Interview: Governor Josh Green
Contributing editor Don Wallace sat down with Hawai‘i Governor Josh Green on February 1, 2023 for our April cover story. Read the full interview here.
HONOLULU Magazine: How do you do, Governor?
JOSH GREEN: Josh. Good to see you.
HM: A long time ago we spoke, back when I was doing the medical marijuana story for HONOLULU, and you were on the road on the Big Island and you gave me two hours of your driving life.
JG: Oh, my god.
HM: And I really appreciate it.
JG: I wish I had been a better legislator then. That would’ve been great, to be a better legislator. We’re going to get there now, on a lot of issues.
HM: But that’s what it takes, right? You have to learn.
JG: You do have to learn.
HM: I’ll say here that my mom was a politician, an accidental one. She threw me into it at 14: civil rights, public schools, the whole thing.
JG: Sounds a lot like my mom. She was an organizer with the National Organization for Women. My grandmother was a regional president of Planned Parenthood. So I grew up with those two very strong women figures in my life. And I was also born in Woodstock, New York, but we lived in Kingston.
HM: Were you a Woodstock baby?
JG: I was. I was in utero at the concert. (Loud laughter in the room, which includes communications director Makana McClellan, HONOLULU photographer Aaron K. Yoshino and art director Kayla Rivera, and others of the governor’s staff.) Yes. Yes. God knows what chemicals were coursing through my veins.
HM: Well, it was mostly rain.
JG: Rain and mud. We had a house in Woodstock until I was 18, although we lived in Pittsburgh, where I grew up.
HM: I know, I went to the same high school that JuJu did. (JuJu Smith-Schuster, wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers for years, now with the Kansas City Chiefs.)
JG: There you go. We’re big fans of JuJu. We’re bigger fans of Polamalu (Troy Polamalu, Hall of Fame safety with the Steelers), but we love JuJu. Let me clear off my desk.
HM: Keep it busy [for the photographer]. Because you are a guy who actually works.
JG: Before this morning, working on the diesel spill at top of Haleakalā. Just on with the secretary of the Air Force. So, yes, this job requires very early hours and very late hours, which is something that I love. On Haleakalā it’s a super-fluid situation; they’re going to remediate topsoil. These are the kinds of things that happen all the time.
HM: It’s like that movie Everything Everywhere All At Once.
JG: Yes. It never stops. That’s part of the honor of doing the job. This was my ER life beforehand [and] this is a direct translation of that.
HM: I’m just going to say, it’s been great so far. (This interview was conducted before Green’s first cabinet nominee hearing, for Ikaika Anderson as head of the Department of Hawaiian Homelands, which resulted in Anderson being voted down and subsequently withdrawing his nomination.) Where are we, the first 60 days?
JG: Let’s see. We started on the fifth of December and today is the first of February… so eight weeks, 56 plus two days, so 58.
HM: Those of us who are political junkies obsess on those first hundred days, first thousand days. Right now it seems we’re in a moment where the whole public finally understands how important politics is.
JG: I think because we are active and we also express ourselves. One of the nuances of our team, my team, is we share information openly and happily. It’s not always good news, but it’s kind of a cadence we got into with COVID. We studied up on COVID, and we just shared real numbers. (Points to a familiar whiteboard on an easel across from his desk.) In fact, those are numbers over your left shoulder that were up to date 48 hours ago, and that’s the hospital number that I’m still doing every Monday morning with all our health care leadership across the state. So I know what our challenges are. We really focus on getting data and taking action.
HM: Do you recall the moment when you decided to get into politics?
JG: I do. I was talking to one of my best friends. …I’m going to sneeze, wait a minute. … (Laughter in the room.) Yes, there was too much vinegar on my salad. If I sneeze it could expel some gyro meat, so beware.
HM: It’s from the gyro place?
JG: Yeah. If it happens we’ll all know it.
HM: I’ll bottle it.
JG: Oof. That’ll be dangerous. Genetic.
HM: Sell it.
