With an endless slate of troubles and a rare budget surplus, the governor talks with HONOLULU about his incongruous journey, open-access style of governing and unwavering mission.
By Don Wallace, Photos: Aaron K. Yoshino
He’s smart, quick-witted and compassionate from years of serving as a doctor at a rural Ka‘ū clinic on Hawai‘i Island. He’s also decisive and unafraid to break ranks if he thinks the public interest is at stake, even if it means incurring the wrath of the powerful. This is the image of Gov. Josh Green to a large majority of voters who gave him a landslide victory last November. To the third who voted against him, however, as well as some former fellow legislators in the state House and Senate, he’s just a guy who got incredibly lucky thanks to the conjunction of a pandemic and a dithering executive branch. And to some of his fellow progressives, he’s morphed into a question mark, and a possible Trojan horse, after accepting controversial construction union backing.
“This is the job of a lifetime; this is the biggest honor I could ever get.”
So, which is it? Did Green change his spots to win the state’s highest political office? Is it possible for a little-known country doctor-slash-legislator to emerge as the undisputed front-runner without yielding to the machinations of a slick cabal? Can a man play both sides of the political equation and stay true? Or is he about to receive his comeuppance?
Only time will tell. But what we know at the moment is he’s made a hell of an entrance, even while encountering serious early opposition.
“I think it’s one of the strongest starts by any governor,” says Colin Moore, director of the Center for Public Policy at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Former Gov. David Ige was “almost an accidental governor,” Moore adds. “His focus was developed on the fly, and it never really took. I think you can compare Green to Neil Abercrombie, who started out with great ambitions but got mired in controversy.”
Buzzkill noted. To the public, Green has read the room. “There are some big issues that people want to address once and for all,” Green says in our one-hour chat fueled by Diet Pepsi. “And we get to take them up. And that includes, just to run the list: the stadium, reforming tourism and management of tourism, addressing homelessness definitely, building houses for 30,000 to 50,000 of our relatives, and resolving the Red Hill crisis. Those are just the ones that come to mind without even diving into health care, justice reform, the prison.”
There’s an oft-smudged whiteboard in Green’s office, and he carries a well-worn red Moleskine notebook everywhere, filled with his handwritten COVID-19 numbers, updated daily, and a list of priorities and to-dos, also updated daily. “These fundamentals help me to not have mission drift,” he says. Given his prolific social media output, this is a governor who won’t be caught like his predecessor in a crisis not knowing his Twitter login.
Green credits the people from his staff for his smooth transition and is proud that “100% of them came over with me,” forming a critical core to interface with a gubernatorial staff that, Green says, “is 500% larger.”
He’s made drop-by visits with legislators a daily practice, heading downstairs most mornings from his Capitol office, whiteboard in tow. With 18 new legislators to win over, Green isn’t wasting any time, and they in turn get to show up on social media with him and his deputies, often taking part in PSA-style whiteboard chats.
“This is the job of a lifetime; this is the biggest honor I could ever get,” Green says. “So, I just want to be sure we get some results. I’m open to any idea that the Leg has, that the people in the street have, that past governors have, that people in Washington have—any idea that will result in more housing, make it more affordable to live here, make sure there’s some equity as far as human rights go. Any idea will be embraced by us.”
Only two days after the election, Green caught people off guard, in a good way, by holding a joint press conference about homelessness with Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi. “We have more than a partnership; it’s a friendship,” the governor says. “I really appreciate him. No matter what he asks, as long as it helps people, I will approve. No matter whatever I ask, as long as it seems to help people, he seems willing to support. That means we don’t compete, and we don’t get in each other’s way. And we avoid the duplication of resources.”
In conversation, Green is open and sensitive to anything that might be interpreted as hubris or bigfooting. On his spotlight-grabbing turn as COVID explainer on daily television, he says: “I’ll give you a provocative comment, which is, people criticized me for being so out there as a lieutenant governor. But what do you expect if you don’t give someone a job to do? They’re going to speak their mind, and probably from that perspective, cause some mischief.”
With his lieutenant governor, Sylvia Luke, you can be sure Green won’t repeat what he sees as Ige’s mistake. Instead, he’s given her a prominent role unrolling a statewide preschool program, a goal of previous administrations that never got past the talking stages. “I think it’s better to employ people at their best,” Green says. “And that’s what I hope to do with my lieutenant governor because she is terrific. She has the capacity to build the pre-K education program, which is the best possible thing one can do for society. If we do a good job, we’ll have many years to craft it, to perfect it, and see a generational change.”
