The battle is in full swing for Pearl City's Democratic Gubernatorial candidate David Ige and his bid for the state’s top office. Standing in his way in the upcoming August 9 Primary Election is incumbent Neil Abercrombie who is seeking re-election to the office he has held since defeating Republican Duke Aiona (another Pearl City raised candidate for Governor) in the 2010 General Election.
Ige, 57 is a 1975 graduate of Pearl City High School and also attended the University of Hawaii where he earned a degree in electrical engineering. He is a seasoned and respected State Senator who has spent the last 29 years in elected office as a state legislator and the last four years in a leadership role as the Chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. He has served his time in the legislature honorably and has been an effective leader while representing residents and their ohana in our Pearl City community.
As a professional engineer, project manager, and business executive, Ige has taken his skills and expertise and has incorporated them into a direct approach to politics that is guided by his philosophy and efforts to improve our communities that has resulted in measuring his success in the both the private sector and as a public servant.
With the support of his wife Dawn, children Lauren, Amy, and David, the Ige ohana has embarked on a journey that has resulted in reaching out to be the people across our island chain to hear and share their concerns and dreams for a better Hawaii. In return, if elected to serve as Hawaii’s next Governor, David will bring with him, to office, a deeper appreciation for the people and their needs through the one on one experience and relationships built in each community visited with his family and dedicated supporters.
Senator Ige did well in addressing the issues in two earlier televised debates with Governor Abercrombie but lost out on reaching more of Hawaii's voters after the Abercrombie campaign pulled out of three of four scheduled debates due to conflicts in his schedule.
I sat down with Senator Ige in Pearl City earlier in the month to conduct the following Q&A interview. Senator Ige has given me a deeper perspective with regard to the mainstream issues and facts that we face today and into the next administration. I have also gained an admiration and respect for Senator Ige’s vision to bring people together, not divide them.
Q: Challenges faced while running for higher office?
A: It definitely is a big challenge, but we have a good crew now on each island. The biggest challenge is trying to establish a network of people to represent you because you can’t be on every island. We do have people on every island that is helping to distribute and organize activities and get yard signs out and banners and things like that. Right now it’s been going great once you get that in place. It took us awhile. The first six months was really just focused on trying to get that stuff lined up. I knew that once the session started, my ability to travel to the neighbor islands would be a bigger challenge. Once session starts you have to finish your responsibilities to the Senate, trying to work through the budget, deal with all the legislative things. I just knew that my ability to travel inter-island would be a lot more restricted.
Q: Ige campaign teamwork and support?
A: It has been going great. We do have great teams on all the islands now. They are kind of acting independent, identifying opportunities. The sign waving, the yard signs, and all of those kinds of things we just get comments back that it’s really active and the response in general has been very positive. People who want to help the campaign.
Q: Building Name Recognition?
A: We have been focused on grassroots and establishing networks and building networks, so we’ve been very methodical about doing that. About trying to establish a core of people out there who would help organize the island and then working with them to build the activities around the island that would allow us to enroll supporters. The other part of that actually was because it was a two way conversation for me to understand what the issues are, and what the important issues are and how nuance they are. It’s amazing when you talk to agriculture. Agriculture on Oahu is different than agriculture on Kauai, is different than agriculture on Maui, and on the Big Island. It certainly has given me the opportunity to understand how diverse the issues are and how some issues are higher priority than others in different communities. One common thing clearly is housing, and the price of housing, and how it’s different. The prices are higher on Oahu, but it’s still a big issue on the neighbor islands because housing is very expensive no matter where you live. The whole notion of development on the neighbor islands is a bigger issue per say other than Kakaako which is a big issue on Oahu. There’s no Kakaako on the neighbor islands.
Q: Your thoughts on plans for the expansive Kakaako Development?
