A Chat With The Governor

On a recent visit to the Garden Isle, Gov. Neil Abercrombie took some time with ‘MidWeek Kaua’i’ to discuss front-burner issues such as the challenges of governing our island state, the GMO controversy here and partnering with Kaua’i on a new education program for our keiki

On a recent rainy Friday at Kaua’i Community College, MidWeek Kaua’i sat down with visiting Gov. Neil Abercrombie. Working within a short timeframe, he answered questions and also discussed topics important to him, primarily education and partnering with Kaua’i leaders on a program titled “Keiki to Career”

Is it difficult to be governor of an island state, where each is so different, yet state government touches everyone? If so, how?

Just the way you ask the question is almost its own answer. It’s not difficult. That’s what makes it fun, and I don’t mean that to sound frivolous. Not only is every island different, but different parts of every island are different.

On Hawaii Island, for example, there are eight or nine microclimates. You can see the changes as you drive around the curve – green and lush, and all of a sudden it’s barren of growth. There is an atmospheric change. People coming from elsewhere think “tropics, palm trees” and have this romantic idea of Hawaii. But for those of who live here, you’re asked: “Don’t you ever get island fever?” And I think, “Are you kidding?” There is a never-ending reservoir of interest in terms of beauty and revelation of the Islands to yourself the longer you’re here.

Kaua’i is a perfect example. Everybody knows I’ve said it is the most beautiful island – the sheer beauty, the sheer presentation of the island and everyday life. I love living in Manoa Valley, but when I think of the aesthetic impact that Kaua’i has … Hanalei, for example, the lookout is perhaps the single-most inspiring aesthetic.

And the color is different on Kaua’i. Every time I land at the airport and get out (except for today, because it is so cloudy and rainy), the colors are different. If you go to Venice, people will say the colors are more green, more vivid, but not more so than Kaua’i.

Each island has its own challenges, yes, but it’s not difficult, it is a privilege.

It’s been said that you’re less liberal as governor than you were previously. Do you see it that way?

It seems to me that when you’re a public figure – and I’ve been one almost 40 years now – what happens is people see you through the lens of their own eyes. If you agree with them on any particular thing, then you’re fulfilling their definition of liberal or radical, or whatever it is. If they managed to categorize you previously, and you don’t fit into that category later, then you’re a traitor to the cause or fallen from the path. Every evaluation like that has little to do with who you are or what your motivations are.

And in some instances, particularly now that I’m governor, your responsibilities are by definition of a different nature. So the decisions you make or viewpoints you espouse may seem different than to people who have seen you in a different context. So they redefine you in a different manner because the positions don’t fit with their idea of what you should be doing, saying or thinking. Yet their evaluations maybe never had to do with you in the first place.

Let me go way back. If you opposed the war in Vietnam, as I did when I ran for U.S. Senate in 1970 when I was a grad student, then you may have been categorized. The principal reason I felt against it was the military was being used for political purposes – either in a military sense or in the political sense. But that was an ideology that was categorized as anti-war, and I always said, “No, I’m pro-peace.” People said then, “Well, you’re a pinko, a Communist, a hippy, an ultra-liberal.” Well, then, I guess that’s what George Washington was, too, because he warned us of entangling alliances. My reasons for this are very concrete. I think we didn’t pay attention to the war causes. My point was, from that time on motivation was attributed to me, philosophy was attributed to me, which had very little to do with what my views were or not. All you can do is try to account for yourself. Otherwise, I would have to respond instance-by-instance as to what is liberal or not. I tend to never think in those terms.

I tend to think of what constitutes the common good. If I sum up my political philosophy, it has nothing to do with liberal or conservative because those have been denuded of any real meaning. Being liberal classically means you’re an individualist, having a broad-based education in the classics and literature. If you use that term today, you have to immediately put in all kinds of qualifiers as to what you actually mean. I can sum up by saying, look, my job, whether as a legislator or governor, is that if you take any given issue, everybody has a special interest. You have a special interest as a reporter for MidWeek. There is a multiplicity of interests one has. In fact, that was relevant at the time of the formation of the nation, in the Federalist Papers factions, in those days.

There are all kinds of special interests. The question isn’t of special interest any more than factions were for Adams, Jefferson and others. It is whether it becomes a private interest at the cost of the public interest. If it does, I will be an advocate for the public interest. If it doesn’t, I will be an advocate for the private interest.

What is your position on genetically modified organisms (GMO)? (The technology, the companies, the economic incentives?) Further, what is your position on GMO labeling, and do you think there are special cases when it comes to cultural practices, specifically the adulteration of the sacred kalo (taro) plant?

Everything should be investigated. Whether I support it is immaterial, as I have my own personal views, but I don’t have scientific expertise. I can read study after study on both sides, so I’m not going to throw darts at a board. My first exposure to the questions of gene-splicing modification experimentation, of course, had to do with sugar cane and pineapple, which were regulated. That has come to mean different things now, because the question of splicing is probably more accurate, in terms of agriculture, and is constant, and that, in and of itself, hasn’t been an issue for me. My first experience with that was as a little boy in western New York with all different kinds of apples. In fact, people would question departments of agriculture who weren’t doing that (genetic experimentation), because they were looking to get disease-resistant stuff and all the rest.

