Gov. David Ige reflects on wins and losses as his final inning comes to a close
Gov. David Ige is rounding third base and heading toward home as his last day in office approaches. The Conversation talked to him at a softball field at Newtown Neighborhood Park where his children used to play. He reflected on his eight years as Hawaiʻi's governor.
In just a few short weeks he will be back in his old neighborhood, in the home he left when he was elected in 2014. He will have to go back to hunting for parking like everyone else as the perk of a chauffeur disappears.
Ige shared that his home is undergoing renovation, and it may not be 100% complete when he leaves office. Yes, apparently the governor is caught up in the backlog for a building permit from the City and County of Honolulu like everyone else. He and first lady Dawn Ige will likely be home for a quiet Christmas as their adult children will be traveling. A different pace for sure, one that will take some time to get used to.
Coming off of Tuesday's election, he said Lt. Gov. Josh Green must now step up to the plate. While they share some common goals, how to build Aloha Stadium and develop the area around it is not one of them.
"I’m excited because we share a lot of the same core values. So I’m certain he’ll be looking forward to continuing the things that worked and making things better for those things that didn’t," Ige said.
Here's his conversation with host Catherine Cruz.
CATHERINE CRUZ, HOST: We’re sitting here in this dugout and the game's almost over. There seemed to be a sense of urgency to try and wind things up with some of the projects. We're up here, we’re not too far from the stadium. We've got Pearl Harbor out here. You've been through a lot with Red Hill and with the pandemic. But what was driving you toward the end to make these decisions about some of these projects?
GOV. DAVID IGE: I think it's really my commitment to really work to the very last day. Dec. 5 is the last day in office and we want to make sure that we're doing all the things to continue to serve the community. I just checked on the status, we work to get the tax rebates out. I know that many people have already received it. I received my tax rebate last week. We're down to the last couple tens of thousands that are in the process of getting through, but we definitely will have gotten everyone who filed a tax return. They should be getting their rebate in the next week or so. Clearly, we wanted to fulfill our responsibilities on Red Hill, making sure that we can hold the Navy accountable. The facility is 75 years old and it had a purpose during World War II. But clearly, I think the Navy finally recognized that the world has changed. And having a central, strategic storage for all fuel on the planet in one location just doesn't make any sense anymore. So we're really working, as you know, we were successful in unpacking the fuel lines, which is the first step. They're going to be making repairs so that we can defuel safely.
We've come through a tough time economically with this pandemic, and I know it was a very hard thing to tell tourists, "Please don't come." As you come to a close here, reflect on that.
I knew that it was the right thing to do. We had a very highly infectious disease that was spread through face-to-face encounters. And remember, at the very beginning of the pandemic, we didn't fully understand the virus. We didn't know how deadly it might be. We had no treatment. We had no vaccines. You know, we really started from nothing. And I knew that we had to stop transpacific travel to keep our community healthy and safe. Hawaiʻi has been evaluated as having the best COVID response of all 50 states. And I'm really proud of the community response. You know, Catherine, you've been engaged in the media for a long time. Whenever there is a crisis or a disaster, our community really steps up. And I'm proud of the fact that many in our community didn't ask, "Why are you infringing on my individual rights?" Many in our community said, "How can I help?" You know, and that's why we had the best response in the country.
I know at the time it was very hard with all the restrictions. And I think your mom and your mother-in-law were at the nursing home nearby. And it was hard because you couldn't see them either.
Absolutely, and it was hard as a son not being able to visit my mom in the care home. But at the same time, the last thing I wanted to do was visit her and get her sick. So everyone in our community had to make sacrifices in order to get through this pandemic. And people were willing to do it. And in every single aspect of the COVID response, Hawaiʻi has proven to be amongst the leaders in the country, even in terms of nursing homes. We had amongst the lowest infection rates in nursing homes around the country. We just got the public school report that our students did better than most. In fact, Hawaiʻi was again, ranked No. 1 in terms of the smallest learning loss during the pandemic. So I'm really just proud to be governor of Hawaiʻi because we weren't fighting about individual rights. It was about what is best for our community. Everyone was willing to make the sacrifices. And the outcome shows that when we work together, we can do great things.
