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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

For Hawaii’s governor, a balancing act with no margin for error

Gov. Josh Green of Hawaii at his office in Honolulu, on Aug. 17, 2023. Green was a family practitioner and an emergency room physician when he entered politics.

By Shawn Hubler

In early 2020, with state health officials downplaying signs of the coming pandemic, Josh Green, who was then Hawaii’s lieutenant governor, went outside the political pecking order and called the White House himself to ask for a temporary ban on cruise ships, a linchpin of Hawaii’s economy.

The move by Green, an emergency-room physician, infuriated his colleagues and the governor’s office, but “no one would listen to me here,” he said in his Capitol office overlooking Honolulu last week.

Now the 53-year-old governor, a Democrat less than a year into his first term, is confronting the horrific wildfires on Maui that have killed at least 114 people and perhaps many more.

Thousands have been displaced. One of the world’s most scenic beach towns is now a toxic ruin. President Joe Biden arrived Monday to view the devastated landscape and hear from residents.

And after two mega-emergencies in fewer than four years in a state with a population smaller than Philadelphia’s, Green has some urgent thoughts about the range of catastrophes that are sweeping the globe and overwhelming institutions.

“I want the world to know that we have to prepare for this,” the governor said last week, his voice tense, his eyes red from exhaustion. “We absolutely have to solve these problems before they become crises.”

The firestorms in Hawaii are just the latest climate-fueled horror to challenge leaders around the country. Last year, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida confronted the most destructive Atlantic hurricane season on record. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California was only two days past his election when 85 people died in the Camp fire in 2018.

Violent floods have slammed New York and Vermont this summer. Blistering heat has plagued Arizona and Texas. The trauma and grief, followed by costly recoveries and lawsuits, have become staples of governance as climate change has amplified weather extremes.

“This will be the biggest crisis Hawaii has had to face since Pearl Harbor,” said Colin D. Moore, a political scientist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Already fault lines have emerged in the Democrat-dominated power structure.

In a state where political decisions are often a balancing act among factions — from progressives to pro-development Democrats to powerful labor unions — some worry that the rush to rebuild will shred hard-won environmental and cultural protections. Others fear that the devastation will gut the economy, drive up already sky-high housing prices and supercharge a middle-class exodus of priced-out teachers, firefighters, nurses and other essential workers.

“The fear is that this will become a land grab by wealthy investors from outside of Hawaii,” Moore said.

That concern also reflects the inherent tensions in Hawaiian politics between the state’s breathtaking natural beauty and the tourist-dependent economy that supports its 1.4 million inhabitants.

Wayne Tanaka, the executive director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, said the governor’s own nascent policies seemed to undercut his calls for more rigorous planning. Tanaka criticized an emergency measure that Green signed shortly before the fire; the move suspended some development restrictions as a way to fast-track the supply of affordable housing.

“This is a big test of whether he’s going to challenge and reverse the trend of allowing corporations to dictate land use policies and monopolize water resources,” Tanaka said.

Still others fear the pull of politics as usual, noting that the governor’s chief of staff — who came with him from the lieutenant governor’s office — is a former lobbyist for the pro-development Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters.

“I’m very much willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I’m very concerned,” said Matthew S. LoPresti, a progressive who served with Green for six years in the state Legislature. “This will be the test of his leadership.”

Even Green says that bringing a state back from a climate-age disaster in a way that might fend off the next one calls for political skills far beyond what he has been asked to muster in the past.

“This is the first time for me as an executive that I’ve been tasked with something outside my absolute comfort zone,” he said. “COVID was not difficult for me to deal with because I was a health care provider practicing public health.”

When COVID hit in 2020, David Ige, who was then the governor, informally made Green the administration’s pandemic point man. But their relationship was not always harmonious, and the early call on the cruise lines fed perceptions that Green was prematurely campaigning to succeed Ige, who was prevented by term limits from running for reelection in 2022.

Eventually, the governor formalized Green’s role as COVID liaison. Armed with a whiteboard and raw data, he reestablished himself as the face of Hawaii’s response to the pandemic, pushing mandatory vaccines for public sector employees, indoor masking for businesses, and quarantines or proof of vaccination for travel among the islands. Aside from a few small protests outside his home, there was little of the public unrest that roiled other states.

In the spring of 2021, as infection rates dropped, a poll conducted by two local news organizations found that the lieutenant governor had a 63% approval rating, nearly three times that of Ige. A year later, Green defeated six other Democrats in the primary and won the general election easily.

As governor, he has stopped practicing medicine except as a volunteer; a state law that took effect in 2022 forbids governors from holding second jobs while in office. But he has made headlines several times for rendering care in emergencies. In July, Morning Consult reported that only two other governors had higher approval ratings from their constituents.

Then disaster hit Maui. As the firestorm barreled into the historic town of Lahaina, the governor was more than 5,000 miles away at a family reunion in Massachusetts.

He flew home immediately and helped secure billions of dollars in federal aid through a federal disaster declaration. He also opened motel rooms and rentals to displaced survivors, vowed to crack down on land speculators and to include locals on recovery work crews. He also instructed the attorney general to conduct a “comprehensive review” of the fire’s causes and the emergency response.

Green said that the past four years have taught him that communities no longer have a margin of error.

“I’m mad that we didn’t do some of the things that we could have done three, five, seven years ago to make an incident like this relatively impossible,” he said, the old COVID whiteboard in his office now covered with wildfire statistics.

“Because this kind of thing doesn’t need to happen. We’ll rise up but with great cost.”

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