A: I do believe it’s too much, too fast in Kakaako. I need to be clear, I do support development. It’s not an issue of supporting or not supporting because I understand, I have three kids. They tell me they don’t know whether they would be able to afford to live in Hawaii. So I know that we need to build more housing. I think in the issue of Kakaako, it’s really, “follow the rules”. We need to complete the environmental studies, the environmental assessments, and cultural studies before we proceed with the development. If you actually look at the basic design guidelines and rules that HCDA had set up at the time, it actually made a lot of sense about how you would develop a kind of a live, work, play scenario down there. I think if they would design to those standards we would end up with what we want. My main concern in Kakaako is you know they just had that ground breaking last week or the week before last. Forty-one stories, one-bedroom condominiums starting at 1.5 million, running to 20 million for the inexpensive penthouse and then a 99 million super penthouse. And the thing that really struck me is the only person that they quoted in the article, besides the governor, was really an international real estate broker. We ought to be building for our residents first and foremost. You know, I don’t think I want to be competing with Shanghai or Hong Kong or Tokyo for exclusive luxury real estate. That’s what they’re doing.
Q: Does the Governor control the HCDA board?
A: Absolutely. He has total control over that board and they approved that project. He was at the ground breaking and proud of it. That’s a significant difference. I really think that we should be focused on developing projects that are focused on the needs of our community rather than targeted to maximize profit and sell it to the highest bidder regardless of where they’re from.
Q Have any efforts been made in the legislature to draft legislation to balance the HCDA board?
A: Clearly we did pass a bill this year that changed the make-up of the board and tried to have other people appoint representatives so it’s not so iron clad majority. I wouldn’t have an iron clad majority like the governor had for 12 months. He had absolute majority. He had four directors and there’s seven votes and they pushed through everything that they wanted too. So I think that there should be balance. The infrastructure issue is a real issue. We need to figure out what’s going on there with the sewer system. The school situation is a big problem. If we don’t figure out where we’re going to put a school for the elementary students that means that we’re going to be busing them pretty far away. It’s a lot of those kinds of things. We need to have a long range plan. Now that doesn’t mean the school has to be open tomorrow, but there’s not even a site location.
Q: Do you have a master plan for economic growth?
A: It’s a couple things in general and we’re still working through what that means and what specifically. For example, I do have thoughts about economic growth. The governor plays a key role in focusing the community efforts for economic diversification. We need to have an economic summit for example to really plan through. Forty or fifty years ago the whole notion that agriculture was not going to be able to sustain us and that we would need to build a new industry and the adoption of the visitor industry as the next big thing. If you think fifty years ago when it started, Waikiki was mostly a swamp at that point. All of that effort took fifty or sixty years, but if you think about it today, we’re pretty maxed out in terms of the visitor industry. There are a few more properties that are designated for development of hotels or resorts in the state, but other than that, and if you don’t increase capacity that means you flat line. Growth will be marginal thereafter. So where are the jobs coming from? Ten years from now, where are the jobs for our young people going to come from?
Q: What improvements to the visitor industry and visitor experience do you propose?
A: A couple things right off the bat. Clearly we need to continue to support the visitor industry because for the next decade it will be the driver. So it comes on a couple fronts. We need to make it more convenient for visitors to visit the neighbor islands. That means being committed to the international terminal at Kona Airport because right now international we’re maxed out. Honolulu International, it’s that one peak period when the international visitors arrive and it’s all backed up and we can’t take anymore. We really need to look at capacity and lift and try to distribute more of the visitors across the island. As you know, Waikiki is virtually full almost all year round but the neighbor island markets are a little bit softer. It’s really trying to distribute that so we can get whatever maximum benefit we can. There are a couple of parcels that have been zoned for hotel development and trying to encourage and support that because if we don’t build capacity we’re not going to be seeing significant growth. Remember that the majority of visitors now are repeat visitors and they are looking for different kinds of experiences. We need to make infrastructure improvements so we can make sure that the visitors are not incurred into the resident. As the visitors are repeat visitors and are looking and getting into the communities, their impact is bigger. It is very clear to me that the resident’s quality of life will impact the visitors experience with a visit. We need to identify those kinds of joint infrastructure investments that make it better for the visitor as well as the community. If you look at the North Shore and Turtle Bay, that’s kind of a choke point right now.
Q: Government involvement in Turtle Bay development?