JG: You will not make any money. Actually, I do remember the day, anyway, I decided to run for office; it was April 1 of 2003. I was in the midst of my service as a National Health [Service] doctor and I’d just come off a very long shift in the ER, where it had been tough. There were children who’d had serious injuries and there were limited services down in Ka‘ū, trauma services and drug treatment services, because both were implicated. So… (wheels, grabs Kleenex, sneezes)
JG: I protected you there. So it was April 1 and I was talking to this lifelong friend who has a background in political science and advocacy and I said I’d been thinking about this for some time and I just wanted to make a point that people deserve more access to health care. Especially in our rural parts of the state. The conversation continued and I just decided that I would prepare for the possibility of running for office the following year, which takes a year, in my mind, to prepare for, to do right. To be honest I didn’t have much expectation that I would win, but I did want to really be able to express myself during the campaign, as a physician, that these were needs. Win or lose, that’s fine, I would continue on no matter what as a doctor. But, as fate would have it, I ended up winning.
HM: By how much?
JG: By not a lot. By 8%. It was 500 or 600 votes total. There’s an interesting story there. The previous Democratic candidate, who had lost to a Republican, a first-term Republican in the seat, they had lost by 20%. So the Kona District had been written off as far too conservative for a person like me or any Democrat to win. 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. 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.
Also this—I know you’ll like this because you’re a junkie on these kinds of things—I was asked to help with a free clinic that was run by the Salvation Army. The doctor had fallen into drug addiction problems and they needed someone just to cover the clinic and sign charts and see the most complicated patients. And I started doing two half-days a week just to support them, right down in the middle of Kona.
A couple things happened. One, that clinic ultimately then led to a group of people coming together to start a community health center. It got developed and approved, and now employs over 200 people. That’s the West Hawai‘i Community Health Center and it’s a part of the whole Big Island system, because they just merged or fused with Bay Clinic. Ironically, I was working at Bay Clinic because that was how I was recruited to come to Hawai‘i with the National Health Service. So that all came together.
And at the same time, I’m told, a lot of individuals who were behind the clinic at the Salvation Army and Catholic Church, they registered 300 homeless individuals in Kona to vote, and they all voted, presumably for their doctor. And that’s how these smaller elections sometimes get determined. And that’s what happened. And so somewhat to my shock, I won. We didn’t find out until very early hours of the morning.
I woke up the next day and was a state representative and got a call from none other than Neil Abercrombie, who was in Congress…to congratulate me and to encourage me to be idealistic and to start my career. Which I did. (Today, he calls Abercrombie a friend.) And I met my wife (Jaime Kanani Urishoda Green) two weeks later when I came over here.
HM: How did you meet her?
JG: I met her here at the Senate, or the Legislature; she had been working as a committee clerk for Susie Chun Oakland, who is also a dear family friend of ours now. And—I saw her—and hit on her—and…(laughter in room) was able to succeed over some time.
HM: Can we put that on a plaque?
JG: Yeah. You can.
HM: Saw her. Hit on her. And…
JG: Demonstrated some success in marriage since.
HM: This is good.
JG: We got married the next year, and had our first baby, Maia, two years after our first date, which was Jan. 11, 2005. And we got married and had Maia…
HM: Jan. 11.
JG: Right, which is Maia’s birthday. Which is the only reason I can remember that, frankly.
HM: I think it’s great.
JG: It’s hard to remember a first date. But that’s a good trigger.
HM: You set a high bar.
JG: Our first date was incredible. We went to a cultural medley of performances like you’d never imagine over at the Hawai‘i Theatre, and a performer named [Genoa] Keawe was singing, and the first time you see that is mind-blowing. We were sitting in the front row because I was a newly elected state rep and they gave me a nice place to sit. And I came in with this young first date, Jaime, and things went well and now she’s the first lady.
HM: You impressed her, in other words.
JG: I don’t know about that…
HM: She was working for a senator. So actually she wasn’t impressed.
JG: She’s like a local girl; Jaime’s great. The short version is, grew up here, in Kāne‘ohe, she lost her mom when she was 9, very tough, raised by her aunties who were incredible…was a star student even though they were very poor. She got scholarships to ‘Iolani, then to Brown, and then to Richardson (the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa William S. Richardson School of Law). And she has her law degree. All these things led to her experimenting with her job at the Capitol and then to advocacy. She switched over to work in family law for a couple years because we got started on our family pretty quickly with our marriage. I was already 36.
HM: That’s my son’s age now.
JG: Get it going.
HM: We can’t really say that…
JG: No, I can say it. I’m the governor. Hints can start dropping. (Laughter in the room.) Go ahead. Tell them.
HM: It’s [political] training to work in a rural area. You came from a rural area, Woodstock; we know it well.
JG: It’s beautiful there.
HM: Beautiful but hard. Unless you’re a hippie making music.
