It wasn’t more than two months into his term as governor when David Ige ignited the ire of environmentalists by nominating a development lobbyist for Castle & Cooke to lead the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources. Nearly two dozen environmental groups banded together to oppose Carleton Ching’s nomination, telling the governor that it wasn’t too late in his term to “make the proper course corrections.”
The advice could be construed as more of a warning — one that Ige seems to have heeded. The governor eventually withdrew Ching’s nomination and installed the head of The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii to lead the department.
Three and a half years later, Ige may not be the environmental crusader or champion of progressive causes that the more liberal arm of Hawaii politics would like to see. But he’s still attracted support from both environmental and progressive groups as he fights to retain his seat against Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, who is challenging him in the Aug. 11 Democratic primary.
Ige has been endorsed by Hawaii’s Sierra Club, Unite Here Local 5, a union known for its support of progressive issues, and the state chapter of the Americans for Democratic Action, which advocates on issues of social and economic justice.
He’s also attracted the personal support of local progressive leaders, including Gary Hooser and Bart Dame, who helped form the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action, which has been active in grooming new leaders and organizing around progressive causes. Moses Haia, executive director of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., an advocate for Native Hawaiian and environmental issues, also said he personally supports Ige.
Political observers say that this support could be significant as the race grows more competitive.
“It’s significant on the margins. Is getting the Sierra Club endorsement as big as getting (the Hawaii Government Employees Association)? Absolutely not,” said Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. But he noted that the Sierra Club has about 20,000 members and supporters statewide who tend to vote.
“This is going to be a tight race, so you really need all the help you can get,” said Moore.
Hanabusa was leading Ige 47 percent to 27 percent in a Honolulu Star-Advertiser poll taken in March, but that lead has shrunk considerably in more recent polling. Moore said Hanabusa has run a poor campaign, allowing Ige to rebound.
“I don’t think (Hanabusa) has really made the case for why electing her is really going to make some material difference in people’s lives,” said Moore. “It is kind of a campaign full of of Democratic talking points and generalities.”
Hanabusa is still considered a formidable opponent, however, and has racked up endorsements from the state’s most powerful unions, including HGEA, which has about 42,000 members, the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters, the state’s largest construction trade union, and the Hawaii State AFL-CIO.
Support from ‘the margins’
Supporters on the left point to Ige’s opposition to liquefied natural gas and the NextEra takeover of Hawaiian Electric, as well as his veto of the so-called Airbnb bill, which would have shielded illegal vacation rentals, as selling points for the governor. But it’s his approach to politics that seems to have been the more decisive factor in attracting their support.
Marti Townsend, executive director of Hawaii’s Sierra Club, said Ige’s nomination of Ching to the Department of Land and Natural Resources in 2015 didn’t initially “bode well” for his relationship with environmentalists. But she appreciates Ige’s open-door approach to politics.
“There is a fundamental difference to the way in which David Ige approaches politics. He does not play favorites. Instead, what he does is he maintains open-minded communication and works on building bridges instead of cutting them off,” said Townsend. “No matter how much we disagree on some things, he will always hear us out and his administration will make every effort to address the concerns that we relay that they think are legitimate.”
Townsend said that often with high-level politicians, “if you aren’t part of the ‘in group,’ you don’t have a chance.”
Hanabusa has also taken positions on local issues that have rankled environmentalists, including opposing the expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument during former President Barack Obama’s final months in office. She’s also sat on the board of Hawaii Gas, which wants to import liquefied natural gas into the state, and has received campaign donations from NextEra, even though the deal to purchase the electric utility was scuttled by Ige-appointed commissioners to the Public Utilities Commission.
Dame, who has long been active in progressive Democratic Party politics, said that while Ige isn’t a Bernie Sanders-type of politician, progressives tend to see him as the better option.
“Regardless of who is elected governor, I think we are going to have to push to try to get a fair hearing on progressive and environmentally-friendly policies,” said Dame. “But I think that many of us believe we would get a fairer hearing from the Ige administration than from the Hanabusa one.”
Dame noted that progressives have traditionally been a minority in Hawaii politics, but said their influence appears to be growing. He noted the penchant for mainstream Hawaii politicians to now try to identify with the label.
“They are explicitly embracing that word progressive and trying to sell themselves as progressives,” said Dame. “So that is a kind of proof that there is some success with the branding of progressive.”