My first political experience was the irradiation of papaya, because it was going to have some adverse health effect, and they were sufficiently able to make that claim – to almost destroy the papaya industry, in fact – they did in terms of exporting to Japan. It was the same people who complained that the monoculture of pineapple and sugar cane were undermining the capacity of a niche industry like papayas to be able to succeed. About all we could do in those days was research on the fruit fly – and we were trying to alter the genetics of fruit flies – and no one complained. I had friends involved extensively in fruit-fly research to save fruit, bananas – everything in Hawaii.

So I’m a little skeptical of claims being made about disastrous health effects when it comes to genetic experimentation of one kind or another. Obviously, we have to pay attention to what scientific work takes place, and we will. I’m wide open on that. But I’m skeptical of claims that very quickly turn into accusations of conspiracies, or that political figures or public officials are deliberately and knowingly collaborating with agribusiness to give people cancer. No one is setting out to do that kind of thing.

In shipping fruit from state to state, we are the only state that has to deal with agricultural inspectors. And if sequester of those inspectors takes place, we will be in a real jam. I’m well aware of what happens when you’re stuck with an anachronistic issue. You have to have national legislation and a decision by the drug administration, or the requisite regulatory agencies in the Department of Agriculture chime in as to what is safe and not safe, and what constitutes food safety and doesn’t. Just because an opinion is vociferously held doesn’t make it true. There is a constitutional question that holds true, as well. So I’m very reluctant to state that the state of Hawaii should think it can impose its will and impose labeling on everything that comes into the state …

There are several measures, and they morph into one thing or another regarding labeling GMO. As to what I’d be required to do to obey the law is very problematic with me, and it is with the attorney general (David Louie). We don’t give testimony and take sides. When I talk with him, he is trying to give me advice as to what we can do legally. The labeling thing is very difficult, because I’m not sure I can impose on everybody else that they can’t do business in the state of Hawaii. I think we probably would be a lot better off in supporting legislation that encourages labeling of what is organic, and not to try to figure out how you can distinguish genetic modifications of one kind or another – which I think it would be almost impossible to do, at this stage.

A lot of times you get lost in the corners of the legislation, and the bigger issues get lost in the process. This is a matter of personal orientation, just as it was with the papayas. I could never comprehend, no matter how many times I was told about it, what it is that bothered those who were against it. They didn’t have to buy the papayas, but the publicity around it was such that they were able to effectively, by accusation alone, destroy it, just with the hysteria factor and intimidation and fear. And in those days there wasn’t Internet and blogs.

I know there is a lot of argument that corporations control the world. In this instance, the businesses associated with it are of longstanding here in Hawaii, and the people who are opposed to it are crystal-clear in their opposition. So people will have to make their own decisions on what they want to do with it in that regard. I don’t think the state could be useful. What is going on is an argument back and forth – adamantly stated positions, one way or another.

The position of the state in terms of having to enforce labeling absent some kind of decision nationally with regard to interstate commerce and the rest of it, I don’t think the things that are being proposed are enforceable. It may satisfy someone’s philosophical need, but as governor I have to be able to act in such a manner that is defensible legally.

You have made ambitious commitments to the students of this state, such as a laptop for every student. Where do you see yourself in terms of strengthening education in Hawaii?

By coincidence, where I’m going next is the “Keiki to Career” initiative meeting. This program, which incorporates early childhood development and education ideas – going back to Healthy Start in the ’80s – with a focus on ages 0 to third grade. If we can get a comprehensive, integrated program that incorporates not just preschool, but 0-third grade, then we will have made the single most fundamental investment in Hawaii’s future. And what a beautiful start Kaua’i has made with the Keiki to Career initiative! The Kaua’i complex area for the DOE is involved and, of course, catalysts in it are the Kaua’i Planning and Action Alliance.

The education I am trying to emphasize has to do with a couple of key elements: early childhood and development and education. The laptop/tablet/IT component is for every student in elementary school and middle school to be part of the 21st century. The key element for both is no class divide – it will individualize education. The emphasis is on children not getting lost in the group because they came in less prepared than others. I want to have an emphasis on preschool and standards – and I’m not talking just about day care. And seeing, too, that there is no class divide – no child should be deprived of the opportunity to maximize his or her abilities in school, or deprived of the capacity to do that in terms of equipment and infrastructure because of the income of their family or lack of it. It is immoral for a society to say to a child who is utterly dependent on the judgment of adults, “Your start in life is determined by money around you as opposed to your willingness and capacity to learn.”

And people struggle to make their preschool obligations. We want to invest in all children and see to it that we give them the good start in life. The good beginnings, that will pay huge dividends for Hawaii down the line – in terms of earning power, in terms of the collective well-being – for decades to come.