JG: We lived next door to John Sebastian (singer-songwriter of the Lovin’ Spoonful, whose hits include “Do You Believe in Magic” and “Summer in the City”).
JG: We vacationed there when we lived in Pittsburgh, because we kept the house all those years, and whenever our dogs would get loose, he had big dogs up the street, a quarter-mile up Zena Road. His big dogs would come out and I would just run for cover. And John would run out…
HM: They were there to keep all the girls away.
JG: Probably to keep them in. (Laughter in the room.)
HM: We could do this forever.
JG: Yes. So I did my training at college in Philadelphia at Swarthmore, which was probably my best education experience for sure, but then went to Penn State med school, and my residency at Shadyside. They focused on rural health, I was a family practitioner, and the assignment in Ka‘ū was utterly rural. I mean, I became the doctor for 8,000 patients, which is far more than normal. But there was nobody. And it was great. And this was important. Because this was my immersion in the culture. There’s 4,000 Native Hawaiian patients, 4,000 Filipino patients, and like 15 witness relocation people from New York. It’s amazing.
HM: So that’s where they put them.
JG: In Ocean View.
HM: With interesting health problems.
JG: Oh yeah. You can only imagine. And so that experience, to be—you’re normally supposed to have 1,800 patients and I had 8,000—and you’re on your own, right? It was a great experience. And it helped me to really understand the culture here.
HM: And that has made a big difference.
JG: All the difference. I mean, no way I would actually be chosen to serve in the House and the Senate, and then lieutenant governor, without them. In fact, just from a sheer numbers game I was elected lieutenant governor mostly because the numbers were still so big on the Big Island. I cared for probably a third to a half of all the families on the Big Island in 20 years, or rather for 16 years when I ran for LG. So I won that island by, I don’t know, 13,000 votes. Which is a big margin. And I lost at the time, by a smaller margin, in O‘ahu, Maui and Kaua‘i. But such a large margin on the Big Island supported me that I ended up being lieutenant governor.
And then obviously the experience of being a lieutenant governor/physician during COVID I got to meet the rest of the state.
HM: Right. And I’m just going to jump ahead here, because I was in New York during 9/11, and I saw what happened with [New York Mayor Rudy] Guiliani, and I also studied Mexican revolutionary politics, and one of the things I learned was revolutions don’t last if they happen instantly, and leaders don’t last if they happen instantly.
HM: And you got a two-year burn-in with COVID.
HM: What did that teach you?
JG: It taught me how to work with a large team. It taught me how to address extremely complex problems. Because it was not just COVID, it was also the economy, and our survival, it was an existential problem economically and from a health standpoint.
So it forced me to dig deep into all my training, both during medical school and before. And it also gave me an opportunity to really be an executive branch member. Because normally a lieutenant guv doesn’t necessarily get to do much that’s consequential, but I definitely did. And those lessons prepared me.
I’ll be totally blunt. Just being able to be seen and to express who I am gave people an opportunity to judge me. For real.
So at one point my name recognition was higher than the president’s in Hawai‘i because I was on TV so much talking to people. I mean, there were good days and bad days but it was the most comprehensive exposure to the community that has probably ever happened in Hawai‘i in that two-year period. And so, I’m grateful. I’m grateful for that experience to try to help people, but I’m also grateful that people got to make an informed choice about me, rather than to just see cliches or only know a sliver of me. I think I can say confidently they know me, for good or ill.
HM: Right. We’re in an era when people who go on television a lot, they have an advantage. You didn’t have to do The Apprentice.
JG: Yeah. In my capacity as the COVID liaison, and because I’m a physician, I had the ability to contact every hospital, every provider, every community, over and over again. Even now. I mean, this is my book now, see…
(Green takes a red notebook and opens it flat on his desk. It’s well-used, the edges worn. The pages he leafs through while talking are covered in hand-drawn grids in blue ink, each square filled with a number. Some pages have entries pasted-in over older ones.)
JG: So these are the numbers that are in our hospital as of today, in each hospital. This was this Monday, this was last Monday, and it goes back two years.
HM: This is your Moleskine.
JG: Exactly. And it’s matched by my list of top priorities for our state…
(Green flips pages toward the back to a single page filled top-to-bottom and to the edges with single-line entries. He reads down the list.)
JG: Justice reform, Hawaiian Homelands, Hawai‘i tourism contract, stadium, RFP, Hawai‘i Life Flight, corrections, housing, emergency proclamation. … There are a few other things.
