Hon. Governor David Ige,
Wow, sucked to be you yesterday. I mean, you’re still governor of the 40th most populous state in the U.S., and absolutely entitled to all the authority and prestige granted to you by that office, but damn–Wednesday was not a good day.
And it was your fault, too. You forgot your Machiavelli, and it hurt you at a time when most of the state is still getting to know you.
“[A] Prince, as has already been said, should consider how he may avoid such courses as would make him hated or despised,” Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in The Prince about 500 years ago. It seems so simple, so obvious, and yet yesterday, it happened to you.
Nearly two months ago, on Jan. 23, you nominated Castle & Cooke lobbyist Carleton Ching to be Chairperson of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR). Right from the get-go, environmental activists across Hawaii cried out in terror and fury.
“We were blind-sided by this appointment,” Sierra Club Hawaii spokesperson Anthony Aalto told KHON 2 News three days after you made the Ching nomination. “It was announced on Friday and the truth is, we’ve actually been overtaken by the reaction of just our average members. One of our members started a petition. We already have nearly 5,000 signatures on that petition. There were nearly 2,000 signatures within 24 hours.”
Think about this a moment: you announced Ching on a Friday. By the end of the next day–a Saturday–2,000 people had already signed a petition asking you to rescind that nomination. By the end of that weekend, another 3,000 people added their names to the Sierra Club’s petition.
You’ve been in the state Legislature since late 1985–have you seen that kind of opposition flare up that quickly, that furiously? Even the Superferry controversy was a gradual movement, and mostly limited to the Neighbor Islands. Did you ask yourself why people–liberals, a key part of your political base–were suddenly infuriated? Machiavelli would have known.
“A Prince, as I have said before, sooner becomes hated by being rapacious and by interfering with the property and with the women of his subjects, than in any other way,” he wrote in The Prince. That’s what you did–you started messing with the property of the people of Hawaii.
The DLNR isn’t just another department. For many people in this state, it’s a guardian of precious lands that belong to us all. The Department of Land and Natural Resources is a steward over 1.3 million acres of Hawaii, and another 750 miles of coastline. And you were going to hand the keys to a man who’s spent the last decade promoting the interests of a land developer.
For liberal environmentalists, who largely abandoned your predecessor Neil Abercrombie for you in the 2014 election, this was a call to arms. But rather than take it seriously, you dug in behind Ching. The result was two months of meetings with legislators and activists around the state. Sure, lots of people said Ching was a nice guy, but opposition only grew.
By the time the Senate Committee on Water and Land took up the nomination earlier this month, Ching was in dire trouble. I know you wanted to show that you had his back by sitting behind him during the committee hearings, but doing so exposed you to two types of criticism. First, that you were abandoning other, possibly more important tasks in favor of helping out Ching. Secondly, and what Machiavelli would say was more important, you permanently fastened yourself to Ching’s fate.
“Princes should devolve on others those matters that entail responsibility and reserve to themselves those that relate to grace and favor,” Machiavelli wrote.
If the Senate gave Ching the nod–as you seemed to assume they would–then it all would have worked out. But the Senate is run by Democrats, who often take the voice of the public seriously. And in this case, their constituents were telling them repeatedly to can Ching. This was a risk for a lame-duck governor, not one who hasn’t even been in office six months.
The final committee vote on Mar. 12, in which just two of the seven members voting in favor of Ching, was a disaster. Yes, some senators like Democrat Les Ihara gave mixed signals about maybe voting against Ching in the committee but for him on the Senate floor. But come on–anyone could have predicted that the environmental groups arrayed against Ching would smell more than a little blood in the water and ramp up their already considerable populist lobbying against the nomination.
Which they did. The result was a total defeat–you withdrew the nomination after legislators finally, belatedly, convinced you that Ching would never survive a full Senate vote. You could have pulled the nomination a month ago (or, better yet–never made it in the first place), but by holding on so long, political watchers around Hawaii are now saying that you’ve been weakened.
“One of Ige’s selling points was that he had a great working relationship with the Legislature,” UH political science professor Colin Moore told Civil Beat the day you withdrew the nomination. “To really try to push this vote and lose, it’s very damaging.”
Or, as Machiavelli put it, “In his private dealings with his subjects his decisions should be irrevocable, and his reputation such that no one would dream of overreaching or cajoling him.”
Of course, a year from now, no one’s going to be talking about this. But for those in the state still trying to assess who you are, and what kind of governor you’ll be, it’s a disturbing development. As far as who you nominate now to take over DLNR, that’s your call.
Hey, here’s a thought, though: go to the people who shut down the Ching nomination–organizations like the Sierra Club–and ask their advice. They want to support you, and I can’t think of a better way to start fixing this mess.
Very truly yours,
Photo of David Ige courtesy Hawaii Governor’s Office