A: We just have a conservation easement and the landowner/developer would be obligated to provide access. We are trying to work together to decide what that looks like. We want to ensure that the residents have full access while we’re working to preserve that area. That is one area where Turtle Bay is approved for one or two hotels that would increase the capacity as well. That whole community needs to be looked at and kind of figured out what makes sense in terms of how we develop it.
Q: Governor Abercrombie's claim of a 800 million state budget surplus?
A: I would be the first to admit that the balance, and it’s really just like your check book that your family operates. That’s just the end of the year balance. So that’s a one shot thing. At the end of the last fiscal year that’s what we had in the bank. That’s all it is. I don’t know if you would call it a surplus or not. Clearly, the actions taken by the legislature had more significant impact than the governor’s budgets and plans that he submitted. We rejected his call for the tax increases. We rejected increase in the income tax for pensioners. We rejected his soda tax, bag tax. The legislature believed at that time four years ago and all the way to this year, that the economy couldn’t take a tax increase. It really didn’t make sense. We need to live within our means. As part of that, we’ve cut a billion dollars out of his budget request. If we would have approved his budget as submitted, there would be no balance because he’s wanted to expand government in a lot of different areas where the legislature just said no, we can’t afford to do that. So I would start there, and obviously that changes the dynamic. Maybe you could say that if we had adopted his tax increases, and we had approved the billion dollars that he requested, we would be in a better place. I would argue not, that we wouldn’t be in a better place. If you look at the great recession and where the visitor was, and where it is today in recovery although it’s topping out, they had three great years to pull us out. Direct taxes paid by visitors are up by 800 million dollars a year. It’s amazing how all those kinds of numbers are the same numbers. I think it’s the recovery of the visitor industry that’s driving this. Everybody acknowledges that. As the hotels are filled, people are spending money and businesses are hiring back.
Q: Hawaii’s business climate and low ranking on a national level amongst the states?
A: It is about leadership and what becomes important and what are the priorities. I am embarrassed about the fact that Hawaii ranks virtually last of all the states in terms of business climate. If you don’t pay attention obviously we’re going to rank poorly. We need to take that seriously and figure out what that means and what things are beyond our control. But there are other things that we can’t control and we should be aggressive about that because I don’t think we‘re the worst state to do business in. Just look at unemployment in our community has been below the country’s average. There are lots of things that work in our economy and there are some things that are not so good. The fact that we ignore the fact that we’re last is what I say is the problem.
Q: Obamacare coverage for Hawaii residents?
A: If you just take that implementation of Obamacare for example, the state hasn’t had an explicit exemption from Obamacare. All of the discussions we had from the policy side is that we ought to take the best of both worlds. I would say that I would put pre-paid health first and I would have asked for a waiver for everything and then look at those things that make sense. I’ll give you the prime example of the biggest mistake that the state made. To go along with rating of insurance by age is the craziest thing that any community would want to see happen. You gotta remember that Hawaii has the highest percentage of citizens with coverage so our situation is entirely different from the rest of the country. If your objective is to insure as many people to get coverage as you can, than you do want to see who’s not covered today and what would be the easiest group of people to go after. You can say well the easiest would be the young people because their insurance costs must be virtually nothing. To include them in getting coverage from the national level would be a great idea. So what does that mean? Well, if we allow the insurance carriers to rate by age we know that a 22 year old, how often do they actually need to visit the doctor? The cost to cover that guy for one annual check-up is a hundred dollars. A senior who may be on high blood pressure medication might be four thousand bucks a year. It’s very clear if your objective is to just try and increase the pool than maybe allowing age rating makes sense. But for the state of Hawaii it makes absolutely no sense. People have been covered forever. Pre-paid covers everybody.
Q: Who decided to move the state into Obamacare?
A: The insurance commissioner, the department of health, and all of the cabinet guys. It was an executive decision that they were going to go ahead and not seek a waiver and go along and say we want all of Obamacare and than now, they’re trying to ask for waivers, after the fact. I would have done it the other way.
Q: In your estimation, how many residents actually enrolled in the Obamacare plan?
A: It’s not that much. We have 700 to 800 thousand people with health insurance. Why would you sign up to this national program when we have the best program in the country today. We’re going to take all of that Obamacare and apply it the 700 or 800 thousand people we already cover in pre-paid to get this 10,000 people? You talk about the tail wagging the dog?