HM: Is this on one page or two?
JG: It’s on a series of pages in the book. But every week I update the top list. I find it helpful because it enables me to do a quick survey of where we are. The truth is, as lieutenant governor I had a small team, wonderful people, and I was able to keep all of them. One of the incredible things is every single person on my lieutenant governor staff came over. All of them. And then now we’ve added 500% more people including Cabinet members and a communications team and so many people. Yeah, it’s a lot more people. Before I didn’t have to manage more than a handful of personalities and skill sets. And now I need order. I’m grateful that we have good people, good-hearted people with great skills stepping up.
HM: And that helps the transition. But also, things are happening.
JG: People have been really good. I try to live up to every promise we made. We’re going to take action quickly on homelessness, on housing, on the stadium, on Red Hill. I wish I could move even more quickly but that might freak everybody out. …It’s less than 60 days in and there’s a lot of big pieces of state operations moving forward.
HM: Also you have to be mindful of your partners, and that’s been a change. I mean obviously there was some posturing in the beginning, people were saying you have to come through us, and people were saying, well, now it’s going to turn sour. So, how has it been? Did you go back channel, did you meet people in the Legislature, did you just go over with the whiteboard and start talking?
JG: Well, I did a lot of that. This morning we had all of the freshmen over at Washington Place, along with the speaker of the House and the Senate president and all of my Cabinet that was available, over for breakfast. Bacon.
JG: Even though I’m Jewish. So we did that. Yesterday I had two separate meetings with the Senate president and one with the speaker of the House on these key issues. So it’s constant. I also went down to the Senate majority caucus, which of course is 23 out of the 25 members, and sat with them and had Korean food. On opening day.
HM: You’re living well.
JG: Yeah, we’re with each other, together. There are moments, you know. We had a brush-up with one senator because it got too heated, in my opinion, between he and my Housing chairwoman. So we’ll address that.
(At a hearing before the Hawaiian Homelands Commission, Republican Sen. Kurt Fevella said, among other things, that Housing chair nominee Nani Madeiros was “the devil” and not a Hawaiian. [She is.] Green immediately issued a two-page letter charging harassment and Fevella apologized.)
But in general we’ll move forward together. It’s my responsibility to bury my ego now and get things done. And this is very easy for me to do. Because this is the job of a lifetime, this is the biggest honor I could ever get. So I just want to be sure we get some results. And 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.
The way I view this is, we came through COVID, which was a dark time, for everybody. We emerged from COVID, we have a totally new Legislature, 18 freshmen coming in, which is a full third of the House. And a new administration. We use the word huliau, rebirth. So it’s really happening.
At the same time there’s a surplus, and a surplus of problems. So it’s well matched. Now perspectives can be rebooted and [we can] spend the money on people’s needs.
HM: Let’s talk about GAP (Green Affordability Plan), the first piece of a concrete progressive/working-class program that I’ve seen in my eight years of covering the state.
JG: It’s mind-blowing, isn’t it? It’s hard for me to understand how, when we had surpluses in the past, we didn’t reform the tax code. Personally. But now we have a big surplus and it’s a result of two things—would you like a soda?
HM: No thanks. I don’t have three hands.
JG: You can use your left hand.
HM: You’re a Diet Pepsi man!
JG: (Plunks down can in front of interviewer.)
HM: I have to now. Refreshing!
JG: Yes. If I had a bigger cup you’d be SOL. So the federal monies came in and like every state was given some rescue from the federal money. But also, the biggest thing that we did economically was create the Safe Travels program. That opened us up on Oct. 15, 2020. We were able to restore 80% to 85% of our economic activity, so that created a surplus of resources, even though it was really tough for people between March when the state closed and October, and tough subsequently for a lot of small businesses. But we now have this super surplus of resources and I think it was difficult for the previous administration to, number one, get proactive in the last two years of the administration. It’s not normal [for administrations to get proactive]; that doesn’t normally happen. But they didn’t do it.
HM: Although it’s a crisis. “Never waste a crisis.” Rahm Emmanuel.
JG: I would’ve raced right in. It’s easier when you’re in your first two years than in your last two years. And there was this cloud of a global pandemic over everyone so they really didn’t know what was safe. For example, we had to rebuild the public health system, but we still had people afraid to go to the hospital. And we had to bolster the workforce with resources but we didn’t know for sure we would have them in that first year.
