Puna State Senator Russell Ruderman tells the story of the controversial nomination of Carleton Ching to the chair of DLNR. As a state senator who sits on the Senate Water and Land Committee, Ruderman was heavily involved in the process to confirm Ching. After sizable public opposition to the governor’s choice, the likes of which has not been seen since the outcry against the infamous PLDC, the nomination was withdrawn.
Video by David Corrigan
PAHOA – It was hailed as a victory for environmentalists in Hawaii. The nomination of Carleton Ching to head the Department of Land and Natural Resources was withdrawn by Governor David Ige right before the final senate vote, following weeks of controversy. The nomination of the candidate with an extensive background in development insighted a public backlash, and ended up being a telling first test for the new Ige administration.
Recently, Puna Senator Russell Ruderman – who played a big role in the legislative process to confirm the nominee – shared his perspective on the tumultuous political saga.
Speaking to us from his Island Naturals Pahoa Market & Deli, Sen. Ruderman walked us through the story, in his own words, from beginning to end. The senator’s account includes the initial learning of the nomination and the social media-powered opposition that grew in the weeks that followed; the connections to the failed Public Land Development Corporation which ignited a similar outrage; the politics that went on behind the scenes in the days and hours before the final vote was scheduled; an assessment of the governor’s behavior during the confirmation process; and what it all means for the environmental movement in Hawaii.
Ruderman detailed his reasons for opposing the appointment of Ching in these comments, which he read on the second day of the Senate Water and Land Committee confirmation hearing (Thursday, Mar. 12).
In about a hundred votes on appointments, I have only voted “no” once and have never spoken against one. I take the situation seriously and feel the need to carefully explain my vote. It is not easy to oppose a nomination. But when I feel it will harm the future of our state, it is my job to rise above expedience and have the courage to do so. Doing this job and taking seriously our responsibility to be a check and balance against mistakes by another branch of gov’t, can be uncomfortable, but not doing it is inexcusable.
Mr. Ching is a genuinely nice guy. He’s very likable, has a good heart, and is obviously of high integrity. If confirmed I will work with him in good faith and support him in every way. But that is not the point. The question we face, which we are charged by the constitution to answer, is he qualified and capable of doing this important job?
I accept that I might not politically like a nominee, but he or she may still be qualified. This is not the case here. In this case, as an environmentalist, and one of the thousands who care so deeply about not only Hawaii’s short term economy, but about its long-term sustainability and unique natural resources, I must speak out about the great harm that confirming this nominee would bring. Not only potential harm to the environment and Hawaii’s precious shared resources, but also certain harm to the public trust in our government.
The comparison to PLDC is unfair: this is the PLDC times 10. Instead of a branch of DLNR devoted to development instead of preservation, we are now looking at refocusing the entire department through a lens of development instead of stewardship and preservation. Did we learn anything from that episode? How important is stewardship of our public lands to the people of Hawaii? Did we hear the outcry, or must we repeat history because we failed to learn that lesson?
I can find no better words to describe the situation than those of Mr Randy Awo, 27 years serving DLNR, culminating a head of DOCARE: “The nominee’s entire career track has been the polar opposite of DLNR’s mission.” He wisely pointed out that we cannot separate what someone does from who he is.
No one’s preparation for such a job is complete, Of course there will be a learning curve for anyone. But, we require subject matter expertise in every other department’s director. Would we hire a Tax director and ask that she learn accounting on the job? An A.G. w/o legal expertise? A Transportation director w/o transportation experience? Of course not. Yet in this case we are asked to approve a nominee with no experience, commitment or aptitude for the job. In such a complex and important department the lack thereof is a huge disqualification. Today we confirmed two Directors, each of whom had decades of specifically relevant experience in the subject matter.
To think that such subject matter experience and knowledge is not needed in this case, is to display a lack of concern for preservation and conservation. It displays a surprising dismissal of the concerns of those who care about our environment and cultural heritage.
