HONOLULU — Gov. David Ige, who speaks in the quietly measured way of his engineering profession, likes to tout everything Hawaii is doing to battle climate change.
He lights up about the state’s Early College initiative that allows high school students to take enough college courses to earn associate degrees along with their secondary school diplomas. For good measure, he proudly stresses the state’s tolerance and openness (“Everybody’s a minority in Hawaii”) and argues the rest of the country can draw lessons from its more than four decades of nearly universal health care.
But for the moment, the main thing, maybe the only thing, that people back on the mainland know about him is that he’s the governor who forgot his Twitter password on the day his state was shaken by a false warning of an imminent missile attack. Ige learned two minutes after the announcement that the Jan. 13 alert was mistaken, but it took him another 15 petrifying minutes to tweet out: “There is NO missile threat.”
Perhaps because the Trump presidency has made lies and evasions so commonplace, there is something refreshing about Ige’s candid response to the fiasco.
During an interview in his office at the state capitol here last week he first performed yet another mea culpa for the entire mess: “The error was truly an unacceptable occurrence.” Then he explained that he, like many officials, does not pay much attention to his Twitter feed, leaving it to his staff — another contrast with President Trump. Ige acknowledges not getting up to speed quickly enough.
“Obviously, I don’t do my own Twitter,” he said, “and it came up, and the question was asked, ‘Why did it take X minutes before we had posted on Twitter?’ and that’s the fact.”
Politicians face many challenges, but Ige may be alone in having to answer to a constituency in which every single member confronted the possibility of sudden death. “Who else has had the experience of thinking, ‘I have 10 minutes to live?’” wondered Brett Oppegaard, a journalism professor at the University of Hawaii.
The timing of the episode was particularly inopportune for Ige, a first-term Democrat who faces a tough challenge in this summer’s primary from respected U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa. In endorsing Hanabusa last week, Tulsi Gabbard, Hawaii’s other member of Congress, praised Hanabusa as “a strong, decisive, dynamic leader” and was not shy about invoking the false alarm.
“The failure of leadership that we saw throughout that entire incident further affirmed what I know,” Gabbard said.
Hanabusa herself doesn’t even have to bring up the subject. “The question is how we restore confidence,” she told me. “Bashing on the governor for the 38 minutes is not going to solve it,” referring to the time it took for the alarm to be called off officially.
And Ige will not be helped by reports last week that the still-anonymous “button pusher” who mistakenly sent out the alert is refusing to cooperate in three investigations of what happened.
Hawaii politics is distinctive in many respects, and not only for its exceptional ethnic pluralism. (There are not many places where analysts discuss the influence of the politically potent Japanese-American community’s Okinawan subset. It is likely to come to the defense of Ige, one of its own.) In no state is the Democratic Party quite so dominant. There is not one Republican in the state Senate and only five in the 51-member House of Representatives.
Bill Dorman, the news director of Hawaii Public Radio, says the state’s political system bears a certain resemblance to Japan’s. The long dominance of the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party means that nearly all substantive battles are factional fights within the majority party. That’s what happens here, too.
Ige’s informal faction in the state Legislature was called the Chess Club, a group of policy wonks. Ige explained that the bloc was named by the daughter of one its members who said their seriousness brought to mind the spirit of her high school’s chess club.
Ige conveys a sense of serenity about being the underdog in his re-election fight, but he is not so serene about Trump’s threats against North Korea. “We are very concerned with some of the statements made,” he said with characteristic restraint, adding: “We would look forward to the day when we don’t have to worry about sirens and warnings, and that everyone in the Pacific can live in peace.”
They were the words of a politician who has learned the high price extracted by rumors of war.