So I think now when we wake up and we see these big surpluses and big problems, now it’s perfectly matched, but in fairness to the previous governor, they were being cautious.
HM: It was very difficult.
JG: Yeah. It was super-difficult. It was difficult also because the previous governor was an engineer and was very thoughtful about process—and to make transformational change, if you’re a process guy, it’s harder. If you’re a person who deals with emergencies it’s less difficult to pull the trigger.
HM: And he had a really bad infrastructure. I mean, I’ve talked to Christine Sakuda [of the Transform Hawai‘i Government coalition] during this time…
JG: Yeah, she’s super.
HM: And from her I understand how many siloed tech departments there were and how everything failed. No matter how much [then-Gov. David] Ige wanted to get those checks out, he couldn’t.
HM: Is it fixed up to the point that you have the first-ever Hawai‘i government that is linked and has an infrastructure?
JG: We’re getting there. That is a priority. One of the first things that I did was I insisted that our Cabinet break down every barrier between themselves. We just had a Cabinet meeting, and when you come into our office, and you’re welcome to, when we have these Cabinet meetings, you’ll see that a lot of these Cabinet directors will linger for an hour, speaking with their colleagues, having essentially meetings in real time with three, four, five department directors or deputies. The attitude is, “This is our priority expressed in our State of the State address or in our master plans; let’s not wait six months to each assess and give our input and then reboot the conversation. Let’s do it in real time.” Which I think is great. …We’ve learned a lot of the lessons that had to be learned, which is we do need a lot of infrastructure help. But that’s going to take a lot of time and that will benefit from a lot of the process work that had to happen that the [previous] governor was really into. I’m grateful for that. There’s still some challenges.
HM: So it’s not all fixed.
HM: Now for GAP, one of the things that people were focusing on for years were minimum wage increases, which causes problems for small businesses because it bites them. So you took the “sword of Damocles” and you’ve cut the knot. Right?
HM: How’d you come up with that plan?
JG: Which particular part do you mean, about cutting the knot?
HM: Where you’re putting together all the tax breaks, the aid, the three levels, the subsidies, and the breaking it out by income…
JG: Yes. What I did, I instructed our team to first look at the macro problem, which was the ALICE families in our state (a United Way acronym, ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) now have essentially begun to outnumber all other families, so the fundamental reality was confirmed. Too many people are struggling to afford to live in Hawai‘i. Once that was clear and it was clear to everyone, I got the UHERO team together to give us initial ideas—that’s our University of Hawai‘i economic team—and I got our tax department together and told them, “I need a package that will actually change affordability for families. And you can come at it any way you want as long as it helps those families for real.”
So the combination of having economists doing the macro- and microeconomics with the tax leaders who knew which levers to be used, worked perfectly. They were able to show us exactly what will happen.
Now the Legislature will still modify it. I had a conversation with the speaker yesterday and they may try to make sure it’s as straightforward as possible. Which is good. They may err on the side of earned income tax credits and tax credits for our citizens who have kids in school. Which has a double benefit because people can then be able to be in our workforce while they’re being able to afford pre-K.
So we’ll see what they ultimately approve. But, once again…going back to our core principals, we’re not leaving this building unless we give $300 million of tax relief to these ALICE families. And that will mean they can survive here, pay their rent, and all that money goes back here, into our economy, every penny.
I keep sticking to those fundamentals. I go back to my notes, over and over—(consults his Moleskine)—those fundamentals help me to not have mission drift.
HM: Right. I know we’re running low on time here…
(A call comes in from communications director Makana McClellan: “You’ve got 10 more minutes.”)
MM: You’re welcome!
HM: …to finish this Pepsi.
JG: Can I get extra Pepsi?
HM: I like the way you were able to adapt when Native Hawaiians with the state of emergency proclamation said, “Wait a minute! What about the iwi?” You immediately knew, “Oh, we’re going to change that.” But previous administrations have had a tendency to just freeze, and not just in Hawai‘i. They just don’t want to admit…
JG: We’re the opposite. Because again, this is the honor of a lifetime, I don’t sweat those kinds of things. For example, I got a letter from the Civil Beat Law Center; they wanted more transparency and I said, OK. And that saved me months and months of fighting with them.
HM: And all their articles.