It’s been said that no subject matter knowledge is needed; simple management experience is sufficient, then the nominee can learn on the job. But this nominee’s management experience in no way compensates for a complete lack of subject matter knowledge. Most of his experience is lobbying and development, not management.
The nominee has several times referred to land as a “Piece of dirt”. Not Aina, not land, not an important resource, but as a commodity to be used and profited extracted from it. Make use of it or let someone else do so. No concept of preservation, or the importance of maintaining this finite resource for future use. I find this telling. I find it deeply troubling and indicative of the narrow mindset of a developer versus a conservationist, nor even of someone who has a balanced view of such issues.
Endangered species – nominee says we must “evaluate, prioritize, & try to save the most important ones.” And this is true. But to a biologist, or conservationist, or a lover of God’s creation, there are no unimportant species. There is no ‘balance’ or sweet spot to be found in protecting endangered species. The right thing to do is to fight for each and every one. Just like ‘pieces of dirt’, once they are gone, they’re gone forever.
Where is a sense of stewardship, which is at the very heart of DLNR’s mission?
Advocacy for groups opposed to preservation and conservation is what comprises most of the nominee’s life experience – attempts to distance himself from those efforts is curious after longstanding commitment to those efforts. Claiming he was largely unaware of LURF and BIA’s efforts in the exact opposite direction is not acceptable.
Once again, a very nice guy, likable, with a good heart, and I am sincere in this. He’s good at what he does –this is not the point. It’s not sufficient. Sudden awakening to concern about the future is welcome but not sufficient to qualify. Willingness to abide by the law is welcome but not sufficient. Qualifications are required, and profoundly lacking. I’m glad he wants to work for Hawaii’s future, but his qualifications suggest a very different position would be in order.
If there were no better qualified applicants, then the answer is to cast a wider net. The assistance of the environmental and preservation community could have been sought, but was not. Several DLNR division leaders could be promoted, some are in this room, some not, resulting in a boost in morale instead of the demoralization this nomination will cause. We would then have someone with knowledge of the organization, the laws under which it operates, and its core and mission.
I again reference Mr. Awo- he was not only one of the most eloquent testifiers you heard from but by far the most qualified. He describes the level of concern within the department over this nomination is unprecedented. And the inappropriateness of this nomination as being on an entirely different level from any other previous nominee, and any previous director. My own discussions with staff in the Department, who are of course unable to express their views, confirms this.
DLNR’s mission is “Enhance, protect, conserve and manage Hawaii’s unique and limited natural, cultural and historic resources held in public trust for current and future generations of the people of Hawaii nei…”
Carefully absent is a mandate to develop, profit from, or treat as a commodity, or as expendable, Hawaii’s shared resources.
Endorsement of this nomination, aside from other appointees, comes almost exclusively from the development community. This glaring fact is really as important as the rejection by the preservation community in arguing for the rejection of the nomination. This is not a development department. This nomination is anathema to a commitment to the department’s mission.
The distrust and disillusionment of those who hope for a more fair, honest and open government is palpable. I need not point out the perception of revolving door among lobbyists and important positions of public trust. We all know how that works, and today we expect better.
What do we do with 90+% opposition from the public? If we remove development interest groups and appointees, the opposition is 98%. How cynical and arrogant would we be to ignore this? Mr Awo described the attempts to marginalize the opposition as irresponsible. I agree. Those who volunteer their time to work for the environment are not special interests! It is disturbing to hear the nominee characterize them as such.
I stand with those who genuinely take the DLNR’s mission statement to heart. Those of us who have demonstrated a commitment to environment and preservation are united that this choice is not only wrong, but disastrously wrong. We are united as no other issues other than the PLDC has united us, and for the exact same reasons.
As Mr. Awo implored us to do, I urge my colleagues: put aside political expedience and do what’s right for Hawaii now.
If we take our duty to advise and consent seriously, if we care about good government and public trust, if we care about the will of people we were elected to represent, or if we take the stewardship of Hawaii’s precious resources seriously, then we must reject this nomination.Sen. Russell Ruderman