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Eight lessons from the Carleton Ching nomination

Governor Ige instigated a political crisis by nominating a developer's lobbyist to watch over Hawaii's natural resources. Here are some of the lessons that this crisis taught Hawaii about our political culture.

When Governor Ige announced two months ago that he had nominated a developer’s lobbyist to the head of DLNR, many in and out of the capitol scratched their heads.

Neil Abercrombie had just lost to Ige for alienating public sector unions and environmentalists, and yet here was a new governor again alienating his environmental base.

It’s been a taxing process for most of the parties involved.

Leaders of the “Chess Club,” the central faction of the Senate, were forced to vote with their former colleague – Governor Ige – against their own expressed values of good governance and transparency. For the business community, it provided ammunition for anti-developer sentiment.

It’s been expensive for the Governor himself. It appears that he has had to negotiate deals with individual senators to secure votes on this nomination. It will be interesting to see, at the end of this legislative session, if there is a relationship between pork barrel projects and yes votes on the Governor’s nomination.

The Governor has also lost public support for his Administration. More than a thousand pieces of testimony were submitted last week to the Senate Committee evaluating this nomination, and nine of every ten of those testimonies were in opposition. Even the Star-Advertiser, a historically pro-business paper, has spoken out against the nomination.

Regardless of how Wednesday’s Senate vote shakes out, Governor Ige has suffered an unfortunately massive blow to his political stature and public persona in prosecuting this nomination against the recommendation of the Committee Chairperson, Senator Thielen.

But it’s been a learning experience for the Hawaii political sphere. Here’s some of the lessons to take away:

1. It’s better to fail quickly and try again

It was clear, very early on, that the Ching nomination would be a problem for this Administration. It would have saved a lot of time for Governor Ige to withdraw the nomination sooner and move on to a more acceptable candidate.

2. Relationships matter in our small town, to a fault.

Governor Ige came to office with several assets: strong public union support, a mandate to govern better, and rich personal relationships with his colleagues in the State Senate and House. Those relationships were strained by the Ching nomination process, and my sense is that activists and business people in the city felt de facto pressure to not come out against personal friends. The unintended consequence of this polite silence is that it lengthens the feedback loop before Mr. Ige could change course. Early honesty could have accelerated this process and been less costly.

3. Corporate alignment is the default

Politics tends to cozy up to the strong arms of big business. And given that the Democratic party is center-right – on the same side as the only Republican Senator! – it seems nearly logical that the lobbyist for a major multinational land and agriculture conglomerate would be a fitting choice for the head of a conservation agency.  The choice of this candidate demonstrated the Administration’s lack of appreciation for the public’s concern about our environment.

4. People vs. money

Most environmental groups, such as those that contested Mr. Ching’s nomination, measure their annual budgets in tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars, or a fraction of a percent of the budget of an organization like Castle & Cooke. What the grassroots have, though, is people, passion, and compelling arguments.

5. We need higher expectations for government officials

It’s undoubtedly true that Mr. Ching is a good, honorable man. It’s also irrelevant. Hawaii deserves the best possible candidate for each position. It’s common in independent schools, for instance, to embark on national searches for the head of school. Shouldn’t the manager of two million acres of trust lands be subjected to the same high standards and care?

For the head of the DLNR – and for each state agency – the Governor should be looking for the person who would best be able to execute the agency’s expressed mission. It’s incumbent on the Governor to move beyond their limited social circles and find the meritorious person, not simply the most expedient from a list of familiar names.

And ideally the gubernatorial candidates would launch their campaigns with these key positions filled as part of the value proposition for their election. A ballot for a governor, in Hawaii’s highly-centralized political system, is really a vote for an entire team of appointed cabinet positions and board members. It’s surprising that Governor Ige didn’t use the campaign to build a broad leadership team that could immediately stand for cabinet nominations. This absence speaks to the small, business-heavy circle in which he and his key team runs.

7. Appoint the best people to fulfill each agency’s mission

On several occassions Governor Ige described his nomination of a development lobbyist as a desire to bring balance to his administration. It’s admirable, I suppose, but uses the wrong strategy. It would be better to find an agressive, anti-development, treehugging Green party member to run the DLNR, someone who has imagined for decades how they would decorate their office in the Kalanimoku building. And then appoint a bona fide capitalist – a developer, a marketer, an investment banker – to run DBEDT and its assemblage of business-friendly agencies. Let those two key cabinet officials debate and argue, and the synthesis of their approaches will be richer than if they stood alone. It’s also likely that such an arrangement would allow the Governor to cut deals which would appeal to both ends of his base.

8. Communicate, explain, debate

150 years ago it was normal for Hawaii’s citizens to petition the government and for the King to respond via the newspapers. There was a spirit of public debate and discourse which is sorely missing from our modern political culture. By contrast, Governor Ige’s nominee only met with the public in off-the-record settings, and didn’t respond to several requests from The Independent for interviews. In fact a petition opposing the nomination was signed by 8,728 people – or roughly 5% of the Governor’s total electorate – but he didn’t respond. These were missed opportunities for the Governor to engage with the public and to rebuild our democratic culture.