It’s hard to believe this is the same legislator who, by his own admission, was “something of a backbencher” during his years at the Legislature. These days, he says, “We use the word huliau,” which translates to “turning point” or “time of change.” For Green, it means a “rebirth.”
The red Moleskine notebook on Green’s desk goes with him everywhere. It’s filled with his handwritten hospital statistics, updated daily and going back two years, as well as a constantly refreshed list of administration priorities. “It enables me to do a quick survey of where we are,” he says. Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino
Who Was Josh Green?
As we all know, but often forget, a TV persona is just that, an image. Given the stakes in Hawai‘i, it’s not impolite or unfair to question whether Green is really a competent politician who’s getting his shot, or someone who was in the right place at the right time by dint of grasping the spotlight offered by a crisis.
Green and I begin by exchanging coordinates: My mom was a politician. His was an organizer for the National Organization for Women. His grandmother was a regional president of Planned Parenthood. And he’s a Woodstock baby, born in nearby Kingston, New York, in 1970.
“I was in utero at the concert,” he reveals.
His family moved to Pittsburgh, where Green took cues from the “very strong woman figures in my life,” attending Swarthmore College, medical school at Penn State, and doing his residency at the University of Pittsburgh’s Shadyside. Then, he joined the National Health Service and was sent to Hawai‘i Island. “Shadyside focused on rural health. I was a family practitioner, and the assignment in Ka‘ū was utterly rural,” he says. “I mean, I became the doctor for 8,000 patients, which is far more than normal, but it was great. And this was important, because this was my immersion in the culture.”
Green estimates he had more than 4,000 Native Hawaiian patients in Ka‘ū. He also was asked to take over a Salvation Army clinic. “I started doing two half-days a week just to support them, right down in the middle of Kona,” he says.
The success of the Salvation Army clinic inspired the formation of the West Hawai‘i Community Health Center, which recently merged with the Bay Clinic and now employs 200 people, Green says. It also expanded his future base. “I cared for probably a third to a half of all the families on the Big Island in 16 years.”
He first decided to run for the Legislature in 2003, after a conversation with a lifelong friend about how best to help the underserved. “I just wanted to make a point that people deserve more access to health care, especially in our rural parts of the state,” Green says. “To be honest I didn’t have much expectation that I would win, but I did want to be able to express myself.”
In the previous election, the Democratic candidate had lost by a large margin to the Republican. The future governor’s newly apportioned district was “written off,” Green says, but he won in 2004 anyway, by a margin of 8% of the vote. “I don’t wear party politics on my sleeve. I’m left of center without a doubt, especially because of my positions on health care and homelessness, but I’m more a doctor in people’s eyes, especially then, because I wasn’t in office. Going door to door in my scrubs, like I do, left an impression on people.”
During his second week on O‘ahu, he met his future wife, Jaime. “She was working as a committee clerk for Sen. Susie Chun Oakland,” he recalls. “I saw her—and hit on her—and was able to succeed over time and demonstrated some success in marriage since.” (Loud laughter rings through his office as he relays the story.)
The first of their two children, Maia, now 15, was born on the second anniversary of their first date, which, of course, Green recites off the top of his head: Jan. 11. Their son, Sam, is 11.
In early 2018, after four years as a state representative and 10 as a senator, he had a discussion about homelessness with Blangiardi (then general manager at Hawai‘i News Now) in the Queen’s Medical Center parking lot. “We discussed whether one or two of us, or which one, would run for higher office and when,” Green says. “We believed the same thing, that if you provided care for individuals that were struggling on the streets,” the city and state would ultimately benefit. But Blangiardi decided not to run for governor that year, “and I decided to run for lieutenant governor.”
“I’m open to any idea that the Leg has, that the people in the street have, that past governors have, that people in Washington have.”
Green was initially regarded as an afterthought to fellow Democrat Jill Tokuda. The game-changer was the Hawai‘i Regional Council of Carpenters lobbying PAC, Be Change Now, which endorsed him and infused his campaign with money. An earlier iteration of the council’s PAC, Pacific Resources Partnership, was notorious for spending heavily on a 2012 smear campaign against Ben Cayetano to stop his anti-rail Honolulu mayoral race versus then-interim Mayor Kirk Caldwell. (Cayetano sued for defamation and PRP settled, giving a public apology and charitable donations of $125,000.)