Q: The Governors response when asked about the success of Obamacare in one on one debates?
A: I don’t know if you saw the Japanese Chamber event, he doesn’t answer the questions! So we’re talking about it, well is it more important to speak eloquently or is more important to answer the question? I’m an engineer, so it’s hard for me to not answer the question. This is my first set of forums and debates that I’m appearing in and it’s hard for me not to answer the questions.
Q: How to remedy the failure of residents signing up for Obamacare in Hawaii?
A: We need to get out. We need to get a broader waiver as we can. It really doesn’t make sense to me that we are trying to get plans for these 10,000 people and we’re sacrificing the 700,000 or 800,000 that we currently cover. I talked with a lot of small businesses and their getting ripped a part. I was talking to an old kamaaina business and they value their employees. They provide full family coverage because that’s what you do for a small kind of ohana focused business. He just got his insurance estimate based on the Obama plan and it’s like $300,000 more. So what does he do? He’s thinking well maybe we just go back to cover the worker? He doesn’t want to do that. Can you imagine the first time that he hires a young person and he chooses them over an older person? It’s not going to be that, but the reality is it’s one of the issues that you gotta deal with. It never was there with pre-paid because age wasn’t an issue.
Q: Finding true leadership to move the state forward?
A: It is about leadership. First of all it’s about assembling a team that shares the same philosophies and priorities that I would. You want to find good leaders because it’s important and I’ve seen how a good director can be a great leader and make significant changes. There are others that are just not effective. You have to find the best leaders and set clear vision and directions and have them do their job. I have worked a lot with public employees as well as the private sector and my experience as a manager of people is that people want to be a part of an organization that is effective and successful. People don’t want to be a part of dysfunction. But when there’s a lack of leadership, especially in the public sector, people tend to be compliant oriented and do what they’re told and do no more or no less because there is no incentive for them to do otherwise. In fact, maybe there’s a great incentive for them to not take risks.
Q: Examples of a lack of leadership in our state government?
A: Reading in the paper about how far behind the state has gotten in inspecting nursing facilities. That is such a travesty. I know that I can anticipate they’re going to blame the legislature for not providing the funds, but they have people in those jobs today and they’ve been freezing vacancies and things like that. Although the Governor says we’re doing great, internally I’m trying to confirm that they just sent a memo that they’re restricting 10% of the discretionary funding because they’re concerned that the revenues are not happening, internal to state government. It’s interested how he’s saying we’re back on track and every things great and then they’re sending out a memo saying don’t spend the money. How can you not inspect the facilities? I just think that it gets back to so what are the core functions of state government? Part of it has to be to insure the health and safety of our communities which means you inspect nursing homes when you’re supposed to. It means that you inspect restaurants when you’re supposed to because that has a direct impact on public health and safety.
Q: Any other examples?
A: Again, it’s about leadership. I can just tell you one specific example that the legislature had. When the new administration came in the economy tanked. We were chasing a 1.3 billion deficit that year. We told them that you guys need to go fix the tax collection. I don’t know if you have ever been into the state tax collection office, but they have these mail bins. When they came in I told them that businesses are telling me that they send in their checks for G.E. or whatever and it doesn’t get cashed for two or three months. I think the average time to deposit payment to the state was something like 45 or 50 days. You go into the mailroom and you see stacks in the tax office just sitting there and so we said you gotta go fix this. We talked to Linda Lingle until were blue in the face. She wouldn’t do anything. So I gotta give them credit, they got the guys in and in that first four months we told them they had to do it. We called the guys in and they went from 45 deposit days average to deposit time of 5 days. It’s the same workers. We calculated it was 100 million dollars a week on average that was sitting in those bins and there was 45 to 50 days’ worth of payments. It’s not exactly an even distribution, but just on average. It ended up being about a billion dollars. We were chasing a 1.3 billion dollar deficit and we figured there was a billion dollars in that room.
Q: What makes you the best candidate for Governor?