JG: Yeah! And then we’ll probably, we should, be able to express ourselves openly. And I hope that we’re appreciated. I am a sensitive person, it turns out, which is counter to the job. They gave me a shirt that says, “I’m Sensitive!” on it. Black shirt with white lettering. I want people to trust government, to trust my team. We went through tough times with what happened at the Legislature the last couple of years…
JG: There’s a lot of tasks in front of me. One’s 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. And finally there’s some big issues that people want to address once and for all and we get to take ’em up. And that includes, just to run the list, right, the stadium, reforming tourism and management of tourism, addressing homelessness definitely, building houses for 30 [thousand] 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.
HM: There’s a lot.
JG: A lot. So I’m just not going to wait. At all. What I say often, at speeches and things, I’m guessing that four out of five times I’m going to get it right. 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. That’s just meant to help homeless individuals, so we clarified that; and we’re going to be careful about the environment, but we’re only talking about 25 acres total. Sometimes just clarification helps. But there’ll be more. There are going to be some moments. Because in order to get this giant list of things done, I can’t sit back and wait. So if I miss it one of the five times, and I really miss the mark, I have every expectation that people will speak up and we’ll fix that.
HM: And that’s something we just haven’t seen. I think it’s because you worked for a living for a long time.
JG: I worked full time in the ER from the first time I got to Hawai‘i, plus my clinic job, all the way to when I became lieutenant governor, and I worked essentially half time, which is weekends…as lieutenant governor, and now I only work as a governor because that’s the right thing to do. It also I think is the law.
HM: As it turns out.
JG: Yeah. (Laughter in the room.) So I’ll volunteer a bit, for free.
HM: You can wear the scrubs for Halloween.
JG: I wear ’em in the morning when I go out, for walks. But they make me take ’em off between 8 [a.m.] and 5 p.m.
HM: Let’s talk housing, since that’s everyone’s favorite thing to chew on. When I moved to New York, it was tower town, and saw the Cabrini-Green Homes, no relation, these massive projects to house people. They were not the answer. So how are we going to get around the tower problems and keep Hawai‘i Hawai‘i?
JG: So it’ll be mixed I think. It’s on a spectrum. Start with the easiest thing to describe, which is to deal with the homeless concerns that we have, to build kauhale, which are very low-impact villages. Very low cost. Quickly we’ll move to a mix of housing that will include Department of [Hawaiian] Home Lands, which in my opinion will include some single-family houses and some multigenerational housing units and buildings. So that’s $600 million plus resources that will surely come in. And each of the counties is going to chart their own course.
I will say this, I’m not sure it’s breaking news, I do intend to release an emergency proclamation on housing on March 15, which marks 100 days for our administration. We’ve done a lot in our first 58 days but have a lot to do in the next 42. That emergency proclamation will help us to really move past the impasse that we have with permitting with some of the more excessive codes. Say, certain wind codes, or window codes, those kind of things, which first of all people are ignoring a lot of the time in rural areas and building unpermitted structures. I’d like to make it more sensible and more direct.
And we’re going to put some incentives that really help what the mayor is doing. Mayor [Rick] Blangiardi is building two affordable 201H projects so we’ll add some support there so people can quickly do them. Getting out of the way of some of the builders makes sense. Again carefully, along the rail, very sensitive to our environmental concerns. But we’ll do it. I don’t know if people know this, but we have 50,000 units of housing that were already dispositioned. They had been given the green light but a lot of things got stuck. If we just build those houses and we took a hard look and cracked down on illegal Airbnbs we’d be getting pretty close to our inventory needs. So we’re going to push on all these things.
I want to respect the Legislature, though, and have them come up with some of the solution along the way, right with us. They are. They’ve got great ideas. But the Leg moves slowly. Our administration does not move slowly. We will move briskly and then adopt and implement their recommendations as they make them. But they have their own process and I have my own approach.
HM: And you’ve got a bully pulpit.
JG: I do. I’ve been honored to have people listen to what I’m trying to say. It’s 20 years in the making. For years I was admittedly kind of a back-bench person in the House and Senate. They put me in committees that weren’t necessarily the power committees, though the Health and Human Services Committee turned out to be quite important since we have a homeless crisis. But I watched and studied, for all those years, the things we could do. And I especially studied the processes that were too slow for us.
Meanwhile, new problems surged. Homelessness used to be caused by poverty and alcoholism back in the day. And now it’s based on methamphetamine addiction and mental illness and the consequences of those drugs, in addition to poverty. So we’ll address poverty but it’s a health problem.
HM: It’s a totally different animal.