“What Green did right from a political stance was connect with Pacific Resources Partnership,” says former state Sen. Gary Hooser. As a progressive representing Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau from 2002 until 2010, Hooser didn’t take developer money when he ran for lieutenant governor. He lost. “They (PRP) were looking for someone to beat Tokuda,” Hooser adds, “and their support contributed greatly to the perception that Green was a front-runner, that he could raise the money, and he could win. This carried forward into fundraising and later carried over to the governor’s race.” Later, Green accepted now-U.S. Rep. Tokuda’s invitation to sit with her during President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address.
Be Change Now supported Green in 2022. It also supported Ikaika Anderson for lieutenant governor—and mounted a smear campaign against his rival, Luke. Green’s nomination of Anderson to head the Department of Hawaiian Homelands met with a stinging rejection. “Green clearly underestimated the opposition,” including to Be Change Now, Moore says. “Politics ain’t beanbags.”
Green perhaps “thought he could persuade senators to get on board. He must have received some bad intelligence somewhere along the line, because governors rarely forward names if they don’t believe the nominee has the votes.”
Suspicions over Green’s pro-building backing perhaps accelerated a controversy over his first act as governor regarding housing—the moment when he paused his State of the State address to sign a homeless emergency proclamation that, he said, “streamlines the construction process for housing, removing unnecessary red tape.” Environmentalists and Native Hawaiians immediately pushed back, saying it gave developers carte blanche. A full release of the resolution the next day clarified that it only pertained to the kauhale homeless villages championed by Green while lieutenant governor. “Only 25 acres,” he says.
We can expect more dust-ups, because in Green’s world, perfection is the enemy of the good. “I’m guessing that four out of five times, I’m going to get it right,” he explains. “One out of five times we’ll miss the mark a bit, and I’m happy to correct it the next day, or to clarify it. That’s what we did with the homelessness proclamation, but there’ll be more. In order to get this giant list of things done, I can’t sit back and wait. So, if I miss it, really miss the mark, I have every expectation that people will speak up and we’ll fix that.”
To cement public trust, Hooser says Green must embrace the reform agenda put forth by the Foley commission, on corruption and government transparency, spurred by the federal bribery convictions of former Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English and state Rep. Ty Cullen. “I think if Gov. Green can demonstrate he supports adding transparency, the regulation of lobbyists and the banning of fundraising during election cycles, he can position himself as a true independent leader above and beyond the PRP and big money connection,” Hooser says.
“In order to get this giant list of things done, I can’t sit back and wait. So, if I miss it, really miss the mark, I have every expectation that people will speak up and we’ll fix that.”
The Tasks at Hand
Hawai‘i tends to give its governors very short honeymoons, Moore says. House and Senate leaders interviewed shortly after Green was elected said that if Green wanted to get anything done, he’d have to go through them. After Green’s State of the State address, House Speaker Scott Saiki and Senate Majority Leader Glenn Wakai were calm, collegial and full of assurances that everybody was onboard and rarin’ to work together. Then came the Anderson fracas.
What happened? “They’re looking for opportunities to cut him down to size, and the Senate confirmation hearings provide some very public opportunities to assert their power and independence,” Moore says. “If he gets credit for these big initiatives and they go well, his honeymoon period will continue. And that will make him politically unbeatable. The pressure legislators receive from their constituents and supporters will make them likely to help him get what he wants.”
And what does Green want?
“There are a lot of tasks in front of me,” he says. “One is restoring trust, which I think I have a fair reservoir of, based on COVID. And we have to transform the justice economy, which means making things fair for people so if they’re working hard, they can survive.”
Green continues to reel off a laundry list of crises, well exceeding the pre-slotted 40 minutes for our interview. Green’s communications director, Makana McClellan, subtly indicates it’s time to wrap up, but he waves her off with a “one more, just one more thing.” He continues to pile up detail upon anecdote upon data point as we walk outside his offices, where our photographer and art director have set up for a shoot. Finally, out of consideration for time, I back away.
But I do not turn off my recorder. Not with Green sitting on a record $1.9 billion surplus and a chance to boldly turn Hawai‘i around—because you never know when he’ll say something. And with Josh Green as governor, it seems that words will be turning into action much more quickly than we’ve been used to.
How can Green still win over the Leg? “He’s the governor—and in Hawai‘i the governor holds most of the cards,” Moore says. And “unlike Gov. Ige, Green is very good at taking the fight directly to the people. The Legislature knows that, so it’s a credible threat. Second, he can threaten to veto bills that are near and dear to certain legislators. Third, and to the extent that Sylvia Luke remains an ally, he can dispatch her to make some deals. Green was never a particularly influential member of the Senate, but Luke still commands a lot of respect and power.”
The Legislature knows the public is angered by “public spats,” Moore says. “And they need Green to drive the state in the direction they all want to move.”