- Associated Press - Monday, October 12, 2015

HONOLULU (AP) - When Shan Tsutsui awoke one morning in December 2012, his mind was made up: He was going to tell then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie that he was passing on becoming his lieutenant governor - the post left vacant when Brian Schatz was appointed to the U.S. Senate to replace the late Sen. Daniel Inouye.

But by the end of the day, Abercrombie had persuaded him to take the job.

Tsutsui was Senate president at the time and used to a busy schedule juggling hundreds of bills as they passed through the Legislature each session.

Abercrombie asked him what he wanted if he were to be lieutenant governor, recalled Tsutsui during an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser last week in his fifth-floor office in the state Capitol.

“I said basically everything. I want to be there in all the Cabinet meetings and strategic meetings and when decisions are made,” said Tsutsui. “I’m not interested in cutting ribbons and shoveling dirt as being the primary purposes of this job.”

Abercrombie said OK.

Tsutsui went on to lead a sports development initiative, took on tourism and had a seat at top strategy meetings, and when the federal government shut down, Abercrombie, who was on vacation at the time, left him in charge of major decisions.

“Whatever he says goes,” Tsutsui remembers Abercrombie telling his chief of staff, Bruce Coppa, at the time.

Three years later Tsutsui finds himself largely sidelined under a new administration after Ige beat out Abercrombie in a historic political upset.

“I was involved in more strategic meetings; I was always involved in those things under the previous administration,” said Tsutsui. “Under this administration, probably not so much.”

Tsutsui said he isn’t sure who Ige’s strategic advisers are. “I assume they have a team,” he said.

Tsutsui’s been caught off guard by some of the major decisions involving the Ige administration, such as the selection of Kaiser to operate three Maui County hospitals. Tsutsui is from Maui and during his years in the Senate worked on legislation that would privatize the island’s hospital system.

Ige told the Star-Advertiser last month that Tsutsui wasn’t kept in the loop because he himself wasn’t a part of the decision-making process. “We have a good relationship,” noted the governor.

Hawaii lieutenant governors have little power unless afforded it by the governor. As Tsutsui sat in his office chair, a stack of name change applications in need of approval rested on his desk, one of his few official tasks as lieutenant governor.

His main role is to take over in case something happens to the governor.

“Really, the lieutenant governor’s job is one that is kind of like a backup quarterback,” said former Gov. Ben Cayetano, who served for four years as lieutenant governor under John Waihee. “You wait for your chance to do something.”

Cayetano said that the job can be limiting without the support of the governor. In his case, he said he was able to take on a couple of big projects under Waihee that kept him busy: a state-funded after-school program and a project to reduce traffic congestion by staggering work hours.

“I wasn’t bored most of the time,” said Cayetano. “There were times when you would say, ‘Gee . the LG job is kind of like Rodney Dangerfield when he says you get no respect.’”

Still, he said the office is what you make of it. “If you don’t have a program in mind, you are just going to sit there and wonder if the governor is still living, if you know what I mean.”

Tsutsui said he has a lot that he wants to do, such as tackling the invasive red fire ant and coqui frog problems; taking on collective bargaining with state workers; making sure that federal dollars earmarked for Hawaii are actually being spent; and maybe even keeping an eye on Honolulu rail project change orders, which are driving up costs.

But in order to really be effective, he needs the governor to give him the power to tackle these problems.

When he read in the news recently that Ige still hadn’t filled six out of 15 seats on the state’s Environmental Council, a government advisory board, Tsutsui said he called up Ige’s chief of staff, Mike McCartney, and said he’d get the seats filled.

“I wish it would come the other way and they would say, ‘We need help with this,’” said Tsutsui. “Hopefully, as I continue to work on some of these things and they see results, they may think, ‘Maybe we should be sending some of this stuff to the LG.’”

One thing on Tsutsui’s agenda in the coming months is pushing for a bill in the Legislature that will change the election process for lieutenant governors. Instead of running separately, the governor would select a lieutenant governor as a running mate.

Otherwise “it’s like a forced marriage,” Tsutsui said - sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

The bill would have to be approved by the governor as part of his legislative package.

Tsutsui said he’s adjusting to the new way of operating in the Governor’s Office, but acknowledges that he and Ige have different styles. Ige is known for being methodical and careful in his decision-making, while Tsutsui said he prefers to plow ahead on issues.

“We aren’t going to change the way the governor makes decisions. In some ways that can be good; in some ways that can be bad. He will take his time. He’s an engineer,” said Tsutsui. “I joke about it sometimes with him: ‘I get it, David. When you are an engineer, you got to be right 10 out of 10 times because if you are wrong once, the building collapses.’”

By contrast, Tsutsui said he draws on his experience years ago as a stockbroker. “So for us, we got to make decisions, and the faster we make the decisions, the better. All we have to do is be right 6 out of 10 times and we make a lot of money,” he quipped.

Tsutsui said that there are things he would have done differently from the governor. For instance, he would have used executive powers to cut through all the red tape in trying to solve Oahu’s homeless problem, as opposed to Ige’s decision to convene another task force.

And he would have hired a chief negotiator to tackle the collective bargaining contracts with state workers. Ige chose not to hire a negotiator to save money.

“That was penny wise and pound foolish, in my humble opinion,” said Tsutsui, who argues that having a tough negotiator could in the long run save the state millions of dollars.

As for Tsutsui’s political future, he said for now his main objective is to make the current administration as successful as possible.

“I don’t ever want to be the rebel,” he said. “I want to be part of the team, I want to be able to help. I view my role as assisting them in getting their vision, helping them accomplishing their mission statements.”

Tsutsui said he would not run against Ige in the next election. But he’s not ruling out a bid for governor in 2022 or even Maui mayor in 2018.


Information from: Honolulu Star-Advertiser, https://www.staradvertiser.com

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