As we sit here at this dugout, you mentioned that your kids used to play ball here. And we all worry, right, we want our kids to go off and do well and get job experience, come back home, be able to afford to buy a house. And I know inflation is just on everybody's minds right now. You've just come back from Japan. I know Gov.-elect Josh Green says he's gonna go back to Japan right away just to try and soften the blow in the event we have a recession next year.
Just talking with the state economist, and I just completed a bunch of interviews with the rating agencies. As you know, we floated $800 million in bonds to keep our construction projects going. But we know that Japan will come back. But as I was there two weeks ago, a week ago, it's a triple whammy for the traveler coming from Japan. First, it's the yen, and the yen has become very weak. And so it's a bargain for those in Hawaiʻi who want to travel to Japan. So I certainly would encourage that. If you are thinking about going to Japan, it's the perfect time to go now because everything's on sale. But the reverse of that is that traveling to Hawaiʻi is very expensive for Japanese visitors. In addition, because of the war in Ukraine, fuel prices are high and the Japanese traveler will have to pay a fuel surcharge on the ticket here. And then just talking with the airlines and tour companies in Japan, eating in Japan is a whole lot more affordable than it is in Hawaiʻi. And so even if a Japanese visitor were to make the trip here and get a hotel, you know, the hotels are expensive because of the weak yen, and then just eating a regular plate lunch, from their perspective, suddenly becomes a very expensive undertaking.
We did hear that they were complaining that their yen, they're paying like $8 for a spam musubi. It's a lot.
Absolutely. So I am certain that the Japanese traveler will come back and they're starting to come back. We've been talking about this pivot in tourism and attracting the tourists that we want. In speaking with the executives at ANA and Japan Airlines, we're seeing a lot of that, you know, the first class and business class seats, which are the more affluent travelers, are all pretty much full. The economy class seats are the ones that are not being filled right now. So we are seeing some of that, you know, visitors from Japan who are coming are those who can afford — they are more willing to take tours and do activities than the lower income travelers. So we are confident that we'll begin to build the Japanese visitor back. All of our partners in Japan are projecting to increase travelers through the first two quarters of next year. And they really expect to be back to pre-pandemic levels by the end of next year, so 2023.
You've just come from a meeting with the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. Your concerns about where we go with the money that we've provided them to get housing for Native Hawaiians, where are we at on that?
We feel really good about where we're at at this point in time. The commission has gone through, it's amazing how many unsolicited proposals they had — people being creative about how to help accelerate homesteading and being able to deliver leases to a beneficiary. So we're at a good place. They feel like they've gotten very, very good proposals. They're prioritizing. We have worked very hard to have the full range of options available for Native Hawaiian beneficiaries. For the most part, yes, the lease is the gold standard. And we want to be able to give beneficiaries either a homestead lease or an agriculture or grazing lease. We've also been able to expand the options. So we created a subsistence farming lease for those who don't want to go commercial but want to get connected to the land. And that allows us to award leases for 1 acre or less, half an acre. We have approved rental projects and so beneficiaries, we definitely don't want them to be homeless and on the streets, so being able to offer them affordable rentals. And I think most importantly support them with financial management and help them begin to save so that they can eventually afford a mortgage is part of the program as well.
Ige says his one real regret is that he couldn't do more to help solve our homeless crisis. Though he felt his administration did make progress, tweaking programs and helping families with children.
Family homelessness is down more than 50%. And overall, homelessness is down 25% from the peak. So we are making progress. But as you know, we continue to see homeless individuals and they've really spread out all across the state. We see them in virtually every community, living in parks or in nooks and crannies all around the community. Our focus on housing first, and really getting them off the streets and into affordable supportive housing, is the secret to ending homelessness. You know, Catherine, we continue to have social workers go to homeless individuals, and offer them services and offer them to move off the streets and go into a shelter temporarily at first and then into permanent housing, but many of them refuse to do that. So, you know, we are improving mental health services and addiction treatment, and those kinds of programs, because we know that many of them do suffer mental illness or have addiction challenges. And until you can treat those, it's really hard for them to recognize that they need help. And so we are making progress. There's a lot of areas that we need to improve. But we have the programs and we know what works. So it is about trying to find ways for the homeless to accept help. I think is the one for especially the hardcore homeless, they really choose to be on the streets rather than are there because of only the circumstances.