JG: But we haven’t changed our approach to it. Right? Used to be churches would take in the two or three individuals in their community that had a problem and then it was gone. Now you have thousands of individuals struggling with their mental health issues and you know, some drift into self-medication and end up hurting themselves and ultimately can’t be cared for by their families anymore, so they end up on the street. That’s why we emphasize ‘ohana, that we are a family. It’s important. That’s central to the kauhale initiative, but it has to be central to all of our solutions.
We saw it. If one person is reckless and has a bad virus, it spreads across the globe. If one set of people, in a small community, are houseless and use the emergency department every day, there’s no space or money for other people to get their own care. And it affects a lot of our environment.
HM: Going to the ER, calling the ambulance.
JG: Constantly. We’re peaking at COVID and we still had individuals who were homeless still using the ER nine to 12 times per person per year. We just didn’t have capacity. These solutions benefit from the combined perspective that I have.
HM: The city and county hold a lot of power. It’s really an interesting state, Hawai‘i; it’s two things dueling. Immediately you made an announcement with Mayor Blangiardi. That was rare and unusual and people said wait a minute, aren’t they supposed to be fencing awhile?
HM: So how did that come about?
JG: I like the guy. He makes my hairline look better.
HM: Wait. He makes your hairline…
JG: So I like to be around him. He’s very generous with his advice and we believe in the same thing, which is take care of people. It’s very interesting because Mayor Blangiardi, Rick, he’s much more conservative than I am. But we came together and discussed, this is before I announced for lieutenant governor and before he became mayor, we discussed whether one or two of us, or which one, would run for higher office and when. That was a discussion in the parking lot of Queen’s when we were working on homelessness. He was general manager at Hawai‘i News Now and I was working on projects, for instance as a state senator trying to create the H4 project, and there we were. We believed the same thing: that if you provided care for individuals that were struggling on the streets, that would help the city and the state. As you know, he was very outspoken about it. And so was I. Him from a more conservative perspective and me from a more liberal perspective. But we had the same belief. That’s carried through to now.
Ultimately he decided to not run for governor that year, and I decided to run for lieutenant governor. He subsequently ran for mayor.
HM: So it’s a partnership, essentially?
JG: Absolutely. It’s more than a partnership, it’s a friendship. I really appreciate him; I like all the mayors, but I appreciate him because we overlap in our day to day more. Two-thirds of our people live on O‘ahu and so two-thirds of the people I’m trying to be supportive of every day are right here. The urban challenges are also unique to Honolulu. So we’re a good team.
What that really means, no matter what he asks as long as it will help 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 also, we can avoid duplication of resources. If he asks for a piece of land to be used by the city to help people, I will say yes. If I ask for resources like his CORE program to help intervene in the emergency medical system and get people into the right spot, he says yes.
So there’s example after example after example. I wish we could do those faster and that’s why we’re doing some of those emergency rules.
HM: Colin Moore says honeymoons are often very short in Hawai‘i. Do you think you’re going to be able to do a two-year honeymoon? Do you think we have a rally going?
JG: Well, we probably do. For one thing, I’ve known my colleagues downstairs since I came into office in 2004. It’s not like this is a new relationship. And we’ve been fine. …Like all political people, there are moments, right? But, I have a lot of friends in this building who know we need to help people, and two-thirds of the state were very generous in their support of me and Jaime. So that’s a good thing.
Also, you’re right, it’s unique, because Mayor Rick is committed to the city and I’m committed to the state. We’re not on the same political track. That means we don’t have to have the silly battle. He came into politics as a veteran executive and this was the dream job for him and he got it and I’m glad he did. For me, I had this dual existence between health care and being a legislator so this became a dream job for me, to get to serve as governor. So we’re in this space where there’s utterly no need to ever disagree with one another. It’s almost too much agreement for some, because a lot of people get off on the battles that go on behind the curtain.
HM: You’re talking about the press, aren’t you?
JG: Yeeeah. (Laughter in room.) Sometimes. Wouldn’t you guys rather cover a building somewhere, or getting a community of homeless off the street, or getting everyone access to health care? And those seem like better stories. But, you know, disasters are sometimes more dramatic.
But we’ll give you that, too, because there’s plenty of them. That Hawai‘i Life Flight. The global pandemic. We’ve had a measles epidemic we dealt with. We’ve got all kinds of disasters to share in the news. But most of the real life stuff is getting enough teachers to stay in Hawai‘i, making sure people get their medications, making sure people don’t get so poor they have to leave and go live in Las Vegas and get addicted to blackjack.
