No chance for Ching

LIHUE — Opinions from local representatives and conservation groups were split after Gov. David Ige on Wednesday withdrew his nomination of Carleton Ching to lead Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources.

The first-year governor withdrew the nomination after it became clear the state Senate wasn’t going to confirm his selection, drawing praise and disappointment from those who’d been following the political situation.

“This is a very sensitive issue, because of so much vocal opposition,” Rep. Daynette “Dee” Morikawa wrote about the governor’s withdrawal. “I personally felt that Mr. Ching was a good choice and would have represented a balanced view of state land issues.”

The Democrat, whose district spans from Koloa to Niihau, said it’s difficult for everyone in the state to be pleased with one nomination, which makes it hard on elected officials, who are charged with representing their constituents’ best interests.

“I’m sure they understand that we are not able to please everyone,” she wrote. “While watching Mr. Ching’s hearings, I felt his sincerity in wanting to do what’s right, in wanting to protect our homeland. Of course he didn’t have all the answers, but that’s what the department staff is for. No outside appointee to a large department will understand the workings of the department right away.”

The Senate met Wednesday to vote on the nomination. But after a series of recesses that lasted nearly an hour, Senate President Donna Mercado Kim announced that Ige had sent a message withdrawing Ching from consideration.

The withdrawal came after Ching faced substantial opposition because of his background as a land developer. Environmental groups and some senators said Ching lacked experience and understanding of environmental issues, and his professional experience wasn’t the right preparation for safeguarding the state’s land and coastline.

Ige, in a news conference after the withdrawal, said there was broad-based support for Ching throughout the process, but it became clear that Ching didn’t have the support of a majority of senators shortly before Wednesday’s Senate session.

“From my perspective, I did not want to put Carleton or his family through a floor vote if we did not have a majority support,” Ige said.

The full Senate never took a public vote on the appointment.

“We escaped the idea of going on record and making statements and having a vote, and for that I’m very sorry,” said Republican Sen. Sam Slom, who had voted in committee to recommend approving Ching.

Ching had said his employment at development firm Castle & Cooke doesn’t define him, but that wasn’t enough to overcome opposition expressed by thousands of constituents. Last week, a Senate water and land committee recommended a “no” vote on Ching after a day and a half of hearings.

Some supported the decision.

“Sierra Club Kauai group applauds Gov. Ige’s decision to withdraw Mr. Ching’s nomination,” wrote Rayne Regush, executive committee member of Sierra Club Kauai group, which had publicly opposed the nomination. “We’re very grateful to all those who took time to write and call their legislators and this positive outcome was likely due to the groundswell of public opinion.”

Makaala Kaaumoana of Hui Hoomalu I Ka Aina, a North Shore-based environmental conservation and stewardship group, also welcomed the news.

The group publicly opposed the nomination and Kaaumoana said Wednesday that “it’s now the responsibility of those of us who thought he was the wrong guy to provide the governor with some names for his consideration.”

“I think it was clear during the committee process that the concerns we had at the beginning were well founded. I’m hopeful that some people will step up and will realize that this is very important,” Kaaumoana said.

The issue emerged as the first test of Ige’s ability to work with his former colleagues in the Senate. Despite the prevailing sentiment opposing his pick, Ige stood by Ching, at one point even interrupting the Senate committee confirmation hearing to defend Ching and to challenge committee Chairwoman Sen. Laura Thielen’s line of questioning.

The nomination put some senators in a difficult spot, giving them a choice between fulfilling the wishes of many constituents and going along with Ige, a respected former colleague and friend.

Ige will now have to recommend a new nominee for the position. In the interim, acting chairman Carty Chang will continue to lead the department.

“We recognize that the governor has Hawaii’s best interest at heart, and we’re looking forward to working with him to find a suitable nominee for the position,” said Marti Townsend, executive director of The Outdoor Circle, an environmental organization. “We are definitely working on our own list of people to consider.”

Ige, when asked whether he would steer clear of a candidate with a similar background, said he was not going to label people or “put them into boxes.”

“For anyone wanting to offer nominations, I’m again willing to consider anyone who’s interested in serving,” Ige said.

Ching had been on a paid leave of absence from Castle & Cooke pending the outcome of the confirmation vote, and he has the option to return, he said.

“I wanted to serve. That’s why I stepped forward,” Ching told reporters. “Obviously, when you walk into the game, you want to win … so I’m a little disappointed, but that’s the process I was put through, and I accept the process.”

As for what qualities are appropriate for the next nomination, Kaaumoana said it’s somebody deeply in tune with the state’s unique environment and land.

“It’s a very specific skill set,” Kaaumoana said. “It’s somebody who understands the land and water; understands how to work with the largest department in the state and the bureaucracy that’s part of that; understands how to create partnerships; and needs to not be reluctant or hesitant to work with the community, because that’s indeed the only way that the resources will ultimately be managed.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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