We're just a stone's throw from Aloha Stadium. Do you think there is going to be some resolution before you leave? I know there's one more Stadium Authority meeting. But what's to stop them from letting the clock run out and not having the University of Hawaiʻi build the stadium?
I've talked with enough members of the authority to know that they finally understand what I've been saying, that the Legislature only appropriated funds to design and build the stadium. There is no resources for a public-private partnership period, which means that if the authority doesn't move forward, then nothing will happen until the Legislature has a chance to try and appropriate additional monies. So I stressed with the authority that, look all I'm doing is doing what has been done and appropriated by law. There is no more money for a public-private partnership. And we have seen all across the country, there hasn't been a single public-private partnership to fund a stadium in the country that has been successful.
But what if UH doesn't want to play ball and they don't want to be saddled with the maintenance and managing it?
I do think that it's about recognizing that this is a community asset and it needs to be supported. We know that we can do better in terms of generating revenue, but what our studies have shown is that it can't be entirely self-sufficient. There's not enough revenue that you can generate off of a stadium that will pay for all the maintenance involved. Just like the Hawaiʻi Convention Center, you know. And for the longest time, the deficit in operating the convention center was growing. But we did award a new contract a couple years ago, and the private company did a much better job of filling the facility, generating revenues and has really reduced the operating deficit that we've seen. So I do think that a similar thing could happen with the stadium. But to think that it can fund the maintenance and operations by itself is not a reality.
So far, UH hasn't said, "Yeah, we'll do it." They're going to continue on with Ching field. Is the deal dead or not?
No, I mean, I do think that they recognize, and obviously, they need to have a stadium in order to have a Division I football program, and the community has spoken, they want a Division I football program. So I think it's about aligning all the partners involved — the Stadium Authority, the DBEDT director. And you know, at the end of the day, it's really about having state employees, somebody put in charge of it, so they can run with it and make it happen.
Do you believe that's going to happen before you leave?
We're working very hard to have that happen. I think the Stadium Authority better understands the law and certainly recognizes that public-private partnership is not funded. So they are anxious to move it forward as well.
And then with the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority marketing and management contract, is there going to be a resolution before you leave?
Yes, we definitely are working on a resolution. And I'm hopeful that we will get an agreement before the end of my term.
When times were really hard, I don't know, did you find yourself turning to someone in particular for advice to navigate some of these things, whether it was a missile crisis or COVID?
I think it's family first and foremost, right. So I do appreciate Dawn having to deal with all of the challenges that I've faced as governor. She has always been supportive. And it really is about friends and family that are unconditional in their support and trust that we're making the best decisions on behalf of the community. Even in the early days of this COVID pandemic, you know, there were many who disagreed with the actions that we were taking, but many in our community supported it. And that's always reassuring. I just focus on trying to understand the challenges before us as best as I can. And I will always take the action that will serve the community in the best way possible. And I do trust that things will work through in the end.
Leaving office, you'll have to look for parking and you won't have a driver.
The last time I drove was when my kids graduated from college, and we went off and that's the last vacation I took six years ago, but I haven't driven a car in six years. And I'm confident it's like riding a bicycle, you know, that it happens, but it will take some time to get used to driving again. And then obviously having to park the car will be the challenge.
Anything else you want to share with us just about, you know, as you get back in the neighborhood? You stopped off at Dave's Ice Cream, right, so you know the places?
Absolutely and we're in the process of renovating our home, and we have our fingers crossed that things will be completed. We still are working on waiting on a permit for a portion of the renovations. And so I'm certain that it won't be completed at the end of my term.
Are you stuck in permit hell?
I am stuck in the permit queue, you know, for replacing flooring and that kind of stuff. Those permits have been approved. But there's some work in the house that needs a different permit and we'll be waiting for that. But I do look forward to moving back home. When you're living in town, the routine gets changed totally. So I look forward to being out here and being able to stop at Dave's Ice Cream every once in a while and, you know, getting back to Gyotaku. I'm concerned about Anna Miller's and the fact that they might not open or restore all the hours and all the other places that we regularly ate at. certainly looking forward to getting back out here and being able to get into that routine, of being part of this community.
This interview aired on The Conversation on Nov. 10, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.