, shaking every hand within reach, Gov. David Ige was characteristically laid-back recently when he visited Maui for a senior housing groundbreaking ceremony in Pukalani and a visit to Kula Hospital.

During the blessing for Hale Mahaolu’s 61-unit Ewalu project at Kulamalu, he blended in with the crowd. If he were not accompanied by beefy bodyguards and called forward to make a few remarks, he might have gone unnoticed.

Recent polls have cast doubt on Ige’s chances for re-election, and Ige acknowledged that his administration has not done enough to publicize its successes.

During an interview earlier this month with The Maui News at Kula Hospital, Ige was not shy about saying he is running for re-election as governor in 2018 and that he’s proud of his administration’s accomplishments.

In addressing affordable housing and homelessness, Ige said his administration has focused on collaboration and getting “federal, state and county assets on the table . . . working together to tackle the challenge of homelessness.”

Gov. David Ige speaks to reporters Dec. 12 outside the now-shuttered Puunene Mill. He was among officials to see the last haul of sugar cane from the fields. The governor has been making a greater effort to be visible on the Neighbor Islands as recent polls have cast doubt on his re-election chances in 2018. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

He pointed out that the annual “Point in Time” census of homeless people dropped for the first time in eight years — 9 percent, from 7,921 statewide in 2016 to 7,220 on Jan. 22. Census-takers asked homeless people where they slept on that date, giving the survey its “point in time.” Maui County’s homeless population fell 22 percent, from 1,145 to 896.

“So clearly, what we’ve been doing is making an impact,” Ige said.

The state administration has focused on three areas, he said — making affordable housing available; providing mental health and substance abuse services; and keeping public spaces public.

Work has been ongoing to improve enforcement of laws that ensure “that everyone in the public can benefit from public spaces, parks, beaches . . . making sure that the homeless don’t get settled.”

“We’ve made tremendous progress in the homelessness challenge,” he said.

Another area the governor said he’s proud of is that “we’re taking care of taxpayers’ dollars much better.”

“We have increased our bond rating to the highest bond rating in the history of the state,” Ige said. “And that really means that we’re paying smaller interest costs for our construction projects moving forward.”

And, he said, “we continue to be the first and only state committed to funding unfunded liability, health benefits for our retirees.”

By starting to prefund the state’s health fund, “we’re saving taxpayers more than $1.5 billion over the next 20 years,” he said.

Ige said his administration also has undertaken the “Sustainable Hawaii Initiative,” making Hawaii the “first and only state to commit to 100 percent clean energy.” And, Hawaii was the first state to align with the Paris Agreement, turning emissions goals to ease climate change into official state policy, which is contrary to the policy of President Donald Trump.

The governor said the state is committed to reducing greenhouse gases and improving carbon capture “to try to make a dent in climate change and sea-level rise.”

Ige appeared unruffled when asked about the perception of some Neighbor Islanders who see him as “Oahu-centric” and “out of touch” with their concerns.

“I have been very active in visiting the Neighbor Islands,” he said. “I suppose in the very first couple of months of my tenure, with having to pick a Cabinet and dealing with submitting a budget and legislative session . . . maybe we did not travel to the Neighbor Islands as often as we would like to, but we definitely have been out.”

He noted that he was on Molokai recently for the first bill signing there, ever, for a Hawaiian homelands bill.

“I have been engaged and visiting the Neighbor Islands have consumed a lot of time,” he said, also mentioning that he flew to Maui numerous times for meetings with hospital employees and physicians about the transfer of Maui Region hospitals, including Maui Memorial Medical Center, from the quasi-public Hawaii Health Systems Corp. to the private Kaiser subsidiary Maui Health System.

Ige called the hospital privatization, which took effect July 1, the “most complex transaction in the history of Hawaii.”

“I think that we were able to manage the transition in a way that assured that the employees wouldn’t be hurt,” he said. And, “that allowed for a smooth transition.”

The transfer of medical facilities to Kaiser’s Maui Health System “will provide quality and improved health care to the citizens of Maui County,” he said, adding that Kaiser will be able to leverage its resources to provide more health services on Maui, rather than requiring patients to travel to Oahu.

Commenting on his low-key style, Ige said: “I think I am a good listener. I’m an engineer by profession. And part of my DNA is to really understand issues and challenges and finding long-term solutions that are really sustainable. So, yes, I do visit the Neighbor Islands. I talk with many people. I do listen and formulate a program or plan that we think will make an impact.”

When asked his opinion about Wailuku Rep. Joe Souki being deposed as speaker of the House and replaced by Oahu lawmaker Scott Saiki at the end of this year’s lawmaking session, Ige said he doesn’t think the change in leadership represents a shift of power to Oahu lawmakers.

“One of the things that Neighbor Island representatives have been very good at at the state Capitol is to coalesce,” he said.

Maui, Kauai and Big Island lawmakers meet and talk about legislative priorities for their communities, Ige said.

“There really is no Oahu caucus,” he said. “Oahu legislators tend to work on projects individually, but there’s no real collective effort to organize. So, I think if you look at historically, even in this past session, I think that you will see a disproportionate share of (capital improvement project) funds, grant programs and others were distributed to the Neighbor Island communities.”

And, he said he thinks that state lawmakers, in general, recognize that state support is needed by smaller communities on the Neighbor Islands, “or else just basic infrastructure becomes unaffordable.”

“Maui County did very well (in receiving state funding), even with the change in the speakership,” Ige said. “We are making investments in critical infrastructure all around the state.”

Also, when asked about the perception that Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui, the former Central Maui Senate representative and Senate president, has been “sidelined” in the Ige administration, the governor indicated that Tsutsui is an important member of his Cabinet, and he’s not certain why some believe otherwise.

“Certainly, I served with Shan in the Senate before he became lieutenant governor and before I became governor,” Ige said. “We had a great working relationship. I was proud to support Shan when he became Senate president. . . . We worked very well together. I trust him and continue to work with him.”

Ige listed projects Tsutsui has worked on, although often behind the scenes. Those included working on finding a long-term solution for maintenance of Aloha Stadium.

“Without his participation, I’m not certain that we would have been able to get it done,” he said. And, “Shan has also been very involved with the ‘farm to school’ movement. He’s heading a task force that is looking at how we can help support local farmers and how we can find a way for the public school system to purchase more locally produced produce, and really end up with a win-win, getting healthier food into our schools and at the same time being able to support the farmers in what they do.”

Tsutsui also was involved with the Maui County hospitals transfer and with getting relief for workers laid off with last year’s closure of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.

“So, he has been involved, but maybe it’s not as public as it might need to be,” he said.

Although Tsutsui has not talked to Ige directly about considering a run for mayor of Maui County, the governor said: “I certainly would support Shan for whatever office he chooses to run for in the next election.”

“I can see how running for Maui mayor would be attractive (to Tsutsui),” he said. “Obviously, it’s an executive position. (And), it keeps him on Maui. When I look at elected (state) officials on the Neighbor Islands, I wonder how they’re able to serve the public and at the same time be away from their families for so much of the time.”

And, Tsutsui has young children, “which would make it even more of a challenge,” he said.

When asked about Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa’s plans to run for lieutenant governor, Ige said: “I think you’ll see that there will be a lot of candidates running for lieutenant governor. I look forward to the voters deciding. . . . I think the conventional wisdom is that whoever is elected as lieutenant governor would certainly be in a very advantageous position moving into the next governor’s race four years from now.”

* Brian Perry can be reached at bperry@mauinews.com.