A: I really feel that when I get in and talk at coffee hours or have the opportunity with a stew and rice or bigger event, I’m convinced the voter will see that I’m the best candidate for Governor. It’s a matter of working through that and getting enough touches out in the community. I’m the only one with 35 years of private sector experience because I’ve insisted in maintaining my professional career as an engineer for all the time that I’ve worked. I’ve managed departments, and capital budgets, and in the last four years the entire state budget. Mufi hasn’t done that or Duke hasn’t done that so I think it’s the combination. And, I’ve been successful in getting legislation passed over and over and over again. My campaign corps kind of laughs when the Governor says, “well he hasn’t done anything”. We just go through virtually every single committee I’ve chaired and I was successful in getting significant policy changes and programs passed every single step of the time. I would be proud to put my record against Abercrombie’s legislative record. He’s been a government or career politician for a long time. On the private side I’ve been at Fortune 500 GTE and internet start-up Pihana Pacific. We became the biggest private equity investment company in the history of the State of Hawaii.
Q: How do you bring balance to both careers?
A: I’ve always believed in walking the talk. My colleagues have asked me to step up earlier to do more and I had a family and a professional career and I told them no. People asked me to chair finance before when I was in the House and those committees and I told them sorry, I can’t do it. I have priorities. And then the kids are grown and they’re gone, so I had time the last four years and was willing to do it. It’s about being clear in what your priorities are and clearly the reason I’m running for governor is that I think the state has started down this path which is irreversible and bad for the community. We need to stop it and change direction.
Q: Your role in motivating and spreading the word about being an effective leader amongst your Ige campaign supporters and the voting public?
A: What I tell them, and I’ve been in office 29 years and never made a promise, because I tell people as a legislator you’re one of 76. It’s really about working hard every single day and do the best I can, but I can’t promise anything. Yes, I tell people I need your help. I’m not a magic bullet that suddenly everything will work better, but I do have some ideas about how to make it work better. I do believe in the people and I think that we have good, hardworking professionals in public employment and public service. I think they’ve been disenchanted by the lack of leadership up through the chain of command. I’ve heard so many stories about people wanting to do their job but not being supported. So I tell people it’s about us working together to create the Hawaii that we want, and it will be hard and we will have to make tough choices.
Q: Any criticism on decisions you have made in the past in your leadership role as a legislator?
A: I get criticized for the constitutional amendment on pre- schools. The reality is its 125 million dollars. For the total cost of putting every child in pre-school, for every four year old in a pre-school its 125 million dollars, and the questions is, “who should pay for that”? What portion of that should come from public tax dollars into private schools, or what portion of that should be provided in the public school setting and how do you create that hybrid system? I cannot see in the next decade that we would come up with 125 million dollars to pay for pre-school.
Q: The Governor says that it could be done. How?
A: Well, he saying that he believes he can. My guess is he needs to raise taxes. I can’t see him doing it with the existing revenue stream.
Q: Same Sex Marriage, Pono Choices being taught in our public schools?
A: I thought it was totally inappropriate. I don’t know how anybody could think that at a middle school level, what they were wanting to share in that curriculum was age appropriate. I don’t know, and that’s what the law says. The law says that there should be age appropriate education, so the question is, “who makes that decision”? It’s the department. I don’t know where they’re coming from, but I saw that and I was shocked. The crazy thing is we don’t teach anything about marriage in public school today. It’s not a topic. We don’t teach it today so why are we suddenly believing that we need to talk about marriage and same sex marriage in the curriculum? We do talk about sexually transmitted diseases and strategies to avoid and that kind of stuff, but it has nothing to do with marriage or anything like that. So why suddenly are you developing this curriculum and you’re going to do all this. It doesn’t make any sense.
Q: How would you improve our public school system while working with the Board of Education statewide?
A: I would definitely be engaged. Like I said, I think the public schools are one of the most important functions of state government. I do know that other governors in other states have been very active in trying to move the school system forward. I do believe in empowering schools and getting resources to the classroom and I would be working really hard with the board and that department to make sure that happens. The Governor has been silent on public education. When he ran four years ago, the constitutional amendment was on the ballot and he said that he was for empowering schools and getting the resources to the classroom and I want an appointed board and you hold me accountable. It’s been exactly the opposite. It’s really been so top down that it’s not functional. Those surveys have talked about the principal’s belief that they don’t have the authority to make the changes they need to make.