MM: One more question?
HM: OK, yeah. I really appreciate this. Let’s talk about Lt. Gov. [Sylvia] Luke and her role, because that’s another big thing where you’ve made common cause, put down the drawbridges.
JG: Common purpose, yeah. Having experienced what it was like to be a lieutenant governor without a lot of access or formal responsibility that I had to go seize myself, I was sensitive about that. Sylvia and I go way back. She and I worked together in my four years as a House member then across the aisle, across the two chambers, the House and Senate, so we’ve known each other a long time. She has a great deal of experience and many relationships. She’s spent more hours with legislators across the decades than I did, especially during the last four years when I was focused almost singularly on COVID and homelessness. So, I always figure, play to people’s strengths.
I’ll give you a provocative comment, which is [that] 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. I think better to employ people at their best. And that is 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 and, if we do a good job, have many years to craft it, to perfect it, and see a generational change in Hawai‘i. If we do a good job. I don’t take anything for granted. I look at this as a four-year commitment where people will judge me, and if I’m doing well I’ll get to spend more time at the job.
She, as a lieutenant governor with large responsibilities—remember her staff is a lot smaller than the governor team, so one or two major projects can completely overwhelm. But she has that capacity and I’ve even asked for some additional positions for her to grow what she can do. And I think this is what people expect.
Why have a governor and lieutenant governor if you’re not going to use them?
HM: People are always saying it’s a do-nothing job. We even had one lieutenant governor who left, saying “I’m bored.”
JG: Yeah. And I like that guy.
HM: And we won’t be bored, right?
JG: No way. In fact, you’re going to get tired. We will fatigue you with action.
HM: OK, I’m going to be generous and say we’ve got to stop. But I really appreciate this.
JG: There’s some gyro meat here…I think you probably got the story. But let me give you some other quick things. On Monday I leave for my first National Governors Association Meetings and I’ll be meeting with people that I hope can help Hawai‘i. Pete Buttigieg, the HUD secretary, several senators and the president of the United States, which will happen to occur on my birthday, which will be my 53rd birthday. So it’s going to be fun to be there but I’m hoping to be able to show them what Hawai‘i is capable of, talk about housing and health care, try to get them also excited about solutions. Like we are.
You know, none of that is particularly divisive or partisan. I’m looking forward to that next week. This is the beginning of a lot of national relationships that in my opinion will hopefully boomerang back to help us here in Hawai‘i, mostly with resources, but also with new partnerships. So that’s one. I’ll be the only doctor. I’m the only physician-governor in the country. And I intend to use that to help them with issues like homelessness, gun violence and addiction. If I’m successful, Hawai‘i will rub off on more people.
HM: Hawai‘i will rub off.
MM: Don, we’re overflowing your cup.
HM: As a journalist it’s been, uh, you have to stop and wait for them to say things, and it’s been like tooth-pulling for five years.
JG: Not anymore.
(We get up and exit the office to the outdoor terrace for the photo shoot, Green talking as we walk.)
JG: Not knowing whether it will overwhelm everyone else. It’s conceivable. Someone did a cartoon, that Pritchett guy, I think. It says, “Will Green bite off more than he can chew?” It was a bento plate with homelessness, health care and so on. It was actually pretty thoughtful. So it’s interesting. There’s no alternative. You have to take on everything if you’re governor or the president. Whoever the executive branch is. You have to. That’s why you have big feet. So to me, I love it, but everyone else is, “Hey you only took on two things in eight years, now you’re trying to do 12.”
HM: We’ll see how that works.
JG: Exactly. I don’t have the luxury of just taking on two. We’ve even done the little things; some things we do are in the unconscious mind. See these picnic tables? Those picnic tables are not just because I like to picnic, although I do like to picnic. It’s because people can now come up and talk to one another, to the public.
HM: So they’re new.
JG: They were put in yesterday. As you can see, the pigeons are gone. So they’re there so people in the Leg can come together and see my directors, or my directors from three different departments can get together and I can buy them some sandwiches or pizza. And just be there in a different way. Now we need some plants because it’s kind of dark up here. But [with] that kind of change…all of a sudden someone might make a $100 million commitment on climate change, because we’ve been needing this, the chance to say, “I meant to ask you…”
HM: And informally.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Look my way, look up above my head, to the left…