East Hawaii News

Political Analysis: Ige on Mauna Kea

August 10, 2015, 11:16 AM HST
* Updated August 10, 12:07 PM
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Will Gov. David Ige’s actions during the Mauna Kea controversy impact him later?

Neal Milner, political analyst and retired University of Hawai’i political science professor, said he doubts it.

Referring to Ige he said, “it’s extraordinarily difficult for an incumbent to lose. Gov. Abercrombie did, but it almost never happens. He can make a lot of mistakes, get a lot of people angry and still win.”

While the Mauna Kea issue has morphed into an international cause célèbre, Milner said he does not believe Ige will have to face repercussions during the next election.

But not everyone agrees with that argument.

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“I believe Ige has been ill-advised. He is talking but not listening and he is unequally doing the bidding of the Thirty Meter Telescope people and lawyers and not caring for those he is responsible for and for the people of Hawai’i,” said Kealoha Pisciotta, president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou and one of the founding members of the movement. “He is mandated to protect the citizens of Hawai’i against the infringement of their environmental and cultural and religious rights. So his job is to protect us…eventually it will affect him in politics.”

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Development on Mauna Kea was controversial well before Ige got into office, but the debate surrounding construction of TMT has received more publicity than other projects.

While TMT proponents believe the telescope will bring jobs and educational opportunities to the island, others argue that the mountain has been victim to overdevelopment.

Now TMT is being challenged in court and a protest has ensued during the past few months to put an end to the operation. The cause to protect Mauna Kea has gained support and notoriety around the world from various celebrities, organizations and individuals who wish to see development end and cultural practices guarded.

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But despite public outcry, Ige has affirmed that the project will continue.

He first got involved with the issue shortly after the arrest of 31 peaceful protesters in April who blocked construction crews from getting to the mountain’s summit. Ige then postponed construction for the telescope twice.

On May 26 he gave his support for TMT while also paying homage to the self-proclaimed Mauna Kea protectors by saying the state, in many ways, has failed the mountain. In his speech he tried to draw a compromise by laying out various objectives on how to deal with Mauna Kea in the future.

Michael Bolte, member of the TMT International Observatory Board, said the board supported his efforts.

“Gov. Ige’s earlier announcement about the way forward on Mauna Kea reinforced the decisions we have made to be an agent of change on the mountain. Our period of inactivity has made us a better organization in the long run,” he said.

And while Ige’s statement may have satisfied the TMT Corp., it did not resonate with the demonstrators or their support network. The protesters spoke out against Ige’s speech and continued to stay on the mountain.

Ige’s endeavor to find middle ground proved to be futile, more arrests have since occurred and construction for TMT has yet to resume.

Colin Moore, political science professor at UH-Manoa, said how Ige is handling the TMT/Mauna Kea issue is, if anything, a reflection of his governing style.

“Ige likes to study, wait a long time and weigh all his options carefully, he said.

“He’s not signaling pretty clearly what side he favors because he isn’t particular good at doing that.”

Moore said Ige had substantial support from voters during last year’s election and that it’s still too early to tell whether his popularity remains intact. However, he said Ige’s actions handling the Mauna Kea issue may have exposed voters to his way of governing in general, and whether they like it or not is up in the air.

“It could make him look ineffectual,” he said.

Moore said Ige’s quiet, lead-behind-the-scenes nature may resonate with some voters, but may not with those who look for a more communicative and aggressive leader.

However, Moore also believes that perhaps taking a safe approach is the wisest action for Ige right now.

“Imagine the alternative, what if he came out very forcefully in favor of TMT?” he said.

Milner agrees that Ige governs in a quiet and deliberate manner and in this situation that may be OK.

“I think any governor would virtually do the same thing,” he said.

But Milner questions how Ige will act if he’s forced to be more aggressive.

“If the situation gets more explosive then it’s untested for him and we don’t know how he is when he has to mobilize public opinion one direction or the other,” he said. “He hasn’t had to do that and he hasn’t had much experience doing that and doesn’t like to do that.”

There was some speculation that Ige may have been considering deploying the Hawai’i National Guard to clear access to Mauna Kea, but Ige denied the claim.

His most recent action came more than a week ago, after several individuals were arrested on Mauna Kea. They were cited for allegedly violating a new 120-day emergency rule set in place by the Board of Land and Natural Resources and signed by Ige regarding access to the mountain. One of the rules essentially prohibits camping on the mountain.

Ige made the following statement in a press release following the arrests:

“The emergency rules were enacted to ensure public safety and access after the road was blocked by boulders. The state has made sure people are aware of and understand the emergency rules before taking the next step. While we had hoped arrests would not have to be made in the process of citing violators last night, we were prepared to take action, and we did so,” he said in a press release.

And while the statement was arguably his boldest yet, questions surrounding what will happen next still linger. And like Milner said, the controversy is not yet over.

“We’re in a sort of limbo right now, but that’s not going to last forever.”

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