Q: If you were the head of the BOE, what changes and improvements to the system would you make?
A: My wife said ten or twelve years ago that I should become superintendent of education, and I told her if I ever became superintendent of education I would find the 250 best leaders and make them principals and support them like crazy. It’s about leadership. I thought that Aiea Intermediate School for the longest time was under performing and we changed the principal about ten or twelve years ago and in the course of less than a year the school was totally transformed. They went from being one of the poor academic achieving schools to best performing middle school in the state of Hawaii. You remember the governor and Arne Duncan went out to Waipahu saying “Hawaii’s turned it around”, and all of that?
Q: Waipahu High School’s success in being ranked amongst the top public high schools in the state without the support of Race to the Top funding?
A: Waipahu High School gets zero ‘Race to the Top’ funds. Not a single thing that Waipahu High School has accomplished was funded or is connected in any way to Race to the Top. They did it on their own. Arne Duncan and the governor is taking credit for those accomplishments when it had nothing to do with the Race to the Top. Zero. It’s absolutely zero involvement.
Q: Your strategy in building a higher candidate profile image that recognizes accomplishments throughout your political career?
A: I guess for all of my 29 years, I’ve always focused on doing good rather than looking good. My wife keeps criticizing me and that’s why we’re having such a struggle today with this election. She always said “see if you had been more proactive and more aggressive about getting credit for all the stuff you’ve done we wouldn’t be in such a battle”. That’s why I’m convinced that if we can get out in front of enough people, and that’s been our strategy from the very beginning is to work the foundation and establish good networks of people. Build that opportunity to get in front of people and talk to them and respond to questions so that they can hear that it’s not all about smoke and mirrors.
Q: Ige ohana support in your campaign?
A: It was a personal and family decision about how best to contribute because I heard it as much as anybody about how people were frustrated about how they felt that government wasn’t listening anymore. How everybody felt that not good things were happening but nobody’s willing to step forward. My wife and I have talked about it I would say for eight to ten years now about whether I should be running for a different office or bigger office. I never was interested in running for Congress when the kids were growing up. I didn’t want to do it to them. It’s really about what kind of environment you leave and create for your children when they’re growing up. I didn’t want to be gone for three quarters of the year being in D.C. and I didn’t want to move them up there to go to school. So we’ve talked about it and it’s gotten more and more frequent and four years ago we did talk jokingly at the beginning about running for governor and that time Abercrombie was just elected and there was that euphoria about Democrats taking it back from a Republican administration. You try and support what’s happening but it became more and more evident that they’re just on a different page than a lot of other people. So about a year ago was the final decision that yes, I’m running. My wife Dawn has been great, she’s engaged and wants to be out there campaigning. My kids are out there as well. Dawn and I were on Kauai for a fundraiser, a stew and rice dinner and the kids went to the Ewa Hongwanji Bon Dance. They’ve been campaigners and they want to be engaged and want to do everything that they can. It’s been very helpful.
Q: Momentum gained over Governor Abercrombie at this point in your campaign leading up to the primary?
A: They have been now advertising full on for six weeks and we know that we can still feel that we’re making progress. Every event is getting bigger and more and more people are calling up wanting to sign up and help out in the campaign. In some point in time they’re going to have to try and do something else to win.
Q: What Pearl City means to you?
A: It’s my base. It’s where I come from.
Photo by Barry Villamil | [email protected]
Senator ige has always been pro-active in supporting the safety and welfare of our citizens.
Senator Ige is pictured here with (from L-R) Honolulu City Councilman Breene Harimoto,
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Kiewit Vice-President Lance Wilhelm, and State Representative
Gregg Takayama during MyPearlCity.com's "Its Not All Right To Run The Red Light" Traffic Safety
Awareness Campaign that involved all 10 Pearl City Complex Schools in a signwaving event in
late April, 2014. Senator Ige is pictured with the group of Red Light Traffic Awareness supporters on
Waimano Home Road in Pearl City near the entrance to Pearl City Highlands Elementary School.
Photo by Barry